Capitol Alert

Religion complicates California vaccine debate

With measles breaking out in California, democratic Sen. Richard Pan of Sacramento, at podium, and Ben Allen of Santa Monica, far left, introduce legislation that would end California's vaccine exemption loophole during a press conference on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2015 in Sacramento, Calif. Passing of the bill would eliminate the ability for parents of school children to opt out of vaccinating their kids based on a personal belief.
With measles breaking out in California, democratic Sen. Richard Pan of Sacramento, at podium, and Ben Allen of Santa Monica, far left, introduce legislation that would end California's vaccine exemption loophole during a press conference on Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2015 in Sacramento, Calif. Passing of the bill would eliminate the ability for parents of school children to opt out of vaccinating their kids based on a personal belief.

Nick Johansen arrived at a Capitol hearing on vaccinations last week carrying a Bible.

Johansen, who said he hasn’t yet decided whether to vaccinate his 10-month-old daughter Savannah, argued government shouldn’t impose a reverence for science over his faith in God.

Senate Bill 277, a bitterly contested California bill eliminating the state’s personal belief exemption for vaccines, doesn’t apply just to parents who believe they are dangerous. It also would eliminate parents’ ability to skip vaccinations for religious reasons.

In what Johansen described as an affirmation of his faith, his daughter has overcome severe medical issues. He considers her survival miraculous and warned SB 277 would harm devout Californians like him.

“When you’re saying healing power can only come from man, from man’s science, that takes away from what I believe: that God heals,” said Johansen, a Hayward resident who works in real estate. “I have seen God’s miracles, and when you ask me to choose that I put your beliefs above mine, that is a fundamental point where I cannot do that.”

Most states allow for a religious vaccine exemption. Since California does not have a religious exemption distinct from the personal belief exemption, doing away with the personal belief exemption, as SB 277 would do, also would bar parents from invoking religion to skip shots.

Some legislators are urging SB 277’s authors to reconsider. The bill faltered at its last hearing amid concerns that unvaccinated children would be denied a public education, but skeptical legislators also suggested a compromise that preserves a religious consideration.

“This is something we have to look at because that’s important for some individuals or families, and they have strong opposition based on their religious beliefs,” Sen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino, said in an interview. “That’s what our country is based on, religious freedom.”

Gov. Jerry Brown has indicated he is sympathetic to that notion. In signing a 2012 bill that required parents to consult with a physician before obtaining an exemption, Brown directed the Department of Public Health to exempt “people whose religious beliefs preclude vaccinations” from needing to get a physician’s signature.

In response to a question about the governor’s stance on SB 277, a spokesman for Brown said “the governor believes that vaccinations are profoundly important and a major public health benefit and any bill that reaches his desk will be closely considered.”

In West Virginia and Mississippi, the debate has been settled in favor of the government mandating vaccines for students. They are the only states in the nation that allow neither religious nor personal belief exemptions, and officials praise the resulting high immunization rates as an effective safeguard against disease outbreaks.

“This is a public health issue, not a personal right issue,” said Dr. Rahul Gupta, West Virginia’s state health officer. “When you do immunize your child, it protects the child, the family and the community.”

Legal challenges to those laws have repeatedly collapsed. Bills to create a religious exemption in Mississippi have failed, following the course of a 1979 state Supreme Court decision that unequivocally elevated public health above personal belief.

“The protection of the great body of school children attending the public schools in Mississippi against the horrors of crippling and death” is paramount, the decision read, and “to the extent that it may conflict with the religious beliefs of a parent, however sincerely entertained, the interests of the school children must prevail.”

Religious objectors make up a small subset of California’s vaccine defectors. According to the California Department of Public Health, religious beliefs were cited for just 0.35 percent of schoolchildren, a fraction of the 2.67 percent of children who secured personal belief exemptions.

Few religious doctrines expressly forbid vaccines. According to a survey of religious beliefs conducted by an executive at the vaccine manufacturer Merck, only Christian Science rejects vaccines outright.

“Most religions accept the science of the day,” said Thomas McCormick, a senior lecturer emeritus in bioethics at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

Public health officials and experts note the difficulty of confirming a legitimate religious objection to vaccines. If there is no religious text or injunction barring vaccines, they argue, it becomes difficult to separate religion from personal beliefs. Courts have deemed unconstitutional requiring someone to attest to his or her religion.

“I am very glad we don’t have religious exemptions,” said Dr. Mary Currier, Mississippi’s state health officer. “I think in a lot of states they are used as a means to get philosophical exemptions, in fact.”

Some Christians refuse vaccination because cells from aborted human fetuses were used to provide the cell cultures used to grow some vaccines. Vaccines themselves do not contain fetal tissue. The National Catholic Bioethics Center has concluded that the parental imperative to “protect the life and health of their children” means they are “morally free to use the vaccine regardless of its historical association with abortion.”

That has not convinced everyone.

“I was a big advocate for being pro-life, and then as a mother I started to vaccinate my kids not knowing there was human aborted fetal tissue in the making of the vaccine. So I was deceived,” said Lois Negrete of Pasadena, who stopped vaccinating her children years ago.

Because human or animal cells are used to manufacture some vaccines, immunization conflicts with Katherine Havener’s determination to honor what she called the “sanctity of life both human and animal.” Havener turns to prayer before medicine. Rather than adhere to one organized religion, her family draws religious beliefs from the tenets of multiple faiths, including Christianity, Christian Science and Buddhism.

“We live a vegetarian, vegan lifestyle, and I don’t want to be forced to inject those kinds of substances into my children,” said Havener, who lives in Mountain House with her four daughters. “I believe we have the right to choose what we put into our children’s bodies.”

Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.

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