New Jersey lawmakers again took on the hot-button topic of childhood immunization this week, advancing a proposal intended to improve public health and prompting a furious response from vaccine opponents, who called the move “treasonous” and said support for the measure would land legislators in hell.
Despite more than two hours of passionate, sometimes tearful, testimony against the policy from scores of residents and faith leaders concerned about the impact of state-mandated inoculations, the Assembly health committee approved legislation to limit what some believe is excessive use of the religious exemption that is part of the current law. Youngsters must be immunized against more than a dozen diseases to attend Garden State schools.
The legislation, which still faces many steps to become law, would require parents to provide more specifics about their beliefs in order for their children to be excused from vaccinations. Under current law, all that’s needed is a signed statement from a parent stating immunization interferes with a student’s religious rights.
Church and state
“What human being has the right to judge if my religious beliefs are sincere? What will be the litmus test?” demanded Hilary Bilkis, one of several speakers who recalled her family’s history of escaping religious persecution, in her case from Nazi Germany. “And what happened to the separation of church and state!”
The controversial issues pits health officials eager to expand New Jersey’s immunization rate — already one of the nation’s strongest — against religious advocates, parents, and others who insist vaccines do more harm than good, despite the limited scientific evidence. Most studies have shown that inoculations, which involve weakened versions of a disease and have been used for centuries, help prevent the spread of potentially deadly infections, reduce hospitalizations, and save money over time.
“History and current practice show us that vaccines are the most successful and cost-effective tool available for preventing disease and death,” said Lisa Gulla, president of the New Jersey Association of County and City Health Officials, one of only two individuals to support the legislation at the hearing. “Vaccines safeguard individuals and entire communities by preventing and reducing the spread of infectious disease.”
The bill is a long-time priority for health committee chairman Herb Conaway Jr. (D-Burlington), a physician who is now the lone sponsor, and it dates back nearly a decade. Conaway said he was increasingly concerned about the “pockets of outbreaks of communicable disease that are vaccine-preventable,” which he said seem to correlate with geographic areas that hold “a number of nonimmunizing persons.”
NJ’s vaccination rates
Nationwide, at least 94 percent of kindergarten-aged children had received the required trio of vaccines that protect against a host of diseases, including chicken pox, measles, mumps, rubella, and whooping cough, among others, according to data compiled by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the 2016- 2017 school year. New Jersey inoculated 96.5 percent of youngsters against these conditions, slightly lower than the rates in New York but a few points above the numbers reported from Pennsylvania.
The CDC also found that nationwide, 2 percent of kindergarteners received an exemption to this policy in 2016-2017 — the vast majority for religious or other reasons, not medical concerns — and up from 0.9 percent the previous school year. New Jersey’s exemption rate rose to 1.9 percent in 2016-2017 from 1.8 percent the year before; New York ticked up to 1 percent from 0.9 percent during that time; and exemptions in Pennsylvania increased to 2.3 percent from 2.2 percent in 2015-2016.
(When the issue was being debated in 2015, NJ Spotlight mapped statewide vaccine coverage and exemptions by school.)
Some public-health advocates believe these increases in unprotected children reflect a growing use of religious and personal exemptions, which are permitted in some form in most states. Conaway’s proposal — which had not been posted online for public review, but is the same as a Senate bill (S-2173) introduced last month by Sens. Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex) — seeks to raise the bar for those who seek to opt-out for religious reasons.
The measure would allow parents or guardians to submit a written statement from a health professional explaining the medical reason the child should be exempted, or documentation explaining how immunization conflicts with their religious tenets. This submission, which would need to be notarized, would have to include a statement that the beliefs are ongoing, not just constructed to avoid vaccination, and that they are based on religion, not moral or philosophical concerns or fears about the shots themselves.
“We recognize the bill as a move to enhance and support public health, and not as a restriction of the expression of religious belief, but more so as a vehicle to rein in what I like to refer to as an ‘exemption of convenience’ to bypass the mandated laws,” said Michael Weinstein, director of the New Jersey Immunization Network, a coalition of individuals and organizations who support vaccine use.
‘The mind of a small child’
These comments were drowned out at times by objections from vaccine opponents, several of whom tearfully recalled how they had lost their children or grandchildren to conditions or complications they attributed to immunizations. April Keller drew cheers of support as she described how her infant son developed encephalitis and lifelong complications after an MMR vaccine. Now 18, he is confined to a wheelchair and is “built like a football player with the mind of a small child,” she said.
But other speakers focused their wrath on what they termed the unconstitutionality of restricting their beliefs, and criticized Conaway for posting the measure for a hearing so soon after Easter and Passover, and during what for many is a school holiday. Others described the bill as government overreach and some said it would force them to remove their children from public education and homeschool them instead. (Dozens of other individuals did not testify, but noted their opposition to the measure.)
“You’re making a hypocrisy of our First Amendment,” Kim Hooley insisted. “Who is my pediatrician to tell me that my deeply rooted religious beliefs are not good enough!”
In the end, the measure advanced by a margin of 7-2, with three members not voting. While the “yes” votes all came from Democrats, committee vice chairman Tim Eustace (D-Mercer) declined to support the bill. The legislation now heads to the Assembly appropriations committee; the Senate version awaits a first hearing.
“I have a fundamental problem with the government forcing an individual to ingest or otherwise be injected with a compound,” noted Assemblyman Erik Peterson (R-Hunterdon), who opposed the plan.
After the vote, the room erupted in anger, with audience members hurling insults at the Assembly members and calling their vote shameful. “May God have mercy on your souls,” one opponent hollered at committee members after their vote. “I hope you all have nightmares,” yelled another.