Why these 'anti-vaxxers' are holding their ground: 'It's about fundamental rights'

Beth Greenfield
·Senior Editor
This picture, taken on April 5, 2019, shows a man being interviewed by local media after receiving a free vaccine at the Rockland County Health Department in New York. A measles outbreak in the area has sickened scores of people and caused the county to bar unvaccinated minors in public places. The ban was stopped in court on Friday later this same day. (Photo: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)
A man being interviewed by local media after receiving a free vaccine at the Rockland County Health Department in New York. A measles outbreak in the area has sickened scores of people and caused the county to bar unvaccinated minors in public places. The ban was stopped in court on Friday later this same day. (Photo: JOHANNES EISELE/AFP/Getty Images)

“In our society, human freedom is being challenged provocatively at every level,” said civil-rights attorney Michael Sussman on Saturday, a day after winning a preliminary injunction against an emergency order in Rockland County, NY, which had aimed to ban unvaccinated minors from public spaces in the face of a measles outbreak.

“For me, the context of this particular struggle is metaphoric with what’s happening across the country…,” said Sussman, laying out many details of the case after he successfully argued that the county’s use of executive law 24 — intended to incur curfews or bans in situations of violent rioting or “radiological disaster” — was improper. The parties are due back in court on April 19.

Sussman received a hero’s welcome on Saturday at the Doubletree in Newark, NJ, where a crowd about 100 strong had gathered for “Cornerstones of Freedom,” a daylong conference aimed at parents against mandatory vaccination.

(Update: On Monday, two days after the conference, the story continued in New York City, which declared a public health emergency in the face of 285 measles cases confirmed since October, requiring MMR vaccinations for all individuals within certain zip codes. A warning from the city’s health department noted that, while there have been no deaths related to the outbreak, there have been complications, including 21 hospitalizations. “Measles is a dangerous, potentially deadly disease that can easily be prevented with vaccine,” warned Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services Dr. Herminia Palacio. “When people choose not to get their children vaccinated, they are putting their children and others — such as pregnant women, people on chemotherapy, and the elderly — at risk of contracting measles.” In response, Sussman announced on Apr. 10 that he would be filing a lawsuit on behalf of Brooklyn parents, for what he called “an overreach of authority.” )

Photo: Beth Greenfield
Appearing at the "Cornerstones of Freedom" conference in Newark, NJ, on Apr. 6 were, from left, attorneys Michael Sussman, Mary Holland and Patricia Finn. (Photo: Beth Greenfield)

Sussman showed up as a surprise guest on Saturday, joining a lineup of speakers including vaccine-skeptic pediatricians, such as Lawrence Pavlevsky of Long Island; a mother whose daughter died (after receiving compensation from the government) from a severe vaccine injury; and other attorneys and activists who discussed, among other issues, the recent barring of certain vaccine searches, groups and films from Pinterest, Facebook and Amazon. (You can watch the full conference here.)

They gathered in spite of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) addressing the issues of vaccine injuries and safety in many ways, including with the following statement: “The United States’ long-standing vaccine safety program closely and constantly monitors the safety of vaccines. A critical part of the program, CDC’s Immunization Safety Office identifies possible vaccine side effects and conducts studies to determine whether health problems are caused by vaccines. Data show that the current U.S. vaccine supply is the safest in history.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics also stresses, “Vaccines are safe. Vaccines are effective. Vaccines save lives.”

So why do some parents continue to rally around the idea of not vaccinating, and what drew them to Saturday’s convention? Several in attendance shared with Yahoo Lifestyle that the event, organized by religious- and civil-rights nonprofit First Freedoms and IPAK (the Institute for Pure and Applied Knowledge), which performs “scientific research in the public interest,” according to its website, felt like a relief amidst the increasingly vitriolic climate between parents who do and do not vaccinate their children.

“I’ve been literally sick to my stomach, and today I feel like I’m in a safe space,” a New Jersey mother of two who was there with her husband (both of whom requested anonymity), told Yahoo Lifestyle. She said that she’d always been cautious about vaccines, spacing them out more than the CDC recommends. “I always felt I was bringing my kids to the slaughter,” she said. When her son developed a range of food allergies the day after having vaccinations at age 3, she said, they stopped them altogether, eventually opting for a religious exemption.

“I never knew there were aborted fetal cells, and I’m not OK with that,” she said, referring to the fact that some vaccinations, including the MMR, are cultured with cells lines (called WI-38) originally obtained from an aborted fetus (which some Catholic ethicists have said, however, is morally acceptable compared to the risk of not vaccinating).

