In his novel Timeline, Michael Crichton writes, “… if you didn’t know history, you didn’t know anything. You were a leaf that didn’t know it was part of a tree.” It is important to understand the history of vaccine choice in Texas so that we understand the context of where we are now and the importance of where we are going – to understand where our leaf belongs.
Part one of this two-part blog series explored the1986 National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act, the federal legislation branch of our vaccine choice tree. Here, in part two, we will look at choice history at a state level, learn about the legal rights we have concerning vaccine choice, and why we at Texans for Vaccine Choice will continue to fight hard to maintain them.
Prior to 2003, parents could only opt out of vaccinations for their children with a religious exemption or a medical exemption. There was no allowance for an exemption based on reasons of conscience. The religious exemption portion of the law at the time was particularly rigid — discriminatory, actually — because it required a person seeking an exemption to prove that they were part of a recognized organized religion or denomination that had an official policy against vaccination. In June of 1995, the Office of the General Counsel at the Texas Department of Health pointed out the unconstitutionality of this portion of the law:
Any effort to disallow an affidavit from a person whose religious beliefs do not come from a “recognized” religion is likely to be challenged on constitutional grounds… School districts should be aware that the religious exemption statute is vulnerable to a challenge from an applicant whose sincere religious beliefs do not derive from the teachings of a “recognized” or “organized” religion.
Interestingly, these are the very restrictions that anti-choice Representative Jason Villalba attempted to return the state to last legislative session. I suppose he was just a little leaf that forgot he was part of a bigger tree that had already been there, done that.
In order to keep ourselves from making the same error in the future, let’s continue to explore our branch.
During the 78th Legislative Session in 2003, HB 2292 was passed. It included a small but very important provision that changed the language of the existing exemption law to allow for exemptions on the basis of “reasons of conscience, including religious belief.” Texas joined 18 other states in the country at the time that recognized the importance of personal liberties and the rights of parents to choose the best possible preventative health care for their children. This was BIG. This was RIGHT. Unfortunately, not everyone valued the liberties that this afforded the citizens of Texas and *two*attempts (HB 89 and HB 27) were made during special sessions in the summer of 2003 to repeal this portion of HB 2292. Thankfully, neither attempt made it out of committee. Our tree was well-rooted and weathered these storms well.
The school year following the passing of HB 2292 saw 2,314 conscientious exemptions filed. This amounted to .08% of the total number of children enrolled for the 2003-2004 school year. This number grew steadily over the next decade as more and more parents realized they were able to exercise their right to choose the best preventative care for their children. The 2014-2015 school year saw 40,997 exemptions filed for reasons of conscience. This number is thrown around a lot by public officials and the media as if it is cause for alarm or some kind of justification for the repeal of this fundamental individual and parental right. This increase still accounts for only .8% of the entire state’s school enrollment. That’s less than 1%!
While you will hear endlessly of the terrifying and “dangerous” rate at which the conscientious objector crowd is growing, there is one statistic you are far less likely to hear: the percentage of immunized children in Texas rose from 65% in 2002 to over 95% in 2014. If “deadly” diseases like measles and mumps are returning, surely their return cannot be contributed to the conscientious objectors with such a substantial jump in immunization coverage, right? Couple that with other poorly publicized facts like outbreaks occurring in fully vaccinated populations, or Merck currently finding themselves right in the middle of a whistle-blower lawsuit because they lied to the government about the effectiveness of the mumps portion of their MMR vaccine, or the fact that exemption rates do not translate to fully unvaccinated children (not all people forego all vaccines), and you end up with a lot of cause for pause.
Pause to ask yourself why the constant vilification of the parents who choose to deviate in all or in part from the very bloated (largest of any first world country), and NEVER safety tested, current CDC recommended childhood vaccine schedule. Pause to notice the name-calling (“uneducated,” “conspiracy theorist,” “crazy,” “selfish,” “anti-science”) and fear-inducing talking points that the media and others use to divide and turn parents against one another. Pause and ask yourself, “Why? What are the motives? Who has the most to lose here?” Most importantly, “Where have we seen these tactics used before by powerful people in history?” I promise you, no historical heroes will emerge in the answer.
What does the future look like for the vaccine choice movement in Texas? I would without a doubt say things look bright and optimistic, but if our history has taught us anything, it is that there are always those waiting to take from us. Today is no different. We have outspoken influencers of public policy like Peter Hotez, Dean for the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor in Houston, in the final paragraph of his PubMed article warning of “imminent death” if we don’t follow California’s lead and remove religious and philosophical exemptions entirely (more fear mongering, divisive language, and half-truths). We have seven pieces of legislation introduced already this session that are aimed at chip, chip, chipping away our medical freedoms. We have the pharmaceutical-funded Immunization Partnership acting under the guise of public health and the greater good while actively seeking to remove the rights of the public they claim to want to protect (check out page four of their annual report for a list of their donors which not surprisingly, includes Dr. Paul Offit himself).
We have an adventure ahead of us, but we are ready! Are you? There was a time in our nation’s history when fighting for your rights meant just that — ACTUALLY fighting. Husbands, fathers, brothers, and sons leaving home with weapons strapped to their backs, not knowing when or if they would return. Wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters left behind, uncertain of what their future held. Thankfully, today far less is required of you. Phone calls, emails, letters, maybe an in-person visit to your representative’s local office or attending a town hall meeting to let your voice be heard are today’s battle weapons. We ask you to be brave, speak out, and stand up for your rights so that our tree may grow to be even stronger than it is today!