Weeks of lobbying and hours of protest by vociferous groups of “anti-vaxxers” helped delay Monday’s planned vote by the New Jersey Senate on a sensible and necessary bill to eliminate the state’s long-standing faith-based exemption from common pediatric vaccinations. Supporters said they’ll try again before the legislature’s lame-duck session concludes on Jan. 14, 2020.
The N.J. Assembly approved its version of the bill by a comfortable margin Monday, and Gov. Phil Murphy said Tuesday he intends to be guided by science showing immunization’s efficacy and safety. Let’s hope the governor gets the opportunity to sign a bill as soon as possible because the spread of the spurious anti-vaccination gospel is putting public health at risk. And the true believers chanting, praying, and taunting lawmakers in Trenton Monday seem unlikely to be deterred, despite the dozen cases of measles earlier this year in Ocean County.
The fervor among some who profess more faith in mythology than medicine may well be sincere, and parental desire to protect children from harm is understandable. But this particular harm is imaginary. A 1998 medical journal story that seeded fake news and fear about vaccinations being somehow connected to autism spectrum disorders has been thoroughly debunked.
Social media and various minor celebrities have nonetheless helped sustain a movement of sorts among people who believe they have a right to endanger the health not only of their own children but their children’s classmates and entire communities as well. “Herd” immunity, which serves to protect children and adults who cannot be inoculated for medical reasons — an exemption that will remain after the religious exemption is eliminated — requires a minimum vaccination rate of 93%.
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Senate President Steve Sweeney told statehouse reporters he didn’t believe legislators were “panicked” by the dramatic demonstration. But while mainstream faiths do not object to vaccinations, a few individual ultra-Orthodox rabbis in New Jersey and New York have expressed reservations, and politicians often fear being perceived as supporting government infringement on religious beliefs or practices.
Respect for religion is fine, but obeisance to articles of faith on the political fringe is another matter entirely. “They [opponents] have no science upon which to base their ideas and there is no religion that bans giving vaccinations,” State Sen. Loretta Weinberg, one of the bill’s sponsors, told Politico.
In June, New York ended religious exemptions, and if approved, New Jersey’s measure would make the state one of just six in the nation to offer only medical exemptions. It would also apply to higher education students. Supporters said they are not actively seeking amendments but rather will work to educate their colleagues and the public.
There are reasonable questions to ask about this legislative proposal; Assembly Minority Leader Jon Bramnick raised concerns about a reporting requirement and whether the measure passed by the lower house is “overly broad.” Parents with questions deserve a respectful hearing and respectful answers, as well.
But Sweeney has vowed to secure passage of the religious exemption ban. Let’s hope the Senate’s case of cold feet Monday wasn’t a fatal blow.