In the age of COVID-19, everything antivaccine that is old is new again. I know I say this a lot, but it’s true. I admit that one reason why I keep repeating this is because I remain a bit miffed at how, prepandemic, so many of my fellow doctors sanctimoniously dismissed what I say about antivaxxers as ridiculous over the years or, more recently, dismissed combatting antivaccine disinformation and quackery and as “dunking on a 7′ hoop.” Before safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines were developed in record time, that disinformation largely took the form of old antivaccine tropes of minimizing the severity of COVID-19 and touting natural immunity, with the added repurposed trope claiming that masks are useless and harmful (like vaccines!) and therefore shouldn’t be required. Since the vaccines arrived, we’ve seen the recycled lies that COVID-19 vaccines don’t work, shed and endanger those around the vaccinated, cause female infertility, harm, and even kill (large numbers of people, yet). With the approval of Comirnaty, the COVID-19 vaccine made by BioNTech and Pfizer signaling more widespread vaccine mandates from businesses and governments, predictably (in the US) antivaxxers are now invoking religion to claim religious exemptions, with some antivaxxers like Megan Redshaw of Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s antivaccine propaganda organization Children’s Health Defense churning out articles like How to Get a COVID Vaccine Religious Exemption.
When I first came across Redshaw’s article, a link to which I received in an email blast, my first thought was: How on earth did I get on this email list? While it’s true that I do subscribe to a number of antivax email lists in order to see what antivaxxers are up to and provide me with blog fodder, I didn’t recall ever having signed up for Redshaw’s Substack, although I have deconstructed articles that she’s published on RFK Jr.’s website. My second thought was: How long has claiming dubious religious exemptions to vaccine mandates been a strategy of the antivaccine movement? So I did some searching in my blogs to try to identify the first article I ever wrote about the abuse of religious exemptions by antivaxxers. It turns out that it was in 2006, when I noted how pertussis was returning in states with expansive vaccine exemption rules. I was actually surprised that it wasn’t longer ago, but such is life. In 2007, I wrote my first post specifically about how antivaxxers were lying about their religion to try to avoid vaccinating their children. Basically, this is a feature, not a bug, of antivaccine activists, who, in addition to spreading disinformation, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theories about vaccines that encourage vaccine hesitancy, also tell the vaccine hesitant how to claim exemptions, whether they merit them or not.
Since then, I’ve periodically noted how much antivaxxers love to play the religion card against vaccines, claiming that vaccines are against their religion and urging people to claim religious exemptions from school vaccine mandates. Indeed, they even like to compare themselves to Jews during the Holocaust, which is not a new thing. (They’ve even tried to invoke Anne Frank.) Worse, because religion is so privileged in our society, politicians, even liberal politicians like former California Governor Jerry Brown, have pandered to the religious and bent over backwards to exempt religious exemptions from laws meant to tighten up school vaccine requirements. One particular favorite tactic among antivaxxers to claim religious exemptions has been to point to vaccines that use cell lines derived from aborted fetuses back in the 1960s to falsely claim that vaccination supports abortion, which is against their religion. (Oh, and DNA from aborted fetuses in vaccines causes autism.) Never mind that that most anti-abortion of religions, the Catholic Church, has said that the good of using of such vaccines far outweighs the distant evil of the abortion used to derive the cell line used in manufacturing them.
Which leads me back to Redshaw’s Substack article:
Now that Pfizer’s “Comirnaty” COVID vaccine has received full approval, you should prepare yourself for a barrage of vaccine mandates. With the love our current administration and U.S. health officials have for stomping on our rights, it’s inevitable that you’ll eventually be in the position of having to obtain a medical or religious vaccine exemption to get out of this monstrosity of a mass experiment.
Even though religious exemptions are available, many people don’t realize it and have no idea how to go about getting one. This article is designed to help you do just that.
(Note, this article is for informational purposes only and is not legal advice. Although I can’t guarantee that your religious exemption will be accepted, if it isn’t … it won’t be because you didn’t craft a superb religious argument. It will be because your school or employer wants you to take them to court. In addition, I’m a Christian, so I’m going to use Christianity as the example, but you can apply this post to your own religion.)
I do like the disclaimer, which reads very much like the Quack Miranda warning that quacks include after their articles hawking, for instance, unproven supplements. Interestingly (and making my last post good timing), Redshaw plays the the “Pfizer vaccine isn’t the same thing as the FDA-approved Comirnaty vaccine” gambit:
Although the FDA fully approved Pfizer’s “Comirnaty” vaccine for people over age 16 Aug. 23, buried in the fine print of the approval are two critical facts that affect whether the vaccine can be mandated and whether Pfizer can be held responsible for harm caused by its product.
