As I’ve discussed, described, and mocked for 15 years as of two days ago, when it comes to medicine and science, antivaccine activists fail—and fail big. They don’t understand the science. They don’t understand epidemiology. They don’t understand clinical trials. Unfortunately, they do understand conspiracy theories and are very good at constructing and spreading elaborate conspiracy theories. After all, antivaccine activism and beliefs are based on a conspiracy theory that, at its core, posits that “they” (the CDC, the government, big pharma, doctors, the Smoking Man) “know” that vaccines cause autism, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), autoimmune disease, and all manner of maladies but are hiding/suppressing/denying/obfuscating the evidence, which only brave antivaxxers have uncovered. It’s a very simple form of conspiracy theory, that of hidden knowledge that a powerful cabal is hiding and that only the initiated have discovered; indeed, this sort of conspiracy theory is at the heart of cancer cure quackery, Holocaust denial, 9/11 Trutherism, QAnon, Pizzagate, the JFK assassination, and pretty much every major conspiracy theory ever. The amusing thing is that antivaxxers think they are the ones with the knowledge, which is why something that happened yesterday in New Jersey (where I lived for eight and a half years) made me laugh out loud. Let’s take a look at some Tweets I saw yesterday about an incident related to S2173, a bill being considered in NJ that would eliminate nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates:
And, yes, Del Bigtree himself was in da house!
Just watch the videos. They’re short. In one of them, an antivax speaker likens S2173 to Naziism, because of course she did. It’s a favorite claim of antivaxxers up to and including Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Be that as it may, you really should watch the two videos. Antivaxxers showed up en masse yesterday to protest S2173:
A Statehouse hearing Thursday afternoon is likely the last chance New Jersey residents will get to tell elected officials what they think about a bill that would repeal the religious exemption that has enabled thousands of children avoid vaccinations required to attend school.
The state Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee is scheduled to hold a public hearing on the legislation, S2175, which, if enacted, would make New Jersey the sixth state to eliminate religion or “personal beliefs” exemptions to vaccines.
The bill gained steam after an outbreak of about a dozen measles cases in Ocean County in the first half of 2019 raised concern about the growing number of families who distrust and refuse vaccines. There have been 19 confirmed cases of measles this year in New Jersey, and 1,276 nationwide.
It’s not S2175, by the way. The news report got it wrong, and in a previous version of this post I relied on that news report and therefore got it wrong too. (Thanks, Susan Livio and the editors of NJ.com!) Also, contrary to that previous version, it also turned out that antivaxxers didn’t go to the wrong room, as originally Tweeted by Brandy Zadrozny on Twitter. They showed up at the right meetings room hours early and wouldn’t leave when informed by staff that the hearing before the S2173 hearing was about NJ Transit. To be honest, that doesn’t make the antivaxxers look any better to me. Rather, showing up hours early to take over the meeting room and then refusing to leave a public hearing that had nothing to do with S2173 held before the public hearing on S2713 makes the antivaxxers look entitled and obnoxious, particularly if their presence forced people actually interested in the bill to have to stand or made it impossible for some of them to get into the room. (Maybe they learned something about mass transit, though.) There’s something very meta about my making a mistake like that in a post mocking antivaxxers for making an obvious mistake. Oh, well, it keeps me, if not exactly humble, at least from getting too arrogant.
And antivaxxers are still entitled and obnoxious.
In any event, measles outbreaks will have the effect of making legislation that was once politically impossible become politically possible. Before the Disneyland measles outbreak almost five years ago provided the political impetus to pass SB 277 in 2015, only Mississippi and West Virginia had laws that didn’t allow for religious and/or personal belief exemptions to school vaccine mandates. This year, ongoing measles outbreak provided the political impetus to get similar bills passed in Maine and New York and for Washington to pass a bill eliminating nonmedical exemptions for MMR only. Now New Jersey is considering eliminating nonmedical exemptions as well.
Of course, with S2173, as with every other bill of its type, antivaxxers have mobilized to dominate the public hearings on the issue. S2173 avoided a public hearing earlier in the year when the state Assembly, according to the news report, took an existing piece of legislation that would have made it harder to qualify for a religious exemption and amended it during a voting session to abolish nonmedical exemptions entirely. They planned on having hundreds of parents show up in order to voice their opposition to S2173 and urge lawmakers to vote no:
Hundreds of parents, resentful over what they see as a government intrusion and a violation of their constitutional rights, plan to attend the hearing for a chance to testify, said Stephanie Locricchio of Branchburg. She said she’s been involved with an effort for the past week to bombard legislators’ offices with calls and emails demanding they vote no.
“This group of people are steadfast in their beliefs…who don’t feel comfortable injecting fetal tissue in their child’s bodies,” said Locricchio, the mother of a 12-year-old son who received vaccines when he younger, but resented how her pediatrician demeaned her when she asked questions.
