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Education Reporter

Opposition to Parents' Vaccine Rights Gathers Momentum
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In a recent feature, the New York Times heralded the rise of a countermovement against the vaccine rights movement. Advocates of parents' rights argue that parents, not the government, should decide whether and when to vaccinate their children. Currently, 20 states allow some parents to exempt their children from mandatory vaccination for religious, philosophical or medical reasons. In 28 other states, parents may obtain exemption only for religious or medical reasons, not for philosophical or personal ones.

The New York Times article spotlighted Paul A. Offit, a pediatrician and the developer of the Rotavirus vaccine RotaTeq. Offit recently published a book called Autism's False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure. The book confirmed Offit's status as a leader of a mounting backlash against parents' rights with respect to childhood vaccines. Autism's False Prophets denounces advocacy groups, doctors and others who promote alternative medicine and non-mainstream treatments for autism. Offit especially condemns those who believe it is possible that childhood vaccines are linked in some way to autism-spectrum disorders.

Last year, the federal Division of Vaccine Injury Compensation acknowledged a link between autism and mercury in vaccines for the first time, in the case of 9-year-old Hannah Poling. The division's "vaccine court" ruled that Hannah deserved compensation, because the vaccinations she received "significantly aggravated" an underlying mitochondrial disorder and pushed her into symptoms of extreme autism. Hannah, whose parents did not know of her disorder, was a perfectly normal and even "precocious" toddler before receiving nine routine childhood vaccinations in one day at the age of 18 months. Several of the shots contained thimerosal, a mercury derivative, which is now banned from routine childhood vaccines (with the exception of some flu vaccines).

The recent New York Times article, entitled "Book is Rallying Resistance to Anti-Vaccine Crusade," came down firmly on the side of Paul Offit and other advocates of mandatory vaccination. "Many doctors now argue that reporters should treat the antivaccine lobby with the same indifference they do Holocaust deniers, AIDS deniers and those claiming to have proof that NASA faked the Moon landings," the article reported. (New York Times, 1-12-09)

Every Child by Two, a group started by former First Lady Rosalynn Carter in 1991, is another important player in the campaign to make vaccine exemptions more rare. Every Child by Two lobbies for nationwide electronic vaccine registries, among other policy goals. Celebrity Amanda Peet, the group's recently acquired spokeswoman, upset parents rights advocates when she labeled parents who don't vaccinate as "parasites" in an interview last year. Peet later apologized, but the incident demonstrated the animosity this issue has generated.

Debates about specific vaccine requirements and changes to the mandatory vaccine schedule have arisen in numerous states in the past few years. Last year, New Jersey became the first state to mandate the flu shot for all children under age six who attend preschool or day care. Some New Jersey parents object vehemently to the new requirement.

Few parents who object to such laws actually oppose vaccination as a medical advance or preventative measure. Even those who hail vaccination as one of the most important and beneficial medical advances in history may not want their children to receive nine vaccines on the same day. "This is not an anti-vaccine rally — it's a freedom of choice rally," said Louise Habakus, who helped to organize a rally outside the New Jersey Statehouse in October. "This one-size-fits-all approach is really very anti-American," she said.

The Associated Press article covering the rally showed a graph stating that flu-associated deaths had risen 87% since the 2005-2006 flu season. Perhaps the article intended to imply that children were dying as a result of vaccine non-compliance. The 87% increase, however, resulted in only 86 total deaths in 2007-8. To put this number in perspective, research appearing last year in Pediatrics showed that over-the-counter children's cough and cold medicines were causing more than 500 deaths per year. Even more importantly, the graph showed only four years of data. In the year just before the graph data, 2003-2004, at least 153 children died from flu-related causes, in a particularly bad year for the flu. Including one additional year of data would have destroyed the impression that flu deaths among children were on the rise. (Associated Press, 10-17-08)

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