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Endangering Children In God’s Name

In this Jan. 29, 2015, file photo, pediatrician Dr. Charles Goodman vaccinates 1-year-old Cameron Fierro with the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, or MMR vaccine at his practice in Northridge, Calif. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
In this Jan. 29, 2015, file photo, pediatrician Dr. Charles Goodman vaccinates 1-year-old Cameron Fierro with the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, or MMR vaccine at his practice in Northridge, Calif. (Damian Dovarganes/AP)

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If only there were a vaccine for lunacy.

A few years ago, ground zero for anti-vaccine fanaticism was California’s Marin County, where prehistoric-minded lefties refused to immunize their children against measles. Their fears — primarily but not limited to an alleged vaccine link to autism — were junk science, akin to carrying wolfsbane during full moons.

Sadly, the Flintstones have migrated east to my native state of New Jersey. This time, the anti-vaxxers have rouged their nuttiness with shades of religious belief.

Hundreds of protesters threw a tantrum recently as a Garden State legislative panel approved a bill making it harder to get religious exemptions from student vaccinations. The bill, which must be passed by the full legislature, would require notarized documentation of how vaccination "would violate, contradict, or otherwise be inconsistent with [a] tenet or practice” of a family’s faith.

Lawmakers say too many people with personal philosophical objections to vaccination seek cover for their hostility to science under the religious exemption. Virtually every religion is OK with vaccines, even as most states permit faith-based opt-outs.

But parents refusing to vaccinate are one reason behind a resurgence of illnesses once thought conquered, such as measles. The problem isn’t confined to Jersey or California; more than a third of state legislatures have pondered tightening or doing away with their religious exemptions. California ultimately banned any nonmedical exemption from vaccinations, which have since surged.

Screwballs aren’t the only hurdles to immunization, to be sure. Lack of medical services due to social ills like poverty also matter. But anti-vaxxers have become enough of a headache that the U.N.’s World Health Organization posted a six-point refutation of their case.

And in Jersey, the protesters’ beef wasn’t a lack of access to vaccines.

“You are going to hell!” was among the Socratic reactions to the panel’s decision. It tells you something when one media outlet labeled video of the outburst “viewer discretion advised.”

Jerseyan Melissa Machado condemned lawmakers for “asking us to prioritize either our children’s education or our children’s health care … to turn away from our faith and trust the state of New Jersey instead.” The objectors, she insisted, “are not anti-science. We respect science. But we do not worship it.”

She’s deluded. The law says residents should trust medical consensus and the experience of vaccines’ efficacy, not the state. Parents who disregard that consensus neither respect science nor prioritize their children’s health.

Another protester said vaccines are religiously noxious because they’re derived from aborted fetal tissue. In the early 1960s, two terminated pregnancies provided the fetal embryo cells from which vaccines for various illnesses were produced, according to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. As these cells have continued growing in the lab, “No further sources of fetal cells are needed to make these vaccines,” the hospital’s website adds.

Virtually every religion is OK with vaccines, even as most states permit faith-based opt-outs.

I’m an anti-abortion churchgoer myself. But to endanger your child because you have qualms about pregnancies terminated during the Kennedy era stretches pro-life principles to irrationality. Indeed, as a friend pointed out to me, risking your kid’s health, and possibly her survival, is hardly pro-life.

This isn’t the first time religion has been drafted for a misguided social war. We’re awaiting a Supreme Court decision on a baker’s claim that he shouldn’t be forced to sell to a gay couple because of his faith-based homophobia. (Similar religious rationales were thrown up to oppose African-American rights during Jim Crow days.) I hope the justices decide today what the law settled in the 1960s: Businesses that sell to the public must take all comers.

If you think family law is different, that parental religion trumps child welfare, think again. Christian Scientists, whose faith may make them one of the rare churches questioning vaccination, have been convicted of manslaughter, deservedly, for withholding life-saving treatment from their children for religious reasons. Foregoing treatment and gambling with your own life as an adult is one thing; rolling the dice with a child who can’t make his or her own decision is another.

The good news is that the anti-vaxxers are a minority. But as we learned from President Trump’s Electoral College victory, a minority still can damage the public welfare, and fanaticism is nothing if not resilient. If the best science won’t convince you to vaccinate, I doubt punditry will.

But I will say a prayer for your child.

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Rich Barlow Cognoscenti contributor
Rich Barlow writes for BU Today, Boston University's news website.

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