Putting Kids First: Sarah Levin and Ed Beck on Vaccine Laws

October 12, 2015

With misinformation about vaccines proliferating among certain groups in the U.S., diseases that had previously been thought eradicated are creeping back into American life. As far as the law is concerned, whether or not a parent chooses to put their own child at risk by denying them vaccinations remains, largely, their personal choice. But this hands-off attitude toward vaccinations, particularly among children, puts everyone else at risk.

Here to talk about the threat posed by the anti-vaccination movement, and what we can do to stop it, are Sarah Levin and Ed Beck. Sarah Levin is the Legislative Associate of the Secular Coalition and Ed Beck is the senior policy analyst for the Center For Inquiry’s Office of Public Policy. CFI is working with SCA to launch a new campaign called Put Kids First. For additional information about how you can help combat anti-vaccination laws in your area check out the campaign website, and visit CFI’s Keep Health Care Safe and Secular website to learn more about the fight to keep religion and pseudoscience out of health policy.

This is point of inquiry for Monday, October 12th, 2015. Due to limitations beyond our control, we weren’t able to remove some of the background construction noise in this episode. It only comes up a couple of times, but we apologize if it’s a little distracting. And now back to point of inquiry. 

I’m Josh Zepps, host of Huff Post Live. The Center for Inquiry is teaming up with the Secular Coalition for America on a campaign called Put Kids First, which would make vaccinating children mandatory to discuss the epidemic of anti vaccination hysteria and how this campaign seeks to fight it. I’m joined by Sara 11, a legislative associate for the Secular Coalition, and Ed Beck, senior policy analyst with CeaseFire’s Office of Public Policy. Thanks to both of you for being here. 

Thanks for having us. Thank you. Sarah, how did this collaboration come about firstly? 

Well, we were very concerned about nonmedical vaccine exemptions when it comes to religious liberty and free exercise of personal beliefs. The line we have to draw when it causes harm to others, especially to children. And we saw that there were outbreaks of measles and whipping of diseases that we hadn’t seen outbreaks like this for years. They were almost entirely eradicated. 

But the complete distrust of vaccine science and the persistent myths that are going around that are unfortunately endorsed by celebrities and even some political candidates, that vaccines somehow cause autism. It’s so pervasive now that the number of people that are claiming these nonmedical vaccine exemptions has increased in recent years. And that’s why we’re seeing these outbreaks. And as an organization that’s dedicated to both separation of church and state and advocating for evidence and science based policies, we felt that we really had to do something about it and bring that angle to the issue that this is something that is affecting children. It’s affecting adults. It’s a public health issue. And in order to prevent future outbreaks, we need to make sure that state vaccine policies reflect the wide scientific consensus that vaccines work. 

And what exemptions are there around the country. On what grounds does does a parent base their objection to having their kids vaccinated? 

Well, of course, there’s the one legitimate exemption that exists, which is a medical exemption where some people simply cannot be vaccinated or do have legitimate actual reactions to action. But then also there are two other far more insidious exemptions that we are pushing back against, and that is the religious exemption where in many states someone just has to claim that their religious belief keeps them from getting vaccinated. Or there is the philosophical exemption, which is so broad it is doing almost nothing visually. Also, one has to say is I don’t feel like being vaccinated because of my beliefs. Those beliefs can be anything. It’s essentially chicken, a box, and for any reason whatsoever, they can opt out of being vaccinated. 

