Wielding religion as a weapon against vaccines

I might as well lay it on the line right at the beginning. It’s not as though it will surprise my regular readers given what I’ve been writing here, most recently about when Rob Schneider played the Nazi card to express his opposition to California Bill AB2109. It’s a bill that does something very simple and very necessary; basically it requires that parents seeking a nonmedical exemption from school vaccine mandates actually visit a health care professional to provide informed consent before an exemption is granted. Yet, even suggesting that maybe—just maybe—nonmedical exemptions are too easy for parents to get and that maybe—just maybe—the easy availability of nonmedical exemptions endangers public health by allowing vaccine uptake rates to fall below what is necessary to maintain herd immunity is not a good idea is the equivalent to Nazi medical experimentation to the antivaccine set.

Of course, most of the time, antivaccinationist objections to any effort to tighten up school vaccine mandates by making nonmedical exemptions more difficult to obtain don’t involve religion. After all, all but two states allow religious exemptions; the number of states allowing nonmedical exemptions based on “philosophical objections” (i.e., objections not based on religion) is much smaller. This is the sort of privileging of religious beliefs that irritates me to no end. From my perspective, if any sort of nonmedical exemptions are allowed they should not be only religious objections, because religious beliefs should not be privileged over nonreligious beliefs. Better still, however, would be to allow no nonmedical exemptions at all.

Just don’t suggest that to Suzanne Humphries. You remember Suzanne Humphries, don’t you? She’s the nephrologist/homeopath antivaccinationist who portrays vaccines as “disease matter” and regularly lays down so much antivaccine lunacy that it’s a wonder she’s not a regular blogger on that wretched hive of scum and quackery, Age of Autism. She is, however, a regular contributor to that other antivaccine wretched hive of scum and quackery, the International Medical Council on Vaccination, and she uses that opportunity to express her displeasure with Dr. Paul Offit. The reason? Dr. Offit shot a video for Medscape in which he stated that philosophical and religious exemptions to vaccine mandates don’t make sense and degrade herd immunity. He correctly points out that antivaccine beliefs aren’t really a religious belief (although in a way, I might beg to differ somewhat given how antivaccinationism, like alternative medicine, shares a lot of non-science-based aspects of religion.

I particularly like the part of Dr. Offit’s presentation where he ways:

I think we should call these exemptions what they really are. Let’s not sugarcoat this choice. We should call them the “I do not want to get vaccines because I have read a lot of scary things about vaccines and I am afraid that they might hurt my child, and I am not so sure I believe in pharmaceutical companies or the medical establishment or the government, so I do not want my child to get them” vaccine exemption. That would be, I think, more honest.

More honest, but you’ll never hear this. Antivaccinationists hide their fears behind religion, even though in reality few are the religions that actually have any sort of objection to vaccines, and when they can’t manage to do that they retreat to “philosophical exemptions.” Suzanne Humphries doesn’t like what Dr. Offit said one bit. Not one little bit. In fact, she views Dr. Offit’s reasonable statements as dire threats to religious freedom in her post In Vaccines We Trust? Paul Offit threatens religious and philosophical vaccine exemptions. A response by Suzanne Humphries, MD:

In Offit’s video, he said that religious exemptions do not “make sense” and went on to inform doctors on the chronological age of three religious scriptures, and how they could not possibly have anything to do with vaccination because vaccines are so much newer than those tattered and outmoded scribbles of hundreds or thousands of years ago. Those “outmoded” books, including the Old Testament and the Koran, include specific passages containing principles which obliquely address many health issues. To many people, these scriptures place vaccines amongst may things which are not consistent with scriptural hygiene. Here are specific references from the HOLY BIBLE and the KORAN. Dr Katme’s explanation of the Islamic problems with vaccination can be read HERE. Hindu faith also has restrictions on what is permitted in their bodies, the treatment of cows and monkeys etc. Vaccination is an affront to many Hindus who know the contents of vaccines.

