Not often do Colorado legislators draft a bill that draws hundreds of angry parents, many with kids in tow, to testify against it. They managed it with Senate Bill 163, which passed out of committee on a party-line vote February 19 after a fifteen-hour marathon of heated testimony. The bill advanced in the full Senate last week and now faces the House.
Basically, the bill makes it harder for parents to exempt their children from getting vaccines in order to attend school. As amended February 27, the bill exempts most homeschoolers who do not participate in school programs, but applies to other homeschoolers.
By my summary, the bill might sound pretty good to most Coloradans, the large majority of whom already get their kids vaccinated. But, to mix metaphors, the devil is in the sausage-making. The bill imposes fairly onerous requirements on parents who don’t want to vaccinate their kids without bringing any advantages that can’t be achieved with a lighter legal touch.
I sympathize with the goals of the proponents of the bill. An outbreak of a serious disease can drastically impede a school’s educational mission—not to mention endanger the children there. And, because some students cannot safely take vaccines because of health problems, they rely on the “herd immunity” achieved when most other kids get vaccinated.
Yet I think higher rates of immunization can be achieved within the framework of existing rules. As the Colorado Sun’s Jennifer Brown wrote last November, “thousands of Colorado students are attending school despite not having the required vaccines and without medical, religious or personal exemption forms on file.” Schools already are tightening up compliance, Brown notes.
It seems to me that schools working with parents, and perhaps offering more resources about vaccines, is the better way to go. Some parents have strong views that vaccines are bad either in general or for their specific children, but many other parents simply haven’t taken the time to file the relevant paperwork or have filed an exemption as a matter of convenience. I see no point in antagonizing the first group of parents, and the second group probably can be persuaded to get their immunizations with more effort by their schools.
SB 163 has important problems, even though its language was softened somewhat with amendments. It calls on healthcare providers to get involved in offering, signing, and filing the exemption paperwork. I think many doctors and their staff will be deeply uncomfortable being pushed into these battles and will resent the extra time it takes. And it’s not right to force parents to visit a medical office for this.
Parents can opt out of the medical signature, but only by watching an “online education module” approved by the state. This is deeply creepy. Do we really want to start down the road of government “reeducating” people? Should we also make people watch “reeducation” videos before they get an abortion or buy a gun?
And then these exemption forms go into a state digital database, unless parents specifically opt out of that. I personally have zero confidence that this database protects children’s privacy. I specifically instructed my child’s pediatric office to not send my child’s vaccination records to this database, and they did it anyway. And a wide variety of people and organizations can access that personal information without first getting my explicit authorization. I am perfectly capable of keeping my child’s records in my possession and giving copies to parties that I decide need them. But that power has been stolen from me.
At any rate, under existing rules, a parent’s individual school keeps the exemption records on file (or at least is supposed to do so), and I see no compelling reason for that to change.
Obviously this is an issue that provokes strong emotions. To hint at the passions at play, at the committee hearing some parents said things like “resistance is the natural response to force” and “I will defend my children at all costs.” (Although I didn’t attend the hearing, I listened to portions of it live online.) Meanwhile, one supporter of the bill said that it’s “shameful” that Colorado’s relatively low vaccination rates put some kids at risk of contracting serious illnesses.
I understand that emotion. I was really nervous when I brought my now-four-year-old son in for his first round of vaccines. I knew that serious side-effects are rare, yet I had a nagging fear of being that one-in-a-million case. On net he’s much safer getting his vaccines, I told myself. The nurse on hand gave him shots in both thighs, resulting in swollen, painful knots that took hours to subside. It was an ordeal. Thankfully, since then, our vaccines have been relatively painless, even when we all go in for our annual flu shots.
Although I’m deeply skeptical of the criticisms of vaccines spreading like wildfire in certain corners of the internet, I don’t have the time or inclination here to plunge down that rabbit hole. Suffice it to say that generally I defer to respected experts on infectious diseases such as Amesh Adalja.
We should bear in mind exactly what’s at issue. A lot of people throw around the phrase “mandatory vaccines” in a loose and confusing way. Nobody is talking about busting down doors, holding people down, and sticking needles in their arms. In the context of this bill, people aren’t even talking about removing the nonmedical exemption available to parents to avoid vaccinating their children in order to attend school. At issue here is how parents get the exemption.
Of course the larger issue is that parents are forced to fund public schools whether or not their children attend those schools. I’d be perfectly fine with tightening up vaccine requirements for public schools—even to the point of eliminating nonmedical exemptions—so long as parents could leave and take their education tax dollars with them. But that is a complex discussion for another day.
Given the existing rules, wherein government forces parents to fund their public schools, it seems reasonable to allow for nonmedical exemptions. Let’s encourage schools to continue to tighten up compliance with existing rules first, then, if that doesn’t work sufficiently well, look for some other approach that’s less intrusive than 163.