Saturday, June 25, 2011

A Bill Goes to Beacon Hill

It recently came to my attention that there is a new bill being considered by the state legislature of Massachusetts. It was submitted by petition back in January and does not really have an actual sponsor, though Rep. John Keenan (Salem) is listed. This bill, amending an existing law, would add just one little sentence which would render said law essentially meaningless. Furthermore, the consequences of this one, seemingly innocuous, sentence would be far-reaching in their impact. What is this one little sentence? It is this:
Notwithstanding the provisions of this section a child shall, upon written request of a parent to the school, be admitted to school.
That doesn't sound too bad, right? I mean, parents should be able to write to a school and have their child admitted. After all, the education of children is not only a requirement, but is something that benefits everyone. Everyone should have the opportunity to obtain a good education, to learn valuable skills and expand their knowledge so that they can become useful, contributing members of society for the good of themselves and the community in which they live.

Why would anyone object to that? Certainly I wouldn't, in and of itself. However, as Tim Minchin shows, context is everything (some NSFW language, be sure to watch to the end):

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You see, this bill, H1055, would add that little sentence to the second paragraph of Massachusetts General Law Chapter 76 Section 15, the vaccination and immunization requirements for public school attendance. The state of Massachusetts requires all children to show proof of immunization against communicable diseases like measles, pertussis, poliomyelitis, diphtheria and so on, as determined by the department of public health. The only exceptions to this are medical need, such as when a child may be likely to suffer a severe allergic reaction to a vaccine or otherwise be endangered, as decided by a physician, or, a religious objection. The latter exception, however, can be waived if there is a current emergency of epidemic.

In short, the general law is aimed at ensuring the health and well-being of public school students by preventing the spread of communicable diseases. The proposed amendment has the intent of allowing those parents who have fallen victim to the propaganda of the anti-vaccine movement to write a note allowing their child to attend school based on vague, unfounded fears. However, and this is most likely an unintended consequence, that one additional sentence would also allow parents who are simply too lazy to take their child to be immunized to get their child into public schools without the protections that vaccines afford.

The end result is that public health is undermined. While ensuring your child is educated is a requirement, benefiting from the public, communal endeavor that is public school is a privilege that carries with it certain responsibilities. If you want to reap the benefit of public school, then you have a responsibility to take steps to minimize the potential harm to the others attending that school. Being part of a society means working together for the benefit of each other, rather than doing things that, either by intent or negligence, harms other members of that society. We need only look at the various measles and pertussis outbreaks that have occurred this year around the U.S. and abroad. In almost every instance, they were started by those who were not immunized and spread due to pockets of unimmunized or underimmunized people.

There will be those who respond to this, "But if vaccines work, then why does my unimmunized child pose a risk?" I already answered this question last year. The short answer is: vaccines are not 100% perfect, so some who are vaccinated may still be vulnerable, and there are still those who are unable to be immunized who are at risk.

For those who still decide that they do not like the immunization requirements for public school attendance, there are always other options available. You can home school your child. You can find some private school that does not require immunizations. Or, you can move to a state that cares more for individual "warm fuzzies" than for the health of its people. However, in the state of Massachusetts, if you want to get the benefits of a public institution, then you have the responsibility of ensuring that your child does not put others within that institution at risk, if it is within your power to do so.

The law, as written, is not great. I'm not a fan of religious exemptions, but it at least makes an effort to ensure that all children in public school are protected against communicable diseases and to prevent potential outbreaks. The amendment would render the law powerless. Parents, lacking proper medical training and knowledge, would, for any reason at all, even simple laziness, be able to jeopardize the health of every other child at that school.

If you are a resident of Massachusetts who cares about public health, I encourage you to contact your representative or attend the Joint Committee on Education hearing scheduled for 10:00am on Tuesday, June 28, 2011. The bill is item number 11 on the agenda.

Addendum: I came across an announcement on Facebook regarding the public hearing. The Mass Citizens for Health Choice state that the amendment would:
allow for children to attend school without immunizations with a letter from the parents. This bill allows for parents to choose which vaccines are important to them without putting children who have had previous reactions or have other risk factors for vaccine reactions in harm's way. MC4HC fully supports this bill and will be organizing a panel of experts to testify.

If they want to ensure their children are not put at risk due to health issues, there is already a provision for that in the laws: the medical exemption. In light of the existing exemption and their reasoning, there is no need for the amendment.

Update: I received word from the Joint Committee on Education (JCE) that this bill has been sent to the Joint Committee on Public Health. Since the bill involves expertise in public health issues, the JCE was unable to adequately address the measure.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Really good post.
    I'm wondering about paragraph 3 though - "While ensuring your child is a requirement,"... is it possible you meant to type "While educating your child is a requirement"

  3. Ah, thank you. Fixed it. Glad you enjoyed the post.

  4. I wrote my state rep about this last week. He agreed with my analysis that it was a very bad bill and endangered the public health. He also said it had no chance of passing, and that the phrase "filed by request" meant the sponsor had filed it because a constituent asked him to, but that he didn't endorse it.

    So all around good news, but we should still keep our eyes on it, because sometimes these things sneak through.


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