New Bill Could End Religious Exemptions to Vaccinations

>>vaccination schoolsBY JENNIFER BRICK

On Wednesday, April 1st, Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger’s office >>released a statement: “After hearing serious concerns about stricter vaccine and immunization requirements from our constituents and from citizens across the state, we have decided we will not move forward with Senate Bill 346. The vaccine bill is dead.” 

Just when the major furor between the vaccinators and the anti-vaccinators seemed to be dying down and my social media feeds had moved on to other obsessions, three North Carolina senators introduced >>a bill that would “enact stricter immunization requirements.” It would mainly work by repealing parents’ rights to have their children forego mandatory vaccinations for “bona fide religious beliefs.” Right now, all a parent has to do to prove religious beliefs is fill out a >>form, but that might change for the 2015-16 school year if the bill becomes law.

I’m not particularly religious and when the time comes, my child will be vaccinated. But the idea that laws could take away one’s religious rights is as scary as laws based on religion. However, it appears that very few of the main religions — possibly just the Dutch Reformed Church and the Christian Scientists — object to or suggest that their congregants refrain from getting vaccinated, and it’s not clear that even those two sects of Christianity prohibit it.

Instead, many people use religious exemption as a way to voice their personal objections to vaccines. If this is the case, (and I find it hard to believe that Buncombe County, which has a higher percentage of unvaccinated children compared to the rest of the state, has a correspondingly high percentage of Dutch Reformed Christians or Christian Scientists) then the bill isn’t really revoking anyone’s religious freedom, just their personal choice. That’s still not great, but better.

I worry about the scope of this bill. It goes beyond the mandatory vaccines like the MMR vaccine, and includes “any vaccines that United States Department of Health and Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), currently recommend for persons aged from birth through 18 years except…human papillomavirus (HPV) or any other sexually 27 transmitted disease.”

That means that your child couldn’t attend public school without also receiving the influenza vaccine. That’s a little hardcore even for me, and I get a flu shot each year.

The three senators who proposed the bill did so because they are worried that places in NC that have higher religious exemptions– like Buncombe county where >>4.5% of students weren’t vaccinated— reduce the ability to protect those who can’t be vaccinated due to medical reasons. In >>a Charlotte Observer article, Republican senator Jeff Tarte said, “This was never intended to be mandated or dictated by two or three people…It’s to open a dialogue to set good public health policy.” If that’s the case, is a bill that could become law the best way to do that? Shouldn’t there be conversation, then bill, then law?

Maybe there is some middle ground that could be reached.To get a medical exemption, a child must be screened by a licensed health care provider and deemed to have a contraindication to the vaccine or Severe Combined Immunodeficiency. This process would limit the number of children granted medical exemption. Instead of repealing the entire section on religious exemption, which is where the argument about religious freedom is stemming from,  we could make the religious exemption more stringent, requiring that people get a signed document from their religious leader documenting how and why getting vaccinated goes against their religious beliefs.

Whatever the outcome of the dialogue the bill opens, it is something to watch as the vaccination controversy becomes more divisive in our state.

>>Cropped Jennifer BrickJennifer Brick is a writer and teacher in Durham, North Carolina. She earned her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Nonfiction from Goucher College. Follow her on Twitter @jenbrickwrites.

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