My New Republic piece on philosophical exemptions from vaccination

June 2, 2015 • 8:30 am

After some editing, the New Republic put up the post I wrote yesterday about the double standard of Vermont’s new law, a law that eliminates philosophical exemptions from vaccination for schoolchildren but leaves the religious exemptions in place. That makes no sense except in view of America’s overweening respect for religion. Clearly there is more respect for religion than for deeply-held philosophy, since while 48 of the 50 U.S. states allow religious exemptions, only 19 allow philosophical ones.

At any rate, the New Republic piece is this: “Banning philosophical exemptions from vaccination while keeping religious ones makes no sense.”

I then recalled that in March, Sam Harris had a conversation about vaccines with renowned pediatric otolaryngologist Nina Shapiro, “The truth about vaccines.” That conversation is well worth reading, as it will refresh you on the safety of vaccines, the concept of herd immunity, and so on. And there’s on interchange that shows the fatuity of exemptions:

Harris: What about the responsibility of schools, or the state, to mandate sound public health policy here? My understanding is that it’s illegal in California for a school to refuse to grant a “personal belief exemption” and say that a child cannot come to school without having the full course of vaccines. Which is bizarre, because a school can mandate things like uniforms. If you don’t want your child to wear a uniform, you simply can’t come to that particular school. If you don’t want your child to wear shoes, there’s probably not a school in the country that would have you. But if you don’t want your child to be vaccinated—where not being vaccinated will reliably spread a risk of serious illness both to other students and to their siblings at home—there’s nothing the school can do. That sounds like a law in desperate need of rewriting.

Shapiro: Yes, and I think the schools that have looser vaccine policies have realized in the past few months that this may not be the best way to go. These schools are genuinely concerned that if there is a case of measles in their school, it will become big news and very costly for the school—because people will have to be quarantined for 21 days at home. Teachers with young children could be seriously affected. I think many schools will tighten the reins in the coming year. I’m curious to see how the numbers change in 2015 and 2016. I do think that the families who were delaying vaccines, as opposed to forgoing them altogether, may catch up more quickly. We’ll have to see.

20 thoughts on “My New Republic piece on philosophical exemptions from vaccination

  1. This is why I equate non-vaccination with smoking in public. In both cases, those who are around have their health (or that of their children for vaccination) put at risk.

    1. Sure, they are the same thing if you can twist it around enough. Far as I can remember they have not allowed smoking in class since never. The smokers have pretty much been relegated to the woods in this country so just stay away from the woods and you should be fine.

      1. Smokers have not been relegated to the woods. that’s an exaggeration. As someone with severe asthma I often have to leave areas where I’m sitting or standing because someone lights up a cigarette near or next to me and the smoke drifts into my face making it difficult to breathe. They recently passed laws in my area making it illegal to smoke within 25 ft of a building entrance but no one cares.

        1. I was astonished to discover that in Japan the train stations have glass smoking rooms in which smokers are corralled. I heartily approved.

          1. Years ago, when rules governing smoking in the workplace were new, my company at the time walled in a small part of the cafeteria for smokers and put a huge vent out to the roof of the building. Looking in, there was often a haze thick enough to obscure vision. I often wonder how many smokers gave up the habit because of that. Aversion therapy?

            1. My dad gave up smoking when he was exiled to the verandah at social events. He’d been a dyed-in-the-wool smoker of roll-your-owns as thick as my finger, but he couldn’t cope with being a social outcast.

              1. Quitting is so very hard for some. My brother in law tried many times to quit but could not. When he became seriously ill with emphysema he was in the hospital with an oxygen tent over him and he was caught trying to bum a cigarette from a passerby. He died a few years later at age 57.
                I hope your father gained some life and health from quitting.

              2. Yes he did, though it got him in the end , (emphysema, bronchiectasis) he made it to 82. My brother likewise cannot give up. He has tried many times but says it never got any easier. A friend of mine was on nicotine patches for 6 years, 20 years ago, and says she’d still love a fag. It’s a terrible addiction.

              3. Addiction leads to permanent rewiring of the brain. At some point, nothing can be done to revert the connections to normal. Sad. It appears that some people are more susceptible than others.

  2. Well you’ve been demoted from strident atheist scientist to journalist in the comments already! You are clearly a big pharma shill perpetrating their dominant paradigm, and science can now alter reality based on what the observer believes to be true!
    Most impressive!

    (This is quiscalus btw, wordpress won’t let me log in via my smrt phone)

  3. I’m all for Philosophical exemptions, but only when both parents have PhDs in Philosophy.

  4. In principle the uniform and shoes rules are put in place to stop immediate social pressure and physical harm (respectively). With vaccination the benefit is more stochastic and (at least typically) less immediate, less directly causal. So I can see how parents may view it differently, even if the “downside payoff” of outbreak is much worse than the downside of potential social stratification/ostracism or injured feet. So I’m not convinced Harris’ analogy is a good one as there may be good reasons to treat stochastic risks differently from risks where the causal risk factor is present in the school on a daily basis.

    Having said that, I don’t think we need to analogize vaccination to shoe requirements to have a good reason to group-vaccinate our kids.

  5. Great stuff. I’m infuriated by the anti-vax nonsense; and I’ve written to my state officials, as I’ve noted in previous posts.

    Thanks for keeping the heat on!

  6. The privileging of religious belief rather than an infringement upon the exercise of religeon seems to tread on the first amendment in the state law vaccine cases.

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

    The state is clearly barred from interfering in religious practices in the privacy of one’s home or place of worship, but enshrining those practices in state law should be prohibited as well on constitutional grounds.

    1. Sure. Schools are government institutions. If the parent does not want to vaccinate, they would have to find a private school or home school. Even so, the public has a serious interest in what goes on in private schools. If a serious outbreak occurs in a private school, it’s hard to see that it could be contained and prevented from spreading to the wider community.

    2. The state is clearly barred from interfering in religious practices in the privacy of one’s home or place of worship

      No, its not. The general application of a secular law that happens to prohibit some religious practice is fine and legal. That’s why, before pot started to become legal in some places, rasta and native American groups couldn’t legally use pot and peyote in their religious practices. The general law against drugs applied to them even in their homes and places of worship.

      The same is true for vaccination; a general law requiring it would be applicable to people who never set foot in a public school classroom. However, AFAIK this is not the most important legal issue in question. For the most part, the issue revolves around whether a state should write a religious exemption into their vaccination laws, not whether a vaccination law without an exemption would be unconstitutional. AFAIK nobody has claimed the latter…yet. With RFRA, I’m sure someone will.

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