I’ll just add to that. So it’s there are states that have the religious exemption, states that have both and put kids first as Amy to repeal all my medical exemptions. And the issue with states that have just the religious one is that it puts if you think about it, it puts the government in in the position of having to decide whether an objection is legitimately religious or not. So, for example, in Illinois, where they have a very high exemption rate and their immunization rates in certain cluster communities are very low, they passed a bill pretty recently that would make it a little easier. Ed said, you know, in a lot of states you have to do is check a box. So what some states are doing are just making it a little harder. So you don’t just check a box. You might have to see a physician and a physician is supposed to educate you about the risks and benefits of vaccines and so on, so forth. So it’s a little more difficult and they’re kind of adding some more hoops you have to jump through. But this bill that made it easier, you know, even though on the one hand, it made it harder for people to get that religious exemption. It said in the bill’s language that and I should say, Bill, because now it’s law that local public school officials are responsible for deciding whether or not a parent’s objection is legitimately religious or not, because they don’t want people using the philosophic philosophical exemptions. So what that actually means is that local, you know, your school nurse or a school administrator is supposed to look at this form and say, well, I don’t know if you’re really religious exemption. I don’t know. And, of course, what’s going to happen if they’re not going to dispute anything. So even though the intent was to make it harder. Anybody who has any philosophical objection just has to fill out the paperwork. And the schools are going to be rubber stamping it. Otherwise, they’re essentially what happened in states like that. They’ve become arbiters of religion. 

Yeah, it seems a bit peculiar to put doctors in that position as well. If, as you say, they’re required, some people are required to go and see their physician in order to verify their theological concern. I mean, what can the physician say? Yes, I. In my professional medical opinion, your way the creator of the universe objects to you being vaccinated like it’s not his job. Of course, he’s gonna want you to be vaccinated because he’s a doctor. Right. 

One other issue worth mentioning with the philosophical versus the religious exemptions or anti vaccine advocates, activists encouraging people in states that no longer or never had a Ukko exemption to essentially fake religious belief to claim a religious exemption. One very famous anti. An old man, proponent, Joseph Mikola, has repeatedly advocated that his fans, so to speak, essentially abuse these religious exemptions and claim a religious belief so that they don’t have to be vaccinated. Most recently, just last week, the AP reported about groups of pounds up in Vermont who are considering starting their own religion simply to claim the state’s religious fascistic vaccine exemption. And this is in a state, too, that is about 40 percent unaffiliated. So these exemptions, no matter where you title them, are rather mushy, so prone and open to abuse that it is really beyond the time to end them. 

Well, yeah. I mean, that was kind of my point about how ridiculous it is sending people to doctors because a doctor is in no position to adjudicate what is fundamentally a theological objection. But would you would it be a halfway good step to say that you have to? You can only have a religious exemption if a theologian or some particular part of your holy book actually explicitly says that you are not allowed to do it. You can’t just use the religious objection as a way of smuggling in your lack of scientific understanding or a philosophical objection that has to it has to actually be a credible religious position with that. 

Well, just to clarify, first of all, when when states are making it harder for people to get the religious objection and requiring them to speak to doctors, the doctors aren’t actually telling them whether they’re not speaking about religion. The whole point of putting doctors in that process is for doctors to address the myths and misconceptions that the person might have. So explaining the risks and benefits of vaccines, explaining that to the parent that they’re putting their own child as well as other children at risk. And that that really that the reason the states are doing that is so that people who have these ideas that, you know, vaccines have toxic ingredients or that they cause autism will all be addressed by the doctor. Right. 

I mean, I get that sort of drop, but that’s precisely my point, which is that it’s OK. Isn’t that an admission on the part of the states that the religious exemption is bogus? Because if if you have a deeply held religious belief that you shouldn’t get vaccinated, then no amount of scientific evidence is going to change your mind about that. This is an admission that basically you’re motivated by anti scientific mumbo jumbo that can be overturned by a doctor. I mean a doctor, no matter how much scientific credibility he can give to the case for vaccinating your kids isn’t ultimately going to be able to trump the creator of the universe. If you actually believe the creator of the universe cares about this. So it’s sort of racketing that if it’s not a religious objection at all. 