Antivaccine parents like Locricchio frequently complain that they feel attacked, “bullied,” or demeaned when pediatricians try to persuade them to vaccinate their children. Although I’m sure there are pediatricians who are jerks and that occasionally pediatricians let their exasperation with parents like Locricchio show when they shouldn’t, in reality the vast majority of pediatricians are incredibly patient and respectful. Indeed, I don’t know how they do it day in and day out, dealing with parents of patients spewing the same ignorant antivaccine blather like “vaccines contain fetal tissue.” (They don’t. Really, they don’t. That’s a distortion of the fact that the virus stocks used to manufacture some vaccines are grown in two cell lines derived from fetuses aborted over 50 years ago and maintained in cell culture ever since. These cells are removed from the virus stock before the vaccine is made. In reality, fetal cells have been instrumental in saving millions of lives and preventing billions of cases of disease.) The vast majority of pediatricians I know have the patience of a saint when dealing with these parents.
In any event, Locricchio’s response to the reporter who wrote the story shows just how apt a metaphor antivaxxers showing up to the wrong meeting to voice their objections to S2173 and refusing to leave when told the meeting was about NJ Transit, not S2173. Contributing to this metaphor, according to the report, Locricchio stated that she moved to NJ when New York eliminated nonmedical exemptions and said that she’d move again, using a rather histrionic analogy:
Locricchio said she moved from New York when it eliminated the religious exemption to vaccines, and she’s prepared to leave New Jersey, too. “Telling people (they must vaccinate) if you want an education for your kid is like putting a gun to your head,” she said.
Because requiring a child to be vaccinated is just like threatening a parent with a gun. Seriously, that analogy says way more about Locricchio than it says about S2173. It also says a lot about antivaxxers that many of them stayed in the room as the hearing regarding NJ Transit began, leading to some very amusing responses:
Unfortunately, eventually the meeting about NJ Transit ended, the meeting about S2173 began, and antivaxxers were again able to do they always do whenever bills like S2173 are being considered; i.e., to flood the hearing and drown out any opinions supporting the bill, a technique they “pioneered” during the political debate over SB 277 and amplified during the debate over SB 276 earlier this year in California. Here the tactics are the same, but fortunately without an attack on a state senator or throwing menstrual blood at legislators:
I particularly like the part where they said the Lord’s Prayer, because nothing says love like saying the Lord’s Prayer before opposing a bill designed to enhance the protection of children against potentially deadly diseases. In any event, the hearing went on:
So what happened? Did S2173 pass the health committee? Here’s the answer:
Unpersuaded by hundreds of pleading and occasionally hostile parents, a state Senate panel voted Thursday to eliminate religion as an acceptable reason for New Jersey children to avoid vaccines required for school attendance.
After seven years of stalled efforts to compel better vaccine compliance and a recent reemergence of measles, state lawmakers are moving quickly to end the religious exemption that allowed 14,000 students to decline their shots last year.
The Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee approved the bill (A3818) by a 6-4 vote Thursday. Even before the hearing, the measure was listed on Monday’s agenda for action by the full 40-member body.
S2173 is the Senate version of the bill, while A3818 is the Assembly version.
Further adding to the aptness of the metaphor of antivaxxers showing up to the wrong room earlier in the day, some parents apparently indoctrinated their children to spew their antivaccine talking points:
“I love God with my whole heart,” said 7-year-old Emelia Walls of Cape May. “He made our immune systems perfect. We take really good care of our bodies because that makes God happy.”
Emelia, a second-grader, said she would be “heartbroken” if the law passed and she had to leave school. “I have a bright future ahead of me. I am going to change the world,” she said.
I feel sorry for Emilia. It’s not her fault that she was born to parents who not only medically neglect her by not vaccinating but shamelessly use her to promote their antivaccine message.
Also reinforcing what I’ve been saying about how the antivaccine movement has successfully packaged its message in the language of small government anti-government conservatives and libertarians, in particular the language of “parental rights” and opposition to regulation, the vote split along party lines, with all Republicans voting against it and all Democrats voting for it, with Republicans saying after the vote:
State Sen. Michael Testa, R-Cumberland, voted no, calling the legislation “unconstitutional and un-American.”
State Sen. Gerald Cardinale, R-Bergen, said he doesn’t oppose vaccines but voted no because “I am not going to take away people’s rights.”
“Even though I would make a different choice from the people in this room, it’s their right to be wrong,” Cardinale said. “It’s their own right to follow their conscience.”
This echoes perfectly the observation made by my now fortunately ex-state representative Jeff Noble that the Republicans on the Health Policy Committee in Michigan are the only ones receptive to vaccine choice initiatives, while the Democrats won’t even consider them and want to “shove vaccines down your throat (or arm).”
In the end, it looks as though New Jersey is likely poised to become the next state to eliminate nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates. Even better, unlike SB 277, which originally allowed any doctor to write a medical exemption letter (thus allowing quacks to start a cottage industry writing bogus medical exemptions) and later had to be fixed with SB 276 and SB 714, New Jersey looks as though it’s doing it right the first time. The bill mandates that the state Health Department define which health conditions qualify for a medical exemption and that a physician, advance practice nurse or physician assistant verify in writing the child has the condition or illness for which vaccination is contraindicated.
One thing’s for sure. As much of a metaphor the wrong meeting antivaxxers seeking to speak against S2173 were on Thursday, if the NJ State Senate does take up S2173 on Monday there’s going to be a spectacle of ignorance and stupidity every bit as facepalm-inducing as the ones in California over SB 277 and 276.