A matter of health and safety
Throughout the debate on whether to eliminate the exemption for children to attend school without the recommended vaccines for philosophical reasons, much has focused on the personal stories of parents involved on both sides. We’ve heard from parents of children whose lives have been saved by a vaccine, and we’ve heard from parents who believe strongly that their children do not need immunizations and should not be forced into medical action. I come at this debate with a personal story of my own.
When he was an infant, my son Bartley received the recommended dosage of vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella (MMR). It was the typical torturous experience for a parent to see a needle enter your child’s tiny leg, but it was necessary and safe, our pediatrician said. The problem was the unexpected reaction my son had to the immunization — an extremely high fever. Our doctor recommended we forgo the second dose of MMR and today my son is not fully vaccinated against those diseases. I worried last year when Vermont saw its first case of measles in a decade. I’ll worry tomorrow, just in case.
For me it’s always come down to the single question of whether we can save a child’s life by protecting the greater public. We entered into this debate with a lot of questions and have spent the bulk of the session hearing hours of compelling testimony, studying the science behind the facts and listening to passionate parents on both sides of this issue.
No one will tell you it was easy, and no one will tell you that we take this job lightly. But our job is to ensure our decisions have a positive impact on society, and it would be irresponsible for us to look at the facts — a growing number of vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks in Vermont and an increasing number of children being exempted from having the CDC recommended immunizations to enter kindergarten — and not act.
That is where we find ourselves today: We must act to change the course we are on. For me, if that means one less child contracts whooping cough —compared to more than 90 who did in 2011 — it’s enough of a reason to act.
For many of the opponents, there have been further erroneous arguments to try and derail the legislation, claiming constitutional violations under both the U.S. and Vermont constitutions. After careful review by legislative legal counsel, it is clear that both constitutions allow for the protection of religious beliefs under the First Amendment.
The U.S. Supreme Court decided that a state may impinge upon the practice of a sincere religious belief only if the state’s interest is of “sufficient magnitude” to justify overriding the religious belief. The Vermont Constitution provides that no authority shall interfere with the free exercise of religion.
In contrast, philosophical beliefs do not receive the same protections. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that, since philosophical beliefs are based on a “subjective evaluation and rejection of the secular values accepted by the majority” they do not rise to the level of religious beliefs and thus, not eligible for the same protections. The Vermont Supreme Court ruled that conduct that is “merely a matter of personal preference” does not rise to the demands of religious freedom.
Vermont, like every other state, requires children be vaccinated in order to enroll in school. There are reasons for this mandate. The most important reason is that without immunizations, our community could be plagued by serious, and sometimes fatal diseases that are avoidable. We’ve already seen an alarming rise in whooping cough cases in our state, and those numbers coincide with a high exemption rate.
Eliminating the philosophical exemption is not meant to infringe on parental rights. It’s meant to narrow the scope under which Vermonters can opt out of immunizations and ensure more children receive life-saving vaccines.
While we, as public servants, have an obligation to represent the views of our constituents, so too do we have an obligation to protect the people we serve. Sometimes that means making tough and often unpopular decisions. Passing S.199 to eliminate philosophical exemptions is a matter of public health and safety. It’s that simple.
SEN. KEVIN J. MULLIN