SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Amid roiling debate foreshadowing what is to come elsewhere, state Senate Bill 277, to abolish religious and “personal belief exemptions” for vaccination from California’s health code was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on June 30.
The new legislation, which takes effect Jan. 1, 2016, marched through the Democrat-controlled state assembly with a vote of 46 to 30. It mandates that all children in California receive 29 doses of vaccines against 10 of 16 diseases on the government’s current vaccine roster and “any other disease deemed appropriate” by the California Department of Public Health before entering public or private day care or kindergarten.
S.B. 277 also requires that children’s immunization records be reviewed at educational junctures to ensure they have caught up with vaccine mandates. The bill maintains medical exemptions, such as for those who have had a previous serious reaction to a vaccine, but not, for example, for their siblings.
The California legislation is just one of at least 110 new vaccine bills introduced in 36 states, in the wake of an outbreak of measles in California last December at Disneyland. Since then, the issue has been as divisive as abortion, but not along as clear of fault lines; faithful Catholics camp on both sides, and it raises questions that relate not to grave sin, but to differing views of what is best for children, freedom of conscience vs. public health and what information we can trust in the current culture.
“This debate wasn’t fun, and it wasn’t easy. But it was important,” said Leah Russin, with Vaccinate California. “Today we can breathe a huge sigh of relief knowing our children and others will be better protected from preventable diseases.”
Russin’s group backed the bill, with the endorsement of 35 health-care organizations, numerous unions, medical associations, school boards and 26 media outlets.
‘Cesspool of Corruption’?
But crowds protesting the bill drew numbers not seen since the Vietnam War who said the safety-and-health issues in the media were one-sided and the real motive for the mandates was not health, but money.
“I’m very pro-vaccine, and I’d like to see full vaccine coverage, but we need to first assure that we have safe vaccines and a credible regulatory agency,” Robert Kennedy Jr., attorney and author of a book on vaccine dangers, who campaigned against S.B. 277, told the Register. “Four different studies have demonstrated that the CDC [Centers for Disease Control] is a cesspool of corruption, functioning essentially as a subsidiary of the $30-billion-a-year pharmaceutical industry.”
Kennedy cited as an example the case of CDC senior scientist William Thompson, who issued a statement last year that he and his co-authors “omitted statistically significant data” from their publication in the medical journal Paediatrics in 2004 — data suggesting that “African-American males who received the MMR vaccine before age 36 months were at increased risk for autism.”
“Vaccines are becoming the engine of the pharmaceutical industry,” states a “Global Vaccine Market Features and Trends” report from the World Health Organization, predicting that “new target population, larger emerging markets” and 120 vaccines, including some “blockbusters,” should ensure “spectacular” growth in the industry, to $100 billion per year by 2025.
“All the barriers which stand between a little child and the rapacious pharmaceutical industry have been removed,” Kennedy said, adding that Congress has granted “blanket immunity to vaccine’s manufacturers” for any liability on their products, and media’s role as the “Fourth Estate” is silenced by income from “pharmaceutical giants.”
“The only entity left protecting those babies from the dangers of this corruption is the mothers. And the purpose of these mandates is to remove the mothers,” said Kennedy.
The Abortion Connection
Debi Vinnedge, executive director of Children of God for Life, an organization that opposes the current use of aborted fetal tissue in some vaccines, also pointed to a lone Sacramento Bee report outlining how drug companies dispersed millions to California lawmakers in the year leading up to S.B. 277 including $95,150 to pediatrician-Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, who introduced the bill.
Pan’s office declined to reply to questions from the Register about the report earlier this month.
“Aside from the moral concerns of being forced to use vaccines containing aborted fetal remains, California has put itself in the untenable position of making itself a nanny state, usurping both parental rights to make medical decisions for their children and religious freedom,” said Vinnedge.
During S.B. 277 hearings, Pan first claimed the use of fetal tissue in vaccines was a “myth,” then added that the cells were present in “one or two vaccines,” but claimed that it is no longer a part of vaccine manufacture.
