Connecticut passed a law last month eliminating a religious exemption from childhood immunization requirements for schools, colleges and day care facilities. As The Associated Press reported, it became the sixth state to end religious exemptions from required childhood vaccinations. Opponents of the new law claimed “the legislation unfairly infringes on their religious liberties and parental rights,” the AP reported. But proponents say the religious exemption was championed by anti-vaccination forces and posed a threat to public health. Citing the National Conference of State Legislatures, the AP reported that the other states without religious exemptions for vaccines are California, New York, West Virginia, Mississippi and Maine. At issue are childhood vaccinations, including those for measles, mumps and rubella — not COVID-19 shots.
State lawmakers: Is there any chance Pennsylvania could be the next state to end its religious and philosophical exemptions from childhood vaccinations?
This would not be an anti-religion measure. This would be a commonsense public health measure.
As Peter Hotez, dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine, told the AP: “The truth is there is no major religion that prohibits vaccinations.”
Hotez said, correctly, “The argument has really very little to do with religion and everything to do with the anti-vaccine, vaccine choice movement.”
As we wrote in 2019, “save for some Christian faith-healing denominations,” most religions “have no theological objection to vaccination, according to research from Vanderbilt University Medical Center.”
The Amish and Mennonite churches have no theological objections to vaccination, either.
“And according to an article in the Annual Review of Public Health, U.S. Supreme Court decisions ‘have made it clear that states possess the authority to require vaccination as a condition for school entry. It is also clear that states are not obligated to offer religious exemptions under the Constitution.’ ”
The right to practice religion freely, the high court ruled in 1944, “does not include the liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.”
Both the religious and philosophical exemptions from childhood vaccination have been misused in Pennsylvania, particularly here in Lancaster County.
Significantly, philosophical exemptions were used the most, at 1.6% of students statewide and 5% in Lancaster County. A parent only needs to claim he has a “strong moral or ethical conviction” for his child to be given a get-out-of-vaccines-free card.
The basis for that conviction doesn’t matter; the lack of any such basis doesn’t matter either. Even it’s just a whim, even if it’s a viewpoint based on falsehoods about vaccination, Pennsylvania government now allows it.
The only exemption from immunization should be medical — and should require the written authorization of a licensed physician.
The immunizations that are required for school entry in Pennsylvania do not include COVID-19 vaccination. What we’re discussing today are vaccines that prevent childhood diseases that used to have devastating consequences before immunization was available: tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis (whooping cough), hepatitis B, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox and, for grades seven and 12, bacterial meningitis.
Anti-vaxxers want parents to believe that contracting any of those diseases is just a rite of passage — a risk-free romp with pathogens that can be countered with home remedies and some TLC. But they’re not going to be in the emergency department with you should your child’s chickenpox lead to encephalitis (swelling of the brain) or pneumonia. And they’re not going to be on the phone with you when the school nurse informs you that your child must be excluded from school because of a measles outbreak.
If there’s anything this past difficult year has taught us it’s that indifference or arrogance in the face of infectious disease can cost us — and cost others, too.
Believing that we’re not going to get seriously ill, or our children aren’t going to get seriously ill, is not going to protect us. But immunization will.
This isn’t a partisan issue. Wealthy liberals and working-class libertarians alike are part of the unholy alliance that is the anti-vaccination movement. The glue that binds them together is a mix of junk science, quackery and self-centeredness. (One of the foremost anti-vaxxers is Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who’s been lambasted by his own family members for spreading dangerous misinformation about vaccination.)
“I do think when you see vaccine refusal, it really does run across the population,” Robert Bednarczyk, a professor at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, told the AP. “Regardless of the reason, the endpoint is always the same. It’s children that are being left unprotected from infectious diseases.”
And that truly is the bottom line.
Please believe us when we tell you that your children are not going to develop autism because of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. That fraudulent theory — perpetuated by a British man who subsequently was stripped of his medical license — has been debunked repeatedly.
A large study in 2019 — based on more than 657,000 Danish children and published in the Annals of Internal Medicine — confirmed that the risk for autism was no different in children who got the MMR vaccine than in children who did not. That vaccine did not trigger autism even in children who had risk factors for the disorder, that study showed.
But please do not take our word for it. Speak to your child’s pediatrician or another trusted physician. Read the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Don’t rely on social media for medical information.
And state lawmakers: Please end personal-belief exemptions — both philosophical and religious — from school-required vaccinations. A parent who takes advantage of such an exemption is putting at risk other parents’ medically vulnerable children, as well as infants who are too young to be immunized.
We’ve all witnessed the devastating effects of infectious disease in the past year. The last thing we need is for there to be an outbreak of measles or whooping cough.
Eliminating the philosophical and religious exemptions would not be an assault on parental rights (there is, after all, always home schooling). It would be an affirmation of this commonwealth’s commitment to public health.