By Meryl Nass, MD
A single referendum question is coming up for a vote March 3, which is also the date of the Democratic Party’s primary election. The question asks Maine citizens if they want to retain religious and personal belief exemptions for vaccines (in that case, vote “yes” on No. 1) or instead agree with the Legislature, to require that no child can attend school without all state-mandated vaccines (in that case, vote “no”). The Maine Legislature voted to take away these exemptions in 2019. If this law is allowed to stand, children lacking even one required vaccination will be barred from attending any public or private school in Maine next year.
While the referendum question is about whether every child must have all recommended vaccines in order to attend school, underlying it is a foundational question about whether we will allow some of our most basic civil rights to be taken away.
The rights I am talking about are 1) the right to informed consent for medical procedures, 2) the right to bodily integrity, 3) the right of parents to make decisions for their children, and 4) the right to an education.
The state is obliged to provide an education to even sick or disruptive children, in some cases sending tutors to their homes. But if the vaccine mandate law is not overturned, perfectly healthy children will be denied the right to attend school because at some future time they might spread a disease.
I have met many parents who gave their children every vaccine on schedule, until something happened to their child after a vaccination. After that, they became hesitant about blindly following the schedule. Can you imagine how guilty they feel, and resentful to now be called anti-vaxxers?
Most of my doctor colleagues are unwilling to give these families medical exemptions for further vaccinations, because it could be detrimental to the doctors’ careers. In California, doctors who have issued vaccine exemptions to more than four children must be investigated by the Department of Health. Furthermore, in late 2019 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) changed its guidelines for medical conditions that justify exemptions for vaccinations. Now, for most vaccines, only a severe allergic reaction is sufficient reason to avoid another dose. Doctors are sure to be even more hesitant to issue a medical exemption when they see the new guidelines.
So, what parents have done instead is avail themselves of religious or personal belief exemptions to vaccines. Were they trying to beat the system or trying to protect their children? With respect to how the new vaccine law revoked our civil rights, the right to informed consent requires patients to be accurately informed about the risks and benefits of medical procedures, and to decide on the procedure without coercion. Denying children an education is highly coercive.
Public health law only permits restricting a person’s liberty when his or her actions pose an immediate and compelling harm to others. Keeping healthy, uninfected children out of school is punitive, not protective. Quarantines during outbreaks are what has worked and meets the legal standard. The Supreme Court has upheld the right of parents to make medical decisions for their children, only allowing the state to intervene when a child’s life is in danger. The court has also held that children’s right to an education is of the utmost importance. Furthermore, federal special education law prohibits mandating medications as a condition of receiving educational services.
We are on a slippery slope. If the law denying religious and personal belief vaccine exemptions is allowed to stand, the citizens of Maine will have voluntarily surrendered rights and freedoms that are crucial to what we hold dear as a nation. Do we really want to trade our freedoms for an intangible reduction in childhood infectious disease?
Meryl Nass, MD, is an internal medicine physician in Ellsworth and has testified before six congressional committees, primarily on the anthrax vaccine and Gulf War syndrome.