Monday, October 1, 2012

AB2109 Signed! But Gov. Brown Creates Other Concerns

On Thursday, I echoed Orac in his call for people to support California's Gov. Jerry Brown in signing AB2109 into law. This bill would help strengthen California's school vaccination laws by requiring that parents become informed about the risks and benefits of vaccinating prior to getting a personal belief exemption for their children. Anti-vaccine activists vehemently opposed this bill, showing that they are actually against informed consent. They even recruited comedian Rob Schneider as their new Jenny McCarthy, acting as a celebrity spokesperson to champion their nonsense. And based on my twitter exchanges with him, he's swallowed their tripe hook, line and sinker.

I spent the weekend mostly off-line, so I missed a rather big development in all of this. As user "Unknown" commented on my call to arms, Gov. Brown signed the bill! This is fabulous news, but it's tempered with a bit of, well, if not bad news, at least something a little perplexing.

Gov. Brown issued a signing message for AB2109, likely because of all the brouhaha surrounding it. He affirms what anyone who actually read and understood the bill already knows:
Current state law requires children to be vaccinated prior to enrollment in school or a child care facility, but allows a parent or guardian to opt out of this requirement based on a personal belief. This bill doesn't change that. Consistent with current law, AB 2109 allows parents with a personal belief to reject vaccination for their child.
Despite all the crowing from the anti-vaccine contingent about infringing on people's rights, this bill does nothing of the sort. It's good to see Gov. Brown reaffirm this in writing.

Now the bad part. Gov. Brown also wrote the following:
I am signing AB 2109 and am directing the Department of Public Health to oversee this policy so parents are not overly burdened by its implementation. Additionally, I will direct the department to allow for a separate religious exemption on the form. In this way, people whose religious beliefs preclude vaccinations will not be required to seek a health care practitioner's signature.
When I read that, my first thought was, "Wait. What? But why?" First off, California law doesn't include religious exemptions; they only have personal belief exemptions. Second, why would parents with religiously-based personal beliefs not have to talk with a medical professional about their decision?

Although I hadn't yet seen Orac's post on this, it seems we both had the same thoughts. There are some troubling aspects to this.

First off, there's the legal problems. California law does not distinguish among the various personal beliefs a person may hold against immunization. The governor may be overstepping his authority, here. If the state's legislature had meant to include religious beliefs as a separate class of personal beliefs, then that would have been stated in the text of the bill. Furthermore, raising belief in some religion over lack of religious beliefs could be grounds for a law suit for violation of the First Amendment. If enforced per the governor's statement, this would create special privileges that discriminate against some individuals on the basis of religion.

Then there are the more pragmatic issues. The governor implies that speaking with a physician or other medical professional about the risks and benefits of vaccinations and getting their signature would somehow violate a parent's religious beliefs. I fail to see how this is the case. Talking about the risks and benefits of vaccination neither forces parents to immunize their children nor prevents them from declining vaccines. If a parent does hold a religious objection to vaccines, they would still be allowed to decline them, just like with any other personal belief.

In my opinion, Gov. Brown made a big misstep here. If what he wrote does go into effect, then instead of parents being able to easily write a note expressing personal philosophical objections to immunizations (which was the state of things before AB2109), they will now be able to simply write a note expressing some nebulous religious objection. Now, maybe I'm just being cynical, but I could see people lying about their religious beliefs just to get out of protecting their children from communicable diseases, particularly considering that no major religion opposes vaccines.

I've written to the governor to ask about his reasons to call for religious beliefs to be exempted from these new requirements. While I'm glad that the law was finally passed instead of being allowed to expire on the Sept. 30 deadline, I do have concerns about how this message from the governor will play out.

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