Well, two things I would say to us. First of all, it’s important to note that in states that have both a religious and philosophical exemption, people are using the philosophical exemption in much higher numbers because there really aren’t that many. There are very few religious communities who actually are anti vaccine. The majority of people who are opting out of vaccines are people who believe these these myths about. About vaccines. They don’t trust the science. They’re actually highly educated and upper middle class people who who just kind of are falling into this whole homeopathic movement that, you know, natural is better. And this idea that, you know, they’re you’re injecting your child with these foreign substances and things like that and and in the states where there’s only religious exemption, we don’t know what they’re actually opting out for. And I think there’s reason to believe, based on some anecdotal evidence we have, is that a lot of those people don’t actually have a religious objection. They have. They just are. They don’t trust the science behind it. And while I do think anything states can do to decrease the number of people who are opting out is great. 

But at the end of the day, compromising and just sending them to a doctor, eating harder to fill out a form, like you said, is is not going to deter the most determined people. And at the end of the day, this is about protecting everybody, especially people who have a medical reason why they can’t vaccinate. They depend on the people around them. So the immunized. Protect them. So, you know, compromises is one way to go about it. But we’re interested in repealing nonmedical exemptions, period. 

Can the can one of you to start? I think most of our listeners will be familiar with herd immunity. But since you just mentioned the fact that people who can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons are dependent on people who can for their own health. Can you just unpack that a bit for us medically? 

Well, the concept of herd immunity is the idea that in a population of people, there are always going to be that those individuals who for legitimate reasons, can’t be vaccinated. So the newborns can be vaccinated. The elderly can’t be vaccinated. Pregnant women, HIV and persons with HIV and AIDS and cancer patients, all of them have compromised immune systems so illegitimately cannot be safely. So vaccination works by essentially filling in every one around these vulnerable people by making sure they all get vaccinated. So that’s, you know, a high percentage of people that the compromise will come across are being vaccinated and act as a shield around them. So herd immunity works best when you’re around nine percent of the population is vaccinated. And in many places where active vaccine activists congregate and where these exemptions are available, vaccination rates are far lower than what is necessary for herd immunity. We’re talking 40, 50, maybe 60 percent usually, and focused in on lives, as we’ve seen in California with the measles outbreak. So vaccines only work if herd immunity is maintained. 

Those numbers are pretty staggering. How what do the numbers look like in various different parts of the United States? 

Where whereas at worst, these these it is significantly clustered. So what you do see on the West Coast, in Oregon, that’s Washington and especially a very localized bits of California. You see that often wealthy area to wealthy and highly educated. You see those very low numbers, 40 percent, 50 percent, which in fact, are lower than the vaccination rates in many parts of the developing world. 

That’s one of the interesting things, is that this is like the socioeconomics of this. Can you speak to the demographics and and socio economics of the people who are most susceptible to this kind of misinformation? 

As you say, it’s not really the poor. 

Very true. It is more so the wealthy, the well-off, very white and very highly educated where you get the effects of this misinformation out there. But it’s really available on the Internet and all those older people will go search out and do their own research and they know just enough to not know what they don’t know. So, you know, these well-off people who can also afford to forego vaccination and deal with the following consequences as opposed to, you know, the poor who need these vaccines, which are very cheap to prevent against diseases, which would be devastating from a economic and social perspective to them. 

Sarah, we often associate pseudoscience and bad science with the right in America in terms of climate change denial and belief that the universe is only 5000 years old and so on. It strikes me that this is one of those areas where sort of the liberal left dovetails nicely with the with the far right in having just slightly different but equally pernicious and dangerous suspicions of about the validity of mainstream scientific thought. 

Yeah, it’s it’s really unique in that way. And it just goes to show that we have a problem not just with the religious right in this country of distrust of science. It’s it’s not a partizan problem. It’s it’s a widespread problem in the US that we are not putting policies that are evidence and science based first and that we are privileging myths and misinformation before actual public safety. 

At the end of the day, though, of course, policies are driven by populations and voters will ultimately determine the kinds of policies that they want put in place. So part of this battle is presumably not just a legislative one. How do we change the hearts and minds? 

Well, here’s the thing that’s interesting is that a majority of Americans actually do support vaccines. 

