By Arthur Caplan and Dorit Rubinstein Reiss
As Connecticut’s Senate prepares to vote tomorrow on whether to repeal Connecticut’s religious exemption from school immunization mandates, out-of-state anti-vaccine activists are mobilizing to threaten and intimidate legislators to vote against the bill.
The legislators should hold firm, and pass the bill the Governor says he will sign. They must not let aggressive attackers stop them from acting to make Connecticut’s children safer. Legislators should show the out-of-state anti-vaccine movement that intimidation doesn’t work here.
On April 20, 2021 the Connecticut House of Representatives voted to remove the religious exemption to its school immunization mandates. The bill was not perfect; for example, it would allow children in school from kindergarten on that already had exemptions to remain unvaccinated and unprotected. Still, it is an important step towards making Connecticut’s school safer.
Extensive evidence shows that stronger school mandates reduce not just the rates of vaccine exemptions in a state, but also the rates of diseases outbreaks. And the converse is also true: more exemptions mean more outbreak of preventable diseases. The last polio outbreak in the United States was in a Connecticut school, a Christian Science school whose children used religious exemptions. Children were left paralyzed.
School mandates without any non-medical exemptions stand on very strong constitutional grounds. In over a hundred years, no court, state or federal, has found them unconstitutional. That is because school mandates protect two important interests. They protect the rights of children to health, and they protect the community, by reducing harmful, preventable disease outbreaks.
Parents who seek non-medical exemptions are demanding the right to not protect their own children from disease, as well as the right to risk the health of their child’s classmates, those classmates’ families, and others who lack vaccine protection due to legitimate, medical reasons. That is not a very sympathetic demand.
In Connecticut, a substantial majority of residents believe in strong school mandates. Responding to these interests and their constituents’ preferences, Connecticut legislators are acting to remove the religious exemption and make schools safer.
Anti-vaccine activists have responded with aggressive efforts to prevent the bill passing, using every mobilization tactic they can. But understanding they do not have enough support in Connecticut, they mobilized nationally. When the Connecticut public health committee held a hearing to discuss the bill, offering the extraordinarily generous provision of twenty-four hours of oral hearing, anti-vaccine activists from all around the country registered – taking testimony slots from local residents.
Now, as they have in past years, anti-vaccine activists are trying to bring in large numbers of activists from out of state to create the impression that they have more power than they have – and to openly intimidate. For example, New York anti-vaccine activist Rita Palma, who has in the past taught people how to get a religious exemption in New York (for money), posted a call to action for people from her state to go over to Connecticut. The page “Hear This Well” posted their call to action, mentioning that anti-vaccine activists Del Bigtree (Texas), Joshua Coleman (California), and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. are coming to participate.
We can expect the crowd to be aggressive, loud, and, judging from previous behavior, prepared to verbally, personally attack opponents. We can also expect them to be unmasked, creating a risk of COVID-19 outbreaks.
Connecticut Legislators should not let an anti-science minority mob deter them from doing what a majority of Connecticut residents want: to protect Connecticut children and our community. They should show the anti-vaccine activists that intimidation by outsiders won’t work here. Science, public health, and ethics will.
Arthur Caplan, Director Medical Ethics NYU School of Medicine; resident, Ridgefield CT.
Dorit Reiss, Professor of Law, UC Hastings College of Law.