How the philosophical exemption was lost

A few weeks ago, the state legislature had apparently decided not to open the Pandora’s box of vaccination policy. The general feeling was, let’s let the 2012 law play out a while longer and see where it goes.

And then, for reasons still unexplained, a couple of key state Senators (Kevin Mullin and John Campbell) grabbed that box and threw it open. They amended a barely-related Health Department housekeeping bill, H.98, to include an end to the philosophical exemption on childhood immunizations. The Senate Health Care Committee gave it a mere two hours of hearings, one for and one against; it sailed through the committee and the full Senate.

Even so, it seemed likely that the House would let the amended bill lie. Leadership decided to have the House Health Care Committee hold hearings on H.98, even though the bill was never officially given to that committee. Those hearings were quickly scheduled, and they were quite extensive. At the time, it seemed like a ploy to run out the clock. Even more so as the hearings continued through the penultimate week of the session.

Funny thing, though: the more time passed, the more things seemed to shift entirely. By the end of last week, the momentum was clearly on H.98’s side. A House vote seemed certain and passage seemed likely, if not a sure thing. Monday’s public hearing was a chance for all parties to sound off, without actually affecting the process.

Which brings us to Tuesday, covered in my previous post. The Donahue amendment lost by the narrowest of margins, and then H.98 passed the House with ease.

This time, I’m here to explain why this happened. Not how it happened; you’d have to get John Campbell and Shap Smith into a rubber room and fill ’em full of truth serum to find that out. As for the why, here’s my two cents. Or three, if you prefer.

1. The widespread belief that Vermont’s vaccination rates are dangerously low. You heard it over and over again during Tuesday’s debate: even lawmakers reluctant to change the exemption rules were very concerned that the state (or at least pockets thereof) could see outbreaks of preventable diseases at any time.

State health officials carried a uniform message: Vermont ranks near the bottom in immunization rates. Surrounding states without a philosophical exemption (all of New England except Maine) had substantially higher rates. Research shows that educational efforts like those codified in our 2012 law are ineffective. Vermont’s rates had certainly not improved since 2012, and the trend is in the wrong direction.

2. An overwhelming sense of fatigue with the issue. Many Representatives who didn’t want to repeal the philosophical exemption wanted something else even less: another round on the issue in 2016. That would have been a certainty if the House had either failed to pass H.98, or passed a substantially different version.

The fatigue became more palpable as the Health Care Committee hearings went on. Members were tired of the same arguments and even more tired of all the drama, and they definitely wanted the deluge of phone calls and emails to stop. Monday’s tense, emotional, standing-room-only public hearing may have been the last straw.

By itself, “fatigue” isn’t a good reason to vote one way or the other. But it was combined with a sense that all the arguments had been made and there was no point to prolonging the agony. At one point during the floor debate, the usually quiet Warren Kitzmiller rose to say he doubted that anyone’s mind had been, or would be, changed, and it was time to just vote already. (For the record, Kitzmiller voted against H.98, so he wasn’t on the winning side.)

3. The vaccine-choice forces couldn’t stop themselves from overreaching. Their stated goal was preserving parental choice, but they consistently promoted the anti-vaccine agenda. If they could have stuck to the choice argument, they would have won. But when they attacked vaccination itself, they undercut their own case.

How so? First, they affirmed the narrative (from people like me) that they were fringey cranks. Bringing in people like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. almost certainly hurt their cause. Another anti-vax witness, Dr. Toni Bark, was almost a caricature of the True Believer: she talked endlessly, almost babbling at times, and her views on vaccination were clearly extreme. (The witnesses who helped the cause were the individual Vermonters who expressed concern — warranted or not — about safety and their ability to choose.)

Their rhetoric amplified concern number 1 — that vaccine rates were going in the wrong direction. Although their current argument was to preserve choice, they made it clear they thought vaccination itself was evil. Their ultimate goal was to convince more people to opt out. And that fed into the concern about Vermont’s low vaccination rate.

The philosophical exemption was acceptable to most lawmakers, but only as long as its use was limited. The more parents who sought the exemption, the more of a public health threat it became.

Their zeal also amplified factor 2, the widespread fatigue with the issue. The more they talked, and wrote, and called, the more lawmakers wanted an end to the whole thing.

The vaccine-choice advocates