And the people that we’re talking about are a minority. They’re just a very vocal and well-funded minority. And the problem is that the pro vaccine movement is suffering from what I would call the tragedy of the silent majority, where, you know, everyone’s like, yeah, I support vaccines, but they’re not the ones calling the legislators. And when the entire vaccine movement is very, very good at doing is packing a room, when there’s a hearing on a vaccine bill, you will see hundreds of anti VAX parents who, again, because they’re upper middle class, typically they can afford to maybe take a day off work and get that red shirt that everybody else is wearing and stormed the Capitol. They’re the ones that are losing these offices with phone calls and emails. And what that signals to legislators is, wow, these are the people who are paying attention to what I’m doing. 

And these are people who will show up on Election Day if I, you know, don’t vote the way they want them, maybe it’ll cost me my seat. But the truth of the matter is that the majority of of people actually do support repealing the vaccine exemptions or just, you know, more science and evidence based. Policies, but they’re not the ones that are making the phone calls and writing the letters and showing up. So it’s not really actually up to us to win the hearts and minds because the hearts minds are there. It’s turning them from a silent majority into a vocal majority, letting legislators know that if they take the lead on repealing medical vaccine exemptions, they do have the backing of the community. 

Well, yeah. I’m not sure that, Sarah, because I totally take your point when it comes to the people who are who are extreme anti vaccines. They are in a minority. 

But it was probably helpful to think about the entire population as a series of kind of concentric circles of quasi science and suspicion of vaccines. Right. Because although you’ve got that minority of extremely ardent anti vaccines, I do feel like there’s a larger population of people who are sort of who sort of take the Bill Marr view, which is sure, vaccines work and vaccines are generally safe. And smallpox vaccine is awesome and polio vaccine worked. But we we simply don’t understand all of the dangers that might be associated with the annual flu shot. And with the increase in the in the rapidity and the number of vaccines that we give to kids. So we should just be take on the precautionary principle and stagger them out a bit more and maybe skip a few here and there. 

And I think that population is one that is that is worth reckoning with. No. 

I think that hesitancy is definitely a little more widespread than we’d like, but the people who are just in the camp of I support vaccines, but I have questions and I’m not sure about having them at all at once. I think for the most part, when those kind of people meet with their doctor and ask those questions, those those worries are generally dispelled, which is why it’s so important, not only just to those, you know, the educational component of this. It’s not just repealing non medical vaccine exemptions. It’s also working with the medical medical community to explain to people why the vaccine schedule is very well thought out by the nation’s top experts and that you should listen to your your pediatrician, not Donald Trump or Jenny McCarthy when it comes to not just the vaccine, having vaccines, getting vaccinated in the first place, but also sticking to the schedule. That is very well thought out. 

And if I could jump in, I think that that misplaced precautionary principle gets at one of the broader reasons why people don’t vaccinate, even if they haven’t particularly, you know, thought, thought been confronted with the conspiracy theories. And that is really just this general sense of complacency. That is really an honest luxury. These people aren’t surrounded by vaccine preventable diseases anymore or Kupferberg precisely because vaccination has been so effective. So be in many senses. This is very much just about a historical amnesia. And there’s some interesting polling data that Pew put out in February showing a breakdown by age. So overall, 68 percent of Americans support mandatory childhood vaccination, as Sarah said. But the younger an American is, the less likely they are to support mandatory child vaccination. So 41 percent of 18 to 29 year olds think it should be left up to personal choice and not mandated. But only twenty three percent of 50 to 64 year olds and only 20 percent of those 65 and above think there should be left up to personal choice. So I think it’s that historical amnesia. When you know your uncle, your friend who doesn’t have a limp from polio, you’ve never seen a cousin or a friend suffer whooping cough. You’re honestly ignorant, but in a very unfortunate or a very fortunate way, you don’t think much of the work for activists to do is to simply remind people of that awful past. 

Some activists or other pro vaccine groups have even started interviewing and engaging grandparents who know very well what these vaccine preventable diseases can do when they are allowed to run rampant. 