God gave Moses core principles on Mt. Sinai that are held in high esteem by both Christians and Jews the world over. Offit misses out on the timelessness of God’s words. God’s principles don’t wear out. Neither do they need continuous repeating and revising.

Really? Where, exactly, is it in the Bible that proscribes vaccines? Vaccines were nearly two thousand years away when the passages used to justify religious opposition to vaccines were written. The people who wrote the scriptures of the major religions had no clue what vaccines were; they didn’t exist. In fact, the background biological knowledge even to imagine vaccines didn’t exist! That means that any “objection” to vaccines based on any scripture is based not on any direct statement in the scripture but on the interpretation of passages by people who have lived in the 200 years since the concept of immunization was first proven to be effective. These people are imposing their modern interpretation on text written by men whose understanding of human health and disease was based on prescientific concepts and superstitions. (In that, antivaccinationists share a great deal in common with the writers of scripture.) Medicine at the time these various scriptures of various religions were written was so primitive that praying for the sick to get better was at least as effective as anything physicians could do at that time. That’s probably one reason why in ancient times in so many societies priests were commonly physicians and physicians were commonly priests. The roles were often merged. Certainly it was that way in ancient Egypt.

There’s so much wrong in Humphries’ article that it’s hard to know to which errors, misrepresentations, and omissions I should apply my usual not-so-Respectful Insolence. Certainly one claim deserves scrutiny. Humphries is really incensed (or pissed off or outraged or whatever). First, she objects to Offit’s invocation of the 14th Amendment, specifically the equal protection clause, as a reason why religious exemptions are not Constitutional. In fact, in the Supreme Courts of the two states that do not have religious exemptions (West Virginia and Mississippi) ruled that such exemptions do violate the equal protection clause. So what’s Humphries’ response? It’s conspiracy mongering claiming that the 14th Amendment was never ratified and, oh, by the way, it was only designed to protect newly freed slaves.

Then, she goes totally off the deep end, invoking Public Law 97-280 96 STAT.1211 (97th Congress) as a “law that declares the Bible to be The Word of God.” It’s not really a law at all, though. It’s nothing more than a joint resolution of Congress requesting then President Ronald Reagan to declare 1983 to be the “Year of the Bible.” Sure, it says that Congress in 1982 was ignorant enough of the history of the U.S. to believe that “Biblical teachings inspired concepts of civil government that are contained in our Declaration of Independence and the constitution of the United States.” Reagan did that and declared 1983 as the “Year of the Bible.” That’s about all it says. It’s also not binding law; all it did was to give President Reagan authorization to make his proclamation that 1983 was the “Year of the Bible.” That’s it. It’s all ceremonial. Not to Humphries, though. To her:

This represents Congress’ stance that the Bible has its rightful place above the Constitution because our forefathers were inspired by the Bible in the writing of the Constitution. Every four years the president of the USA is sworn into office with his hand on a Bible. Offit would probably just consider this a silly tradition. However, most presidents have publicly recognized the role of God and religious faith in the public life and spiritual heritage of America.

No, no, no, no. I challenge Humphries to find any legitimate law or passage in the Constitution that says anywhere that the Bible should be held in a “rightful place above the Constitution.” The U.S. is a secular nation, founded on secular principles. There’s no doubt that the majority of the population is deeply religious, but the Constitution is designed to be neutral with respect to religion. In fact, nowhere in the Constitution is the Bible invoked. It’s not for nothing that the first passage of the Constitution reads:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

We The People. Not God. Not the Bible. Not Jesus. We The People.

Humphries also grossly misinterprets the First Amendment, not surprisingly, as to view vaccine mandates as a violation of religious freedom and a threat to free speech. They’re not. We don’t allow parents to use religious beliefs to justify withholding treatment from their children, thus endangering their lives. (Well, actually, all too often we do, but we shouldn’t.) Jehovah’s Witnesses can’t deny a blood transfusion a child bleeding to death, and parents can’t refuse chemotherapy for their child with cancer. In such cases, like it or not, the state steps in. The First Amendment is not without limits.