First, the FDA said the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine under the EUA should remain unlicensed but can be used “interchangeably” (page 2, footnote 8) with the newly licensed Comirnaty product.
Second, the FDA said the licensed Pfizer Comirnaty vaccine and the existing EUA Pfizer vaccine are “legally distinct,” but their differences do not “impact safety or effectiveness.”
Nope. Just no. I discussed this latest antivax gambit, which arose with astonishing speed after the FDA approval of Comirnaty on Monday. The long version is in the link I just provided. The short version is that this claim is utter BS. Not that that stops Redshaw from invoking the Nuremberg Code:
However, there is a huge difference between products approved under EUA and those the FDA has fully licensed. EUA products are experimental under U.S. law. Both the Nuremberg Code and federal regulations provide that no one can force a human being to participate in this experiment.
Again, this is nonsense. As I’ve pointed out many times (most recently last month), when antivaxxers invoke the Nuremberg Code, the code included in the judgment against Nazi doctors who were tried at Nuremberg for having carried out horrific medical experiments on Jews and other prisoners, what they are doing is basically pulling a Godwin and comparing proponents of vaccine mandates to Nazis by consciously ignoring all the ethical statements about human subjects research that have since supplanted the Nuremberg Code, such as the Belmont Report and the Helsinki Declaration (which is regularly updated) in order to point to a 75 year old judgment against Nazis. Don’t get me wrong. The Nuremberg Code is important historically, and the newer statements include many elements first laid down at Nuremberg. However, there’s a reason you never see antivaxxers point to the principle of voluntariness of human research subjects discussed in the Declaration of Helsinki. Invoking that declaration doesn’t let them compare their enemies to Nazis.
Under 21 U.S. Code Sec.360bbb-3(e)(1)(A)(ii)(III), “authorization for medical products for use in emergencies,” it is unlawful to deny someone a job or an education because they refuse to be an experimental subject. In other words, COVID vaccines authorized for emergency use must be voluntary.
U.S. laws, however, permit employers and schools to require students and workers to take licensed vaccines.
I looked up 21 U.S. Code Sec.360bbb-3(e)(1)(A)(ii)(III), which states:
With respect to the emergency use of an unapproved product, the Secretary, to the extent practicable given the applicable circumstances described in subsection (b)(1), shall, for a person who carries out any activity for which the authorization is issued, establish such conditions on an authorization under this section as the Secretary finds necessary or appropriate to protect the public health, including the following:
(i) Appropriate conditions designed to ensure that health care professionals administering the product are informed—
(III) of the alternatives to the product that are available, and of their benefits and risks.
Maybe my legal eagle readers can correct me if I’m wrong, but this passage doesn’t appear to say what Redshaw says it does, nor is it nearly as clear as she claims. It also appears to be plain wrong, at least in terms of the federal government and federal law. In any event, let’s just say that it is not at all clear that vaccine mandates for vaccines issued under an EUA are illegal; in fact, they are probably legal, Redshaw’s ridiculous repeating of antivaccine talking points that try to paint the FDA approval of Comirnaty as not allowing the Pfizer vaccine left under the EUA be required by any sort of mandate.
Then come the same things that antivaxxers used to say about religious exemptions, going back to long before the pandemic. First, Redshaw tells people not to use antivaccine talking points fear mongering about the safety and effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines because this is a religious exemption and needs a philosophical and religious argument:
Do not start your statement by telling a story. It’s not going to help you. Likewise, your religious objections to the COVID vaccine has nothing to do with safety studies, vaccine injuries, what’s moral or ethical, or your beliefs in bodily autonomy. If you go down this road, you should be prepared to roll up your sleeve or find a new school or job. These arguments are philosophical arguments that would be used to obtain a philosophical exemption.
If crafting a statement (and depending on what’s required of you), either go right into your religious objections based on your “closely held religious beliefs” or drop a little authority at the top to remind the good people reading your letter that you have the right to a religious exemption, and it’s in their best interests not to mess with that.
This is, of course, clever, given that the arguments about vaccine safety that antivaxxers like to invoke are basically all misleading, filled with pseudoscience, and invoke conspiracy theories. It’s far easier just to say, in essence, “I don’t wanna because religion.” I know, I know, that’s not exactly what Redshaw is claiming. She’s saying, in essence, to say, “I don’t wanna because God says no.”