Maybe. So I jumped into. I just wanted to clarify. I hesitate to use the phrase mandatory vaccines because it makes it seem like every single person, you know, there’s going to have you’re going to have someone break down your door and force you to have a vaccine if you don’t have one. And that’s not the case. And that’s what I think people pick there when they hear mandatory. And the reason we’re talking about nonmedical vaccine exemptions is, is because we’re talking about exemptions to the rules, which varies from state to state. Who needs to be vaccinated? And very often what this applies to is school children and medical providers and in some cases child care workers as well. So we’re not talking about we’re just talking about places where people cluster often in places like public schools, where everyone know all the children are going to be there. They have to be there. And therefore, those have to be safe environments. And I think that’s an important distinction to make because people do have the option. If they really do feel, you know, despite talking to a doctor, despite being presented with the evidence, that they really do feel that their child is more at risk by being vaccinated than not vaccinated. And then they can homeschool, but they don’t have the right to send them to a public school where all other children are going to be, including children with medical exemptions. So I just wanted to clarify that, because I think a term mandatory vaccines can really conjure up this totalitarian image of every single man, woman and child must be vaccinated and you’ll be forced to if you don’t want to. That’s not the case. And it depends state by state what these exemptions apply to. But just keep that in mind when you use that phrase. 

Yep. That’s worth pointing out other any states that are doing it right. Already? 

Well, West Virginia and Mississippi have never had nonmedical vaccine exemptions on the books. And as of this summer, thanks to the extra efforts of the Secular Coalition for California and Center for Inquiries branch over there as part of the working with vaccinate California Californians, now only three of all the states and Washington, D.C. to have no no medical vaccine exemptions on the books. 

It’s interesting, isn’t it, because California, you wouldn’t normally put in the same basket as Mississippi and West Virginia when it comes to enlightenment with regard to children in science? 

That’s right. 

I do think that’s a bit where you get the socioeconomic overlap. Both Mississippi in West Virginia. 

In mid century, we’re hit with awful outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases, so they know they knew to keep those laws around to solidify those laws because their populations were incredibly vulnerable to things that weren’t easily prevented. 

And that’s what’s really upsetting about this, is that it took. It really seems like it took an outbreak in California to mobilize people. And we’re trying to we don’t want to wait until there’s an outbreak in a state to prevent it. Looking at those three states and why they don’t have that vaccine exemptions anymore, it’s important to know to anyone who’s listening. Don’t wait until there’s an outbreak in your state. Take action now. So that never has to infect your community. 

I mean, that might be a small silver lining of all of this. I know that there was a video, a viral video that I saw on social media from Australia. And this is a big problem in the UK and in pockets of the UK and Australia as well. And as you say, demographically and socioeconomically, it’s usually from communities from Middle-Class Hippie oriented communities who who are all about the granola and the coconut oil. And there was a tragic case of a child with with whooping cough. And it was just such a heartbreaking video. But it did go viral. And I think it probably swayed a lot of people’s minds about whether or not the risk of vaccinating their kids was worth the risk of enduring a disease. Quite as horrifying as that one. So that may be a small silver lining when it does come up. Sara, can you just talk to us briefly about the bill on the California governor’s desk regarding crisis pregnancy centers, these religious non medical institutions that masquerade as being pregnancy centers and they’re actually anti-abortion clinics. 

