Andy X. Vargas
State Representative, Haverhill Democrat
Vaccination is sometimes incorrectly characterized as an issue of personal choice. However, that narrative is misguided and dangerous because refusing vaccines has real consequences for our entire community.
Vaccines work through “herd immunity,” which protects vulnerable groups — newborn babies and the immunocompromised, who are medically unable to receive vaccines.
Parents want the best for their kids and in a world with increasing misinformation, that gets harder every day. Medical professionals cite vaccines as one of the greatest and safest human advancements ever made, saving millions of lives. Yet the Internet is full of junk science — and yes, some even spread by Russian trolls — looking to sow distrust in American government and public health institutions.
Unfortunately, Massachusetts exacerbates this by being a state that allows “religious exemptions” for childhood vaccines. For the sake of our children’s health, it’s time we did away with that exemption, which is why I recently filed bipartisan legislation to do that.
We are now at an all-time high percentage of Massachusetts kindergarteners attending schools with a religious exemption. There has been an appalling 500 percent increase in religious exemptions for kindergarteners since 1987. The Commonwealth has pockets of schools with extraordinarily high rates of unvaccinated students — in one case over 20 percent. This trend presents an unnecessary risk for those who are unable to receive vaccinations because of medical reasons beyond their control.
Claims of “sincere religious beliefs” are used by some individuals who may have personal and medically inaccurate beliefs about vaccines. It is difficult to find any religion that asks its followers to refuse vaccines. The Catholic Church’s Pontifical Academy for Life said that parents should vaccinate their children and can do so with a “clear conscience” that vaccination “does not signify some sort of cooperation in voluntary abortion,” the Catholic News Service reported.
The courts have long held that it is constitutional to remove the religious exemption for childhood vaccines.
When science, medical professionals, religious leaders, and the courts all reinforce the goal we are pursuing, it is clear evidence that we are pursuing the public interest.
Beverly resident, Health Choice Massachusetts board member
This bill is unnecessary. Massachusetts has one of the highest vaccination rates in the country. As a result, it is highly unlikely that we would have a sustained outbreak of measles, or other vaccine-preventable illness. In the case of measles, school immunization rates exceed the levels needed to achieve “herd immunity,” with 99 percent of seventh-graders and 97 percent of kindergartners having two doses of the MMR vaccine (measles-mumps-rubella).
State health and education codes already have protocols in place that limit the spread of disease, including school exclusion. Just like we send a child home who has a fever, children who are under-immunized can be excluded from school if needed during a disease outbreak.
This bill is discriminatory. Education is fundamental to lifelong success, productivity, and health, and the right to a public education is enshrined in the Massachusetts Constitution. This bill would discriminate against economically challenged families that could not afford to home-school in order to follow their religious beliefs and moral conscience.
This bill also discriminates against families with special needs, who depend on specialized educational services not replicable in a home-school setting. Parents of children with autism have higher rates of depression, and those who lack social support are more likely to contemplate suicide, studies show.
Adolescents with autism are likewise more at risk for suicide. Specialized education services that teach regulation, social skills, and functional vocational skills are critical to the mental health of these students and their future ability to function. By targeting these vulnerable families, this bill may create vastly larger public health problems than it purports to solve.
This bill is destructive. It obliterates a basic right to both religious freedom and a public education. The bill would shut the schoolhouse door to families that choose to forgo even a single vaccine, and it flies in the face of basic ethical principles concerning the right for individuals to make medical decisions without coercion.
In the absence of a true public health emergency, Massachusetts residents deserve to have their rights respected. A loss of fundamental rights for the few who rely on religious exemptions represents an enormous threat to the civil liberties of everyone.
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