She even adds some flourishes to that basic argument:
The mainstream media loves to try and convince people they don’t have the right to a religious exemption because no prominent pastor or religious leader they’ve deemed a spokesperson for God has had the ballzingas to publicly oppose vaccinations (and if he did, he would be censored).
Don’t waste your time arguing in your letter why the Pope, the Vatican, prosperity gospel pastor, or that one guy who wrote a pro-vax argument for Focus on the Family or The Gospel Coalition were wrong. It’s irrelevant because it doesn’t matter what they think. They’re not God, they didn’t write the Bible, and you have your own closely held religious beliefs.
I would include the following in my letter: “I am a Christian and I have a closely held religious belief that prevents me from getting a COVID vaccine. The authority I adhere to is the Bible and that authority is derived from God.”
Sure, the Pope isn’t God, but neither are antivaxxers (or anyone else, for that matter). However, if you are Catholic, the Pope is certainly a much higher religious authority than you are, given that the Church teaches that the Pope is basically God’s representative on earth and Peter’s successor.
Be that as it may, Redshaw can’t help but suggest some Bible quotes for antivaxxers to use. She’s particularly fond of 1 Corinthians 16:19-20:
1 Corinthians 16:19-20 is by far, the most important verse that needs to be referenced in your religious exemption. Why? Because not all vaccines contain aborted baby ingredients and this verse covers it all.1 Corinthians 6:19-20, ESVOr do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.Vaccines contain neurotoxins, hazardous substances, adenovirus (J&J), animal ingredients, foreign DNA, aborted fetal cells, DNA, and protein (J & J), carcinogens, and chemical wastes that are harmful to the body and are produced using practices that “violate my closely held religious beliefs” (and/or the tenants of my religion).
Yes, that last paragraph is what I like to refer to as the “toxins” gambit. It’s something I’ve written about going back to the days when Jenny McCarthy was using it. In brief, it’s a deceptive gambit in which antivaxxers point to all sort of scary sounding chemicals in vaccines that are indeed toxic, but not at the tiny amounts used in vaccines. Failing that, they try to evoke disgust by tying vaccines to “foreign DNA” (never mind that we ingest foreign DNA every day in the plants and meat that we consume), “aborted fetal cells,” and whatever else the scientifically ignorant might find scary to hear about.
So basically, Redshaw is advocating combining the “toxins” or “disgust” gambit to religious motivations to refuse vaccination. This is, of course, an old antivax technique. She’s just repurposing it for COVID-19. Of course, claiming religious exemptions to vaccine mandates is Redshaw’s shtick. She’s been doing it for years, dating back to well before the pandemic. She’s even been in the news for it dating back to at least 2015:
Every fall, Megan Redshaw performs an unusual back to school ritual for her family. She fills out special paperwork, sits through doctors’ visits and listens during informational sessions for each of her four school-aged children, all so they can attend school without their required vaccinations.
Redshaw is one thousands of parents across Illinois claiming religious objections to vaccines. From Chicago to Peoria to downstate Quincy where she lives, there are now nearly 20,000 children whose parents say their faith prohibits them from vaccinating their children — almost two times the number that sought religious exemptions a decade ago.
That’s despite a 2015 law designed in part to tamp down on non-medical exemptions. Signed by then-Governor Bruce Rauner, it added the requirement that families seeking religious exemptions fill out a form explaining their objections to vaccines. That form must also be signed by a doctor, stating he or she told them the risks of not immunizing their children.
That hasn’t stopped thousands of Illinoisans from refusing to vaccinate their children on religious grounds.
People like Megan Redshaw are the reason why laws like SB 277, the California law that eliminated religious and personal belief (i.e., nonmedical) exemptions to school vaccine mandates were passed. Unfortunately, few states have tightened up their vaccine requirements to that extent, leaving religious exemptions possible for most Americans.
There was a time when I had a bit of sympathy for so-called “personal belief” and religious nonmedical exemptions. That was a time before the pandemic, indeed before the resurgence of measles that followed the Disneyland measles outbreak nearly seven years ago. Such exemptions were tolerable only as long as diseases were under control and they didn’t impact vaccination rates sufficiently to undermine herd/community immunity. In the middle of a global pandemic in which a new disease has infected hundreds of millions and killed millions worldwide (over 600,000 in the US alone), catering to such religious beliefs and “personal beliefs” is a luxury that we no longer have, particularly given how people like Megan Redshaw are doing their best to weaponize these loopholes against vaccine campaigns.