According to information published by the Centers for Disease Control, aborted fetal-cell proteins are measurable in several vaccines, including Hepatitis-A, MMRII and chickenpox vaccines, and new aborted cell lines are used for ongoing vaccine research. However, Pan then claimed that such use is endorsed by the Pope, and S.B. 277 co-sponsor Sen. Benjamin Allen, D-Santa Monica, produced a statement from the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) in Philadelphia as evidence.
Pope Francis has never spoken to the issue of fetal cells in vaccines, though the NCBC does support universally mandated vaccines for communicable diseases, including measles and chickenpox, and has issued its opinion of the Vatican statement regarding the use of vaccines grown on fetal cells.
The 2005 Vatican document declares the use of such vaccines on the part of lay Catholics constitutes only “very remote mediate material cooperation” with the abortions involved in the vaccine manufacture. But it adds that it is a “duty” of Catholics to “put pressure” on “political authorities and health systems” to provide alternative vaccines not derived from fetal tissue, including by employing the “right to abstain from using these vaccines if it can be done without causing children, and indirectly the population as a whole, to undergo significant risks to their health.”
When no alternatives are present, the Vatican document states abortion-derived vaccines may be used, recognizing this as “an unjust alternative choice, which must be eliminated as soon as possible.”
“One is morally free to use the vaccine regardless of its historical association with abortion. The reason is that the risk to public health, if one chooses not to vaccinate, outweighs the legitimate concern about the origins of the vaccine,” says a FAQ sheet from the NCBC, interpreting the statement. “This is especially important for parents, who have a moral obligation to protect the life and health of their children and those around them.”
The risk to public health of measles and the risks of vaccines themselves were the topics that were hotly disputed in the S.B. 277 storm.
The bill’s proponents and the CDC maintain that a high percentage of people are required to be immunized to achieve “herd immunity” — population protection against the disease.
Measles, a three-to-four-day infection, used to affect 40,000 to 50,000 Americans annually and killed 400 to 500, especially those with underlying illness, according to the CDC. Chickenpox claimed about 150 lives per year, particularly immune-compromised children. Hepatitis B is a disease that primarily strikes IV drug users and those with multiple sex partners, but because of difficulty getting that population to vaccinate, the CDC opted to have all infants vaccinated from birth to acquire “herd immunity.”
The CDC also recommends the vaccine against the sexually transmitted HPV virus for all girls over the age of 11 to age 24 to prevent cervical cancer and for boys as young as nine years old to prevent rare, mostly homosexually transmitted anal, penile and mouth cancers.
Opponents of the bill, including parents of vaccine-injured children and those worried about safety, insist there has been inadequate consideration of the harmful effects of vaccines.
“All vaccines carry a risk of death and serious injury or disease,” said Barbara Loe Fisher of the Stirling, Va.-based National Vaccine Information Center. “Doctors cannot tell who is going to be affected.”
“There are certainly some complex judgments of prudence that must be made when deciding about vaccinating one's child, both for regular vaccines and for those directed against sexually transmitted diseases like HPV,” Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, who has a doctorate in neuroscience and is an ethicist with the NCBC, told the Register.
The NCBC says it “strongly opposes the mandating of vaccinations for non-highly contagious but communicable diseases because they do not pose the same public health threat” and also for HPV, which is not a significant risk to sexually inactive pre-teen and adolescent girls.
But another NCBC statement on vaccines states that such risks are “to be assessed by public-health authorities” such as the CDC.
The Debate Continues
The debate on vaccine mandates seems far from settled — even in California, where S.B. 792, which mandates vaccines for childcare workers, is also now progressing in the state senate and assembly.
On July 15, California Attorney General Alex Padilla gave a green light to the collection of petition signatures in support of a referendum on S.B. 277. Former state assemblyman Tim Donnelly, the proponent of the referendum, must submit the signatures of 365,880 registered voters by Sept. 28 in order for the referendum to be included on the 2016 state ballot.
In May, the California Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement on the bill that declined to take a position on the controversial legislation but underscored the importance of parental rights and freedom of conscience.
Stressed the state bishops, “Of course, Catholics must inform themselves and follow their conscience with regard to vaccinations.”
Celeste McGovern writes from Scotland.