Yes. So it’s called the Reproductive Fact Act. And among a few other things are a few good things about the bill. But the one thing that we really like about the bill is that it basically just requires a basic sense of transparency. You know, a lot of people who ends up in crisis pregnancy centers don’t know. They don’t know where where they are. They don’t know that the crisis pregnancy center is not going to offer them the services that they came there for, which is most often in abortion. Women who are in a desperate situation where, you know, they maybe they can’t afford to have another child. Maybe they already have several children. Whether they can’t support them financially or they they are at a high risk, say it’s a high risk pregnancy. Women who are in a desperate situation, they see the words crisis pregnancy center. Of course, they’re gonna go there, but they might not necessarily know that they’re not going to get the services they want. And what these what these crisis pregnancy centers are doing is actually giving women false information. They tell them things like, oh, getting an abortion will put you at risk of breast cancer. They think they feed them actual lives that have no basis in evidence or science to dissuade them from getting the abortion. And in some cases, you know, even if even if women are know well enough to not believe those lies and still trying to seek the abortion, there have been cases where these crisis pregnancy centers will just delay them and delay them. DeLay. They won’t tell them we don’t offer abortions here. They’ll just use other tactics and delay the women until they actually can’t get an abortion anymore. So what they’re really designed to do is to prevent women from getting abortions and to carry their pregnancies to term with no regard for the individual woman’s actual wishes and her situation. And they offer all kinds of support, some of which, you know, they provide they might have them, you know, set them up with an adoption center. But, you know, I I’ve read some anecdotal cases of women who are affected by them. And they were really, you know, one woman was talking about how they very much over promise. She expect she expected a lot more financial help because a big problem for her was she knew she couldn’t afford another child. And now she’s in a really tough situation. So the bill would require crisis pregnancy centers to be transparent about who they are and to let women who come in know that they cannot receive abortion services there and to refer these women to the services they’re actually looking for. And they have to disclose that they are not doctors. I’ve read that there are cases where in crisis pregnancy centers, they’ll they’ll wear a white lab coat so they don’t say I’m Dr. So-and-so. But you can you know, they’re pretty much masquerading as medical providers when in fact, they’re just volunteers who are anti choice. 

They’re literally playing dress up with with with white gowns bought at a Halloween party costume store. 

So congratulations on California, obviously, for passing that. I mean, sorry, I’m not proposing that yet, but passing the. The exemption. The ban on it. No medical exemptions for vaccines. What what should we be doing as part of the kid’s first campaign to make sure that other states follow suit? 

Well, I think certainly be talking to friends and relatives and vaccine beliefs and things sort of, you know, transmit along very social lines. It’s huge on the Internet and you’re on social media. So first off, go educate yourselves. Check out your issues. Put kids first. Forum also the Center for Inquiry or keep health care safe and secular program that we’ve had around for a while. We are partnering with SEIU. So definitely check out our Web sites, safe and Secular Dawid. We’ve been chronicling the anti vaccine battle for a couple of years now and see. We’ll get on both of our groups mailing lists and see what’s coming up in your states and what’s coming up at the federal level. There are bills being proposed all the time. Both of our organizations are doing our best to highlight them and engage our members to contact the representatives nationwide. 

I also encourage all listeners to on secular dot org slash put kids first. 

We’ll see where our campaign states are if you are in a put kids first campaign state. We need volunteers. We need people to sign up to share their story to explain why they support nonmedical vaccine exemptions. And when you share your story, you can also opt in to be contacted later to meet with your legislator or to make phone calls. And this is really important because as I mentioned before, the biggest challenge we face is turning the silent majority into a into a vocal one. And so when we’re lobbying for bills to repeal nonmedical vaccine exemptions, we need to make sure that if a legislator is on the fence, we need to convince them that they’re that the constituents in. Support it, then we’ll have your information and we can call you and say, hey, it’s really important that you call this office today or tomorrow and let them know that you support this effort. So go to sector dot org. Such put kids first. If you’re in a campaign state, make sure that you sign up for the vaccine action alerts. Share your story. And if you happen to be a secular organizer, if you have a local group, we have four chapters are going out and doing presentations on this issue and educating the secular community about the issue. So you can contact Pook at first at Cycler dot org and request that a chaplain come to your group and speak to the group. 

And you know, of course, we are a nonprofit as the Center for Inquiry, operating on private donations. So if you don’t have the time and any gift you’re willing to give helps us make this possible. 

That is Ciccolo dot org slash put kids first. Sarah, live in it big. Thanks so much for filling us in on it. Good to talk to you. Thank you. Thank you. 

Josh Zepps

Josh Zepps

An Australian media personality, political satirist, actor, and TV show host. He lives in Brooklyn, New York. He was a founding host for HuffPost Live.