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The Freedom to Harm
A recent court ruling in Mississippi put children at greater risk of vaccine-preventable diseases.
Anti-vaccine activists often argue, “What do you care whether I get a vaccine? You’re vaccinated. You’re protected.” This statement makes two false assumptions. First, that vaccines are 100 percent effective, which is true of no vaccine; even people who are vaccinated are at some risk of disease. Second, not everyone can be vaccinated successfully. This last point was made clear by an event in California.
On January 5, 2015, an unvaccinated boy developed measles following a visit to Disneyland. By March, more than 130 people had been infected—virtually all in southern California. The California outbreak spread to six other states; then it spread to Canada, Mexico, and the Philippines.
In response to the California measles outbreak, Richard Pan, a state senator, introduced Senate Bill 277, which eliminated California’s personal belief exemption to vaccination. (California never had a religious exemption.) Senate Bill 277 passed the California State Senate and, on June 30, 2015, Governor Jerry Brown signed it into law. California became the third state, joining West Virginia and Mississippi, to allow only medical exemptions to vaccination. Immunization rates in California climbed.
During committee hearings for Senate Bill 277, one 7-year-old boy became the voice of society. His name was Rhett Krawitt, and he was suffering from acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Standing on a chair so he could reach the microphone, Rhett explained that, because he was receiving chemotherapy, he couldn’t respond to vaccines. “I depend on you to protect me,” he said. “Don’t I count?” Because they are immune compromised, about 9 million people in the United States depend on those around them for protection.
On April 17, 2023, Mississippi took a step backwards, allowing a religious exemption to vaccination. Up to that point, Mississippi only had a medical exemption. Following the verdict, the lawyer who headed the effort trumpeted his victory: “Freedom wins again,” he tweeted. But freedom to what? Freedom to suffer from preventable illnesses. Or to be hospitalized. Or to die. Or to transmit viruses to those who cannot be successfully vaccinated. Anti-vaccine activists argued that they were now free to avoid the chronic diseases caused by vaccines, such as autism or diabetes or multiple sclerosis or developmental delays or hyperactivity disorder or sudden infant death syndrome among others. Which, according to them, is why no one should be compelled to be vaccinated. This would make infinitely more sense if vaccines caused those problems. But they don’t. The lawyer who headed the Mississippi effort will now introduce litigation to allow religious exemptions in West Virginia, New York, Maine, California, and Connecticut.
Of interest, it wasn’t a religious group that spearheaded the effort to eliminate Mississippi’s religious exemption. It was an anti-vaccine group, which called the ruling their “biggest legal victory yet.” All religions value the sanctity of life. And all teach us to care about our children, our families, and our neighbors. Public health is also about valuing the lives of those around us. For that reason, a religious exemption to vaccination is a deeply unreligious thing to do. And hardly a “victory” for children.