Hanna: Immunization Dilemma

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(Host) The Vermont Legislature is currently debating whether to repeal a law that has allowed parents to skip vaccinating their children. Commentator and Vermont Law School professor Cheryl Hanna discusses how this debate is part of a much larger national conversation.

(Hanna) One of the problems with being a law professor is that I tend to see the world through gray-colored glasses. It just gets harder to make up my mind on tough issues.

That’s how I feel about a recent proposal in the legislature no longer to allow parents to refuse to immunize their children because of philosophical objections.

The Health Department is concerned that diseases we thought were largely eradicated are now coming back – and put all kids at risk. But many parents object; they argue that vaccinations are not as safe as the public has been led to believe.

In trying to make up my own mind, I found it helpful to place this debate within the larger one over whether the government should allow individuals to opt out of laws intended to promote the public welfare.

Most of the time, this debate is invoked by religious groups who want an exception.

For example, the Amish argue that their children should not have to go to school beyond the age of 14; and Catholics argue, as we’ve recently seen, that they should not have to provide birth control coverage for any of their employees. Some innkeepers have argued that they should not have to rent wedding space to couples if they object to same-sex marriage; and parents who believe in creationism say that their children should be exempt from classes that teach evolution.

In the 1960’s, restaurant owners claimed that their religious beliefs compelled them to oppose any integration of the races whatsoever. And in the 1970’s, religious schools argued that they should be able to pay women less because of their belief that men were the head of the household.

Today, the Native American church has an exemption from drug laws to use peyote as a religious sacrament; but those who claim their religion bars them from paying taxes have not met with any success.

What’s notable about Vermont’s immunization law is that it allows parents to claim either a religious or a philosophical exemption. If the new law passes, only religious objectors will get a pass.

The current law places the religious and non-religious on equal legal footing. But it also makes it much easier for someone to object for any reason.

Many states allow for a philosophical exemption; they reason that parents should decide whether to inject a child with a foreign substance.

In contrast, two states, Mississippi and West Virginia, refuse to allow for any religious or philosophical exemption; they require all children who enter school to be immunized.

So lawmakers will have to decide if the cost of allowing the exemption places the public at too great a risk, or whether we can tolerate some individual decisions to opt out and still meet the goals of public health. They will also have to decide whether the state should give preference to religion over non-religion, or to do away with exemptions altogether.

These are tough calls. That’s why I’m still seeing gray.

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