Using religion to avoid vaccination

Mike, Mike, Mike, why did you have to show me this story?

Don’t you know that stories like this drive me crazy?

Basically, the story from Boston Now reports on how more and more parents in are claiming religious exemptions to vaccination in Massachusetts:

More Massachusetts parents are sending their children to school without the required vaccines, and some may be lying to get around state law.

Records obtained by Team 5 Investigates show that while the number of medical exemptions has remained flat, the number of parents claiming that vaccines violate their religious beliefs is going up – 343 in 2001 to 474 in 2006 – while the total number of kindergarteners has declined.

Medical exemptions require a doctor’s signature, but no evidence is needed when parents ask for a religious exemption.

This is nothing new, of course. Antivaxers actively encourage people to take advantage of religious exemptions regardless of whether such exemptions in fact actually apply. Indeed, according to the story, naturopaths in Massachusetts are actively contributing to this trend:

NewsCenter 5 spoke with two mothers who received religious exemptions for their children, but declined on-camera interviews to protect their privacy.

Barry Taylor practices naturopathic medicine, and defends these parents’ right to choose. “The truth is, it’s not about their religion,” Taylor said. “It’s about their values. And it would be a bit of a white lie to say it’s religious.”

Proponents of parental choice want Massachusetts to add a philosophical exemption to the vaccine requirements, an option that’s available in 18 other states. The Arlington-based group Vaccine Choice instructs parents on how to seek a religious exemption, suggesting the following wording: “I am exempting my child from vaccination because it conflicts with my sincerely held religious belief.”

The founder of Vaccine Choice was unavailable for an interview, but told Team 5 Investigates she is merely trying to educate parents about their rights under the current law.

Vaccine Choice is nothing more than a thinly disguised antivax group. The antivax crankery on its website lays down plenty of canards, such as that thimerosal in vaccines is the cause of the autism “epidemic” to the standard ploy of “choice” (a thinly veiled rationale for justifying refusal to vaccinate) to links to all kinds of woo and “vaccine injury” lawyers.

As Dr. John Cohen is quoted in the article:

“You are withholding from them something easily available, well-studied and used for years that is going to prevent their getting an illness,” Dr. Cohen said. “It’s essentially abuse.”

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Indeed it is.

The pernicious effect of religion here is more than just on the children of parents who follow specific religions that may find vaccines objectionable (which, by the way are few in number). In this case, religion gives cover to parents who just don’t want to vaccinate because of pseudoscientific fear-mongering or “philosophy.” Undue respect for religious beliefs that clash with the scientifically proven ability of vaccines to prevent disease safely enables these parents to easily bypass vaccination laws. With an increasing number of states providing more and more religious and “philosophical” exemptions to vaccines, I fear that it will only be a matter of time before diseases once thought vanquished return in a big way on these shores.

As for the matter of “religious freedom,” it’s not absolute. As an extreme example, we don’t allow human sacrifice in the name of religion. There’s a huge debate over whether adherents of some religions can use psychoactive substances that are otherwise illegal, such as peyote. If there are going to be religious exemptions to mandatory vaccination (and, quite frankly, I’m not sure that there should be), is it so much to ask for a note from a pastor, Imam, Rabbi, or whatever, confirming that the vaccine is, indeed, against the person’s religion?