ITALY, TURIN, PIEDMONT - 2019/03/23: A woman holding a sign saying "No exclusions all at school" during the No Vax demonstration against mandatory vaccines. The No Vax procession with over one thousand five hundred people, including families with children from all over Italy. The reasons for the No Vax protest are many, there are those who do not want to vaccinate their children fearing dangerous side effects, the discomfort of an imposition experienced as an order by the State to vaccinate all children and also criticize pharmaceutical companies for high prices and unsafe medicines. (Photo by Stefano Guidi/LightRocket via Getty Images)
A woman held a sign saying "No exclusions all at school" during a "No Vax" demonstration against mandatory vaccines in Turin, Italy on Mar. 3, 2019, which drew over 1,500 to the streets. This was perhaps an example of what attorney Michael Sussman meant when he told attendees of an anti-vaccine conference in NJ, "you have to have a strong mass movement." (Photo: Stefano Guidi/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“We came [to this country] for religious freedom,” the mom added. “I can’t wrap my head around how they want to take that away.”

Following California’s barring of religious exemptions in 2015, other states are now attempting to follow suit — including New York, where legislators have introduced a bill that would allow medical exemptions only, claiming that religious exemptions are simply a “personal belief loophole.” A similar movement is afoot in New Jersey.

Other parents told Yahoo Lifestyle they were at the conference to find some rare support for their decision not to vaccinate their children, citing reasons both religious and medical. Some expressed concern about the long list of vaccine ingredients, from bovine serum and thimerosal to human albumin and monkey kidney cells.

The crowd gave an emotional standing ovation to Karen Kain, who had flown in from California to talk about her daughter, Lorrin, who lived to the age of 15 — after becoming blind, nonverbal, paralyzed from the neck down, and developing a seizure disorder following her shots in 1994.

Vaccine injuries are real. My life as I knew it was over,” Kain told the crowd. “I speak for those who are afraid to do so.”

Mary Holland, a New York University professor of law and research scholar, told the crowd on Saturday, “What we’re getting right now from the CDC is a joke… People should be getting real product inserts.” (Such inserts, available here, delve more deeply into contraindications and risks, however slight.)

She discussed a paper she cowrote for the Oregon Law Review in 2014 with Chase Zachary, in which she makes detailed arguments against the theory of herd immunity, which is defined by the CDC as, “A situation in which a sufficient proportion of a population is immune to an infectious disease (through vaccination and/or prior illness) to make its spread from person to person unlikely…” Holland also stressed the importance of what she calls “a fundamental right to informed consent,” which she said goes “mostly out the window” when it comes to vaccines.

After addressing the crowd, Holland told Yahoo Lifestyle, “It is socially unacceptable and politically incorrect to say bad things about black people, about women, about gay people, about transgender people. But it is socially acceptable to dump on so-called ‘anti-vaxxers.’ Maybe people just need someone to kick around. But also, our culture is very afraid of disease and very afraid of death… Fear, in and of itself, works as well as coercion.”

Sussman, longtime attorney and 2018 Green Party candidate for New York’s state attorney general, told the attendees, “I’m not a vaccination specialist,” and noted that he’s more likely to be found fighting cases against “police shootings of kids” or sexual harassment. But the Rockland County lawsuit, on behalf of several dozen parents, was a fit, he said, as he sees his role being “about vindicating rights that may be, in any given time, unpopular…Popularity is too fickle to have a constitutional regime based on it… And for me, this set of issues is about a bunch of fundamental rights.”

Sussman told the crowd, assembled in the hotel’s windowless conference room, that, after winning the injunction, various officials told him, “Please deliver the message that everyone should vaccinate.” But, he said, he is concerned with that of “informed consent,” and the existence of the Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP), better known as vaccine court, set up by Congress in 1986 to adjudicate cases of alleged injury or death and to protect vaccine manufacturers from lawsuits; it has paid out over $4 billion since its creation (with approximately 75 percent of those payouts being no-fault payments negotiated by both parties).

“We have to understand that the court caps [payouts] at $250,000 for the death of a child… We have to start seeing the connections, ladies and gentlemen,” Sussman said. “Big Pharma has to be stopped, and Big Pharma has to be regulated.” His advice to parents in the room was this: “You can’t just be in the courts. You have to have a strong mass movement… Without it, you’ll effectively be ignored.”

The “Cornerstones of Freedom” conference is scheduled to take place again, within the year, in Columbus, Ohio, followed by Seattle, Wash.

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