CFI Thinks Outside the Pox

Robyn E. Blumner

In the highly politicized vaccination wars raging in the United States right now, Ethan Lindenberger is a hero. In March, as a high school senior, the Ohio teen testified before Congress about how he defied his mother’s rabid anti-vaxxer views and started getting himself vaccinated.

Lindenberger came to understand that his mother’s views were simply wrong, and dangerously so. He testified before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions about his pathway to this truth:

Through leading my debate club, I saw there are almost universally two or more sides to every discussion. To every claim there is a counterclaim, and to every statement there was always a rebuttal. Though this may seem to be true in all instances, the scientific studies and evidence that analyze the benefits and risk of vaccinations are separate from this truth. In its essence, there is no debate. Vaccinations are proven to be a medical miracle, stopping the spread of numerous diseases and therefore saving countless lives.

Once Lindenberger turned eighteen years old, he was able to make his own healthcare decisions and started the process of catching up on the vaccinations he had been denied as a minor. Lindenberger also told Congress that no matter what evidence he brought to his mother’s attention and no matter how much proof he offered debunking her claims about a link between vaccines and autism, she would not budge. She would tell him “That’s what they want you to think.”

Yep. Welcome to our world, where facts and evidence so often fail to change entrenched beliefs.

Fighting the anti-vaxxers is the perfect Center for Inquiry (CFI) issue. By standing up for mandatory vaccinations, CFI is able to challenge a particularly potent mix of religious extremism, kooky conspiracy beliefs, the rejection of evidence-based science, and the undermining of public health.

That’s four of our top buckets of work—a superfecta!

The anti-vax movement represents a bizarre coming together of the religious Right and the Big Pharma conspiracy-theory Left. Where there are outbreak clusters you tend to see insular, religious communities, such as the Orthodox Jewish communities of Brooklyn and Rockland County, New York; or the New Age-y, alternative medicine crowd, such as in Vashon Island, Washington.

Conservative Republicans who lean libertarian have also caught this populist wave. Big increases in unvaccinated children are being seen in deep-red areas of Texas, and the most vocal critics of legislation to tighten exemptions are Republican state lawmakers who see mandatory vaccines as the ultimate big-government power grab.

It’s a cacophony of mushy thinking coming from a range of political stripes. The one thing they have in common is a willingness to endanger public health in the service of a misguided ideology.

It would be bad enough if the only victims of this mass delusion were the children of parents who refused to vaccinate. But as we know, once enough people are unvaccinated by choice, it compromises herd immunity—endangering children too young to vaccinate, people with legitimate medical reasons for being unvaccinated, and the subset of people for whom vaccinations didn’t work.

The World Health Organization estimates that the measles vaccine alone saved more than 21 million lives from 2000 to 2017. But the anti-vaxxer movement has resulted in a 30 percent spike in measles cases worldwide and a reemergence of a disease that had been effectively eradicated in the United States.

Despite this, these single-issue voters have been able to retain laws on the books in forty-five states that let them put their unvaccinated children in public schools on religious grounds, with fifteen of those granting exemptions for philosophical reasons as well.

CFI is responding with on-the-ground activism, working with our branches and local activists across the country to demonstrate to state lawmakers that there is a pro-mandatory-vaccination constituency in their state. Earlier this year, Paul Fidalgo, CFI’s director of communications and a resident of Maine, spent eight long hours waiting for his turn to testify at a state legislative hearing on a bill that would eliminate all non-medical exemptions for children in public school. He was among the outnumbered voices speaking for the bill’s passage—which eventually went through, though just barely, and will go into effect September 2021.

Getting state laws changed is the best outcome but also the hardest. If you include Maine, only five states have no non-medical vaccine exemptions. The other four are New York, California, West Virginia, and Mississippi.

Lindenberger’s efforts to get vaccinated spotlight another possible approach. Lindenberger was part of an online Reddit conversation in which young people talked openly about how to get vaccinated over their parents’ objections. Many of them not only wanted to be vaccinated, they wanted to keep their anti-vax parents from finding out. Otherwise they might irreparably damage relationships.

In most states, minors don’t have many options when it comes to getting vaccinated over parental objections. They can go through the arduous legal process of emancipation or simply wait it out like Lindenberger did. There are, however, fifteen states with some formulation of a “Mature Minor” doctrine, which allows minors to obtain medical care independent of a parent or guardian if they demonstrate they understand the implications of what they are requesting. These laws differ state by state and are often poorly understood by healthcare professionals in those states.

What would be helpful is a national standard giving minors the right to consent to vaccinations without parental notice or consent. CFI Legal Director Nick Little and I have been pushing this idea, which takes a page from the legal posture that allows minors to seek abortions.

In 1979, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Bellotti vs. Baird that if a state wanted to impose a parental notification requirement on a minor seeking an abortion, she had to be offered a judicial bypass that allowed her to escape that requirement. Bellotti and the cases that came after it established a new right for minors to seek an abortion not only without parental permission but without parental knowledge. The minor had to be allowed to go to court in an expedited hearing with a guarantee of confidentiality. At the hearing, a judge would determine whether the minor was mature enough to make this decision on her own or whether having an abortion would be in her best interest.

This approach may also offer a legal roadmap for minors seeking vaccinations without involving their parents. Establishing a right for minors to be vaccinated—a risk-free, potentially life-saving medical procedure—and providing an easy, confidential process for exercising that right would constitute a significant advance in public health.

Are the federal courts ready to take this step forward? CFI intends to find out. As of this writing, we are working with a major national law firm to determine how this groundbreaking litigation might be brought.

Stay tuned.

Robyn E. Blumner

Robyn E. Blumner is the CEO of the Center for Inquiry and the executive director of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason &, Science. She was a nationally syndicated columnist and editorial writer for the Tampa Bay Times (formerly the St. Petersburg Times) for sixteen years.