The recent media spotlight on fetal tissue donation has exposed a new inroad to petitioning for school vaccine exemptions: One’s pro-life beliefs. (Photo: Getty Images)
A New York City woman recently won her petition to receive an exemption for having her child receive the measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccine required for enrollment in New York City schools, claiming that her religious beliefs — and anti-abortion stance — prevented her from being able to allow for her child to receive the vaccine.
The MMR vaccine is one of many critical vaccines developed from fetal tissue research. The headlines over the past two months surrounding Planned Parenthood and the Center for Medical Progress’ widely discredited “sting” videos accusing them of failure to comply with federal fetal tissue donation regulations have pushed questions regarding fetal tissue-based biomedical research to the forefront — with much attention centering on the fact that most fetal tissue used for such research is donated as a result of abortion.
The woman, who is Russian Orthodox, claims that she opposes abortion on religious grounds, and that using a vaccine developed with fetal tissue procured from abortions
“Abortion is clearly considered a mortal sin and is [an] abhorrent act to any Christian,” the mom said in her pitch for exemption, according to the New York Post. “The vaccine manufacturers’ use of aborted fetal cells in its products and research means that I cannot associate with them or support them financially (by buying their products), for such support would make me complicit to their sin and answerable to God for this violation.”
While the New York State Department of Education Commissioner Mary Ellen Elia noted in her response to the appeal for exemption that the woman’s “assertion that she objects to all immunizations regardless of their use of human fetal tissue does undercut her reliance on a religious objection based on a linkage to the use of aborted fetal tissue,” she nonetheless concluded that “the weight of the evidence supports petitioner’s contentions that her opposition to the MMR vaccine stems from sincerely held religious beliefs.”
That is, Elia’s decision was ultimately based on the mother’s religious opposition to abortion.
“I think this decision is just one can in a crate of a can of worms that have been opened since the Hobby Lobby decision,” says Sharon Levin, the Director of Federal Reproductive Health Policies at the National Women’s Law Center. “The woman in New York is not the first to argue that her child should not have to comply with the vaccination requirements because of religion.”
Levin notes that “the danger of these exemptions for vaccinations is that one person is making a decision that impacts the health of other people’s children. Vaccination regulations are put into place to protect public health. When one person opts-out, they are making a decision for everyone else who comes into contact with their child.”
Continues Levin, “As a general matter, where opting out of a legal requirement puts people at risk or creates third-party harm, [exemptions] shouldn’t be allowed. The reason we allow people in this country to have exemptions for religious beliefs is so they don’t get their rights taken away — but they don’t get to take other people’s rights away” as a result. “Vaccination is a perfect example of this,” she says, “If we allow people to opt-out of vaccination, it puts other people’s children at risk.”
It was Hobby Lobby’s desire to opt-out of the Affordable Care Act mandate regarding certain forms of birth control coverage that opened the door for vaccination exemptions just like the one granted in New York.
The National Women’s Law Center report “The Hobby Lobby ‘Minefield’: The Harm, Misuse, and Expansion of the Supreme Court Decision” takes its name from Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s line in her dissenting opinion on the Hobby Lobby case that “The Court, I fear, has ventured into a minefield.” The report points to examples ranging from a federal judge holding that a witness did not have to testify in a child labor case to The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Association of Evangelicals, and three other organizations refusing to provide sexually abused child refugees with the full range of health services to men being arguing that they should be dismissed from kidnapping charges of a woman seeking a divorce — all in the name of religious exemptions to current laws.
Related: Birth Control Coverage Now Guaranteed for All — Despite Religious Exemptions
Meanwhile, Assemblyman Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-Bronx) has proposed legislation that would eliminate religious exemptions such as these — in New York City, and, he hopes, ultimately New York state.
Presently, only three states have legislation that prevents religious exemptions for vaccinations for school attendance: California, Mississippi, and West Virginia.
Mississippi has the highest vaccination rate for school-age children in the country, with 99.7 percent of the state’s kindergartners being fully vaccinated.
“I don’t know this woman, so I certainly am not going to judge her, but generally speaking, many of the people who ask for exemptions for religious reason just don’t want their kids to be vaccinated,” Dinowitz tells Yahoo Health. “The religious reason is just an excuse — and that’s exactly the reason why I introduced legislation to put an end to religious exemptions. We should only have exemptions for medical reasons.”
New York City has an excellent vaccination rate for school-age children: 98 percent of children in the public school system receive the eight vaccines that are mandatory for school enrollment. But, there are still 177 schools in the city are in the “warning” zone or fall below the World Health Organization’s (WHO) standards for achieving herd immunity (or, requiring 83 to 94 percent vaccination rates).
A report published last week in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR) found that only 1.7 percent of kindergartners receive vaccine exemptions nationally (compared to the less than 0.1 percent in Mississippi — and 6.5 percent in Idaho, the highest in the nation).
And yet, says Dinowitz, “We still have a significant number of schools in New York where the non-vaccination rate is below where the CDC believes is safe to create herd immunity….The science on vaccines is settled. This is not a controversy. This is settled science, just like the Earth being round. Vaccines save lives.”
Furthermore, Dinowitz believes that the claim of anti-abortion beliefs being used as a reason for vaccination exemption is illogical, at best.
“People have the right to be anti-abortion,” he says. “That’s their belief. But that’s not enough reason to put their own child and other children in danger. That shouldn’t be enough for an exemption.”
“I think it’s absurd, personally, that the abortion debate has entered in any way, shape or form into the conversation around vaccinations. There should be no connection between the two. People who claim they are pro-life should act that way,” continues Dinowitz.
And emphasizes Levin, “Both because of the public health concern and the general attempt to expand what a person can get out of claiming religious exemption, we find this decision very disturbing — and others should as well.”
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