Banning vaccine decisions in deciding parental rights

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Mar. 1—CONCORD — A parent's refusal to have their child vaccinated could not be grounds for terminating parental rights, under legislation that narrowly cleared a key House panel Tuesday.

State Rep. Josh Yokela (R-Fremont) said the bill, HB 1280, would prevent vaccination from being raised in court proceedings on parental rights.

"Even if it is not the current practice, I would support making sure it doesn't happen in the future," Yokela told the House Children and Family Law Committee.

Rep. Cody Belanger (R-Epping) said he had heard of a case when a parent's vaccine decision had come up in review on the care of a child under review of the Division of Children, Youth and Families.

But Rep. Patrick Long (D-Manchester) warned this bill would change long-term practice in domestic law.

A judge typically grants one parent primary control over a child's health care decisions, but this bill would allow either parent to refuse to let a child be vaccinated, Long said.

"There are often times when parents don't agree. I am not sure how that would be handled," Long said.

The committee endorsed the bill, 8-7, with all Democrats opposed.

'More than once'

Rep. Wendy Chase (D-Rollinsford) questioned the need for the bill.

"This idea of children being taken away because of a parent's refusal to support a vaccine, how often does this happen?" Chase said.

Rep. Debra DeSimone (R-Atkinson) acting chairman of the panel, answered, "According to the records, it has happened more than once and, as far as I'm concerned, that is too many times."

Rep. Marjorie Smith (D-Durham) said this action ran counter to the committee's long-standing record of not making changes in child and family law without plenty of justification for it.

"This committee has been unbelievable over the years in the rights of parents in an intact marriage and balancing the rights when marriages are no longer intact," Smith said.

Yokela said he would consider offering an amendment that would address Long's objection to it in divorce cases, but Long said that wasn't enough.

"I would be more comfortable with that deletion, but I still oppose the bill," said Long, the ranking Democrat on the panel.

Yokela said he may still offer the change as a floor amendment when it comes to the full House later this spring.

Smith said she had hoped the panel would have voted to send the bill off to interim study, which would require the issue to start over as a new legislation in 2023.

Rep. Richard Littlefield (R-Laconia) said the measure should have received the support of everyone on the committee.

"I can't believe seven Democrats would be OK with terminating parental rights over a flu vaccination," Littlefield said after the vote. "Nothing would start conflict quicker than snatching children away from parents over a yearly flu season. Am I surprised by their decision? Absolutely not!"

Rep. Terry Roy (R-Deerfield) authored the bill. Roy played a major role in 2021 on legislation attached to the two-year state budget that gave the Legislature more of a role in dealing with future states of emergency.

In 2021, the Republican-led Legislature also passed a 2021 medical freedom act (HB 220) that banned the state, any county or community from requiring proof of vaccination to access a government building or receive any government benefit.