New York Ends Religious Exemptions for Vaccinations, Sparking Heated Debate

Twenty20

Child getting vaccinated
Twenty20

On Thursday, New York lawmakers approved legislation to end religious exemptions for vaccinations in school-aged children in a 77-43 vote, which was passed by the State Senate just hours later by a 36-26 margin. It comes after nearly a year of growing measles outbreaks in upstate New York and New York City, as well as mounting concern on the part of public health officials. The move is considered by many to be a drastic yet necessary measure to protect the spread of what has become the largest outbreak of its kind in more than 25 years -- but it hasn't come without much debate.

  • According to the Buffalo News, the first vote came after a "contentious debate," during which shouting protestors could be heard from the balcony.

    Many of those anti-vaxx protestors were said to be parents, who passionately spoke out against the measure and "erupted in a storm" as their children sat beside them in strollers.

    The second vote, which was passed by the State Senate, reportedly went through with decidedly less tension. 

    Currently, parents in New York state are permitted to fill out a form to declare any religious opposition to vaccines, which then leaves the decision up to school or day care administrators, who can make the call as to whether they can attend. 

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  • This came to a head earlier this year, when the growing measles outbreak in Rockland County, New York, forced officials to make a drastic call.

    In March, 42 unvaccinated children were banned from returning to Green Meadow Waldorf School, a private school for children in grades K-12. All 42 of the children had received religious exemptions, and the concern was that their attendance would threaten herd immunity, which can only be maintained if 90 to 95% of a population is vaccinated.

    That same month, the unvaccinated were also temporarily banned from entering public spaces such as schools, malls, and other indoor gathering places -- and those found in violation would face a $500 fine.

    Officials admitted the decision was not made lightly but out of concern for public health and safety, as the county has continued to battle an alarming measles outbreak that doesn't seem to be letting up any time soon.

    "We're not punishing the people who are doing the right thing already and following the rules," John Lyon, director of strategic communications for the County Executive Ed Day, said at the time. "We just want to encourage everyone to do the right thing so we can stop this outbreak."

    That said, Lyon admitted the move was "extremely unusual" and may in fact be the first of its kind in America -- but that officials are doing everything in their power to try to contain the outbreak.

  • Measles cases in Rockland County alone have reached 225 so far, but it's also become a growing public health crisis in pockets of New York City.

    New York state declared a public health emergency in April after outbreaks were reported in several sections of Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods in Brooklyn, where vaccination rates are considered dangerously low. To date, the borough has 285 reported cases of measles.

    "We cannot allow this dangerous disease to make a comeback here in New York City," Mayor Bill de Blasio declared at a news conference. "We have to stop it now. We have a situation now where children are in danger. We have to take this seriously."

  • And so, on Thursday, state lawmakers did -- prompting both praise and outcry from the public.

    Many people applauded the move, saying it was long overdue. 

    "Good on you, New York!" tweeted one person.

    "Yes!! This is biological terrorism," wrote another. "A child has better luck living through a school bombing than a few unvaxxed kids."

    "Their beliefs shouldn't be forced on others, especially when lives are at stake," tweeted another. "If their beliefs are that strong let them all set up a private community that doesn't interact with the general public. Problem solved."

    "VACCINATIONS ARE A PUBLIC HEALTH ISSUE," added one woman. "They are not a matter of opinion nor a matter of religion. Thank you NY for passing legislation to end religious exemptions and mandate vaccines."

  • In fact, when digging a little deeper, the question over why vaccinations were ever tied to religion is indeed perplexing.

    According to the New York Times, a 2012 research study proved there was "virtually no canonical basis for vaccine avoidance among the world's major religions."

    Since the first vaccine was invented (for smallpox) in the late 18th century, rabbis have actually "repeatedly stressed the importance of protecting children through vaccination," the NYT reports. But "religious waivers provide cover to those who resist vaccines simply because they chose to question established science."

  • Much of that has to do with the infamous -- and now discredited -- 1997 study by Andrew Wakefield, which fraudulently linked vaccines to autism.

    The wide hysteria stirred up by the now-debunked study -- which remains the only one that ever made such claims -- continues to fuel vaccine hesitancy to this day.

    In reality, countless more studies have definitively proven that vaccines can and do prevent the spread of contagious diseases, and do not cause autism. Vaccine-preventable diseases are often life-threatening for the young, elderly, and immunocompromised. 

    Still, a body of skepticism remains -- and many anti-vaxxers were quick to speak up after Thursday's vote, calling it a violation of religious freedoms.

    "Nothing to see here ... just history repeating itself," tweeted one woman. "New York lost religious freedom in regard to vaccine exemptions today. This is not for public health. This is an attack on freedom and we should all be paying …"

    "I believe in vaccines, but the fact that the government can force you to put something in you or your child's body is absolutely insane," wrote another. "How can any pro-choice supporter back this?  Directly opposes any my body, my choice positions."

  • Although the vote may be making waves now, New York actually isn't the first state to make this move.

    In May, Maine also did away with allowing religious exemptions for schoolchildren, joining Mississippi and West Virginia. And several years ago, California outlawed them too -- reportedly, with amazing results. That state, however, now has been struggling to control the medical exemptions that have increased as a result, as anti-vaxx parents seek a loophole around it.

    In New York, medical exemptions will still be allowed on a case by case basis, but officials have vowed to closely monitor doctor’s offices and medical facilities to ensure they aren't abused.

    “We can regulate the medical profession and make certain doctors aren’t selling exemptions to parents," said Senator Brad Hoylman, who sponsored the measure in the State Senate, according to the Buffalo News.

    "The science is crystal clear: Vaccines are safe, effective and the best way to keep our children safe," New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Thursday. "This administration has taken aggressive action to contain the measles outbreak, but given its scale, additional steps are needed to end this public health crisis."

    In the end, Thursday's vote will do nothing to eradicate the cases that already have occurred, but the hope in containing the outbreak is strong -- as is the desire to convey just how dire the situation has become.