Not surprisingly, Humphries also launches into a tirade against pharmaceutical companies and evidence-based medicine. In particular, she tries to claim that all medicine (except, apparently her favored woo) is corrupt. As evidence of this, she claims that evidence-based medicine manipulates the rules to suit itself in the following fashion:

Instead of placebos, evidence based medicines uses vaccines, and calls them placebos, yet vaccines do not fit their own definition of placebo;


Here are some examples of vaccine trial “placebos”:

The hepatitis A vaccine was the placebo for the influenza vaccine in a well publicized STUDY. The study’s designer is quoted as SAYING that he didn’t want to withhold a potentially beneficial treatment from the control subjects. “Hepatitis was not studied, but to keep the investigators from knowing which colonies received flu vaccine, they had to offer placebo shots, and hepatitis shots do some good while sterile water injections do not.“ So, if the placebo is supposed to have no therapeutic effect as the definition that was taken from an ardently pro-vaccine website that criticizes our criticism of their use of placebos, and the study used hepA placebo because “water does no good” … where on earth is the match up with even their definition of science?

Actually, contrary to what Humphries says, this is in fact a valid placebo. Why? Because the hepA vaccine placebo has no effect on influenza. In fact, arguably it’s a better placebo than a saline injection because it has actual aluminum adjuvant and many of the same ingredients found in the influenza vaccine, but the antigenic protein is different. Humphries views the choice of placebos for vaccine trials that contain aluminum, other adjuvants, and/or other ingredients commonly found in vaccines as some sort of conspiracy to hide vaccine reactions in randomized clinical trials, but in reality it’s nothing more than a rational effort to make sure that the placebo is as much like the vaccine as possible. Not that that stops antivaccinationists like Humphries from trying to take issue with the choice of placebo in various vaccine studies. Mark Blaxill did the same thing in a hilariously inept manner last year.

To Humphries, it all comes down to vaccines being somehow against God’s will. To her, vaccines are evidence of not trusting God enough to protect us:

Many of us who once bowed at the altar of “eminence-based” medicine, have learned the hard way, and had to re-boot our belief system. We have learned through experience and researching the latest core scientific understanding of the immune system, that the human body can and does do the job God intended. By going back to the scriptures and understanding the principles from the “manufacturer’s manual,” we have a new found awe and respect for God’s design. We are learning that we can trust God’s design to maintain its health, providing we follow God’s principles to support and maintain what he manufactured, which is what it means to have a relationship with God, and to believe in God’s word.

Because that worked so well before vaccines, didn’t it? God didn’t vanquish smallpox. Vaccines did. God hasn’t vanquished polio. Vaccines are in the process of doing so, if only religious objections and paranoid conspiracy fears among some Muslims in at-risk areas don’t prevent it. (They’ve already slowed down progress.) God did not bring measles under control. Vaccines did. In fact, for whatever reason, God was more than happy to allow untold deaths from infectious disease among children, such that graveyards from pre-20th century times (and even into the early part of the 20th century) are littered with the gravestones of children cut down by what are now vaccine-preventable diseases. Most religious people realize that, and vaccinate their children as recommended. There’s a saying that used to be popular when I was still going to Catholic high school back in the late 1970s: God helps those who help themselves. You don’t have to be an atheist or agnostic to reject the sort of pure idiocy that Humphries is advocating (although it does make it incredibly easy to do). All you have to do is to believe that God gave humans the intellect to invent things like vaccines.

In the end, I think Dr. Offit totally nailed it. Religious objections to vaccines are precious few and mainly on the fringe. Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t object to vaccines anymore and haven’t since 1952. (If only they would change their mind on blood transfusions as well.) In reality, they are more excuses used to justify fear of vaccines that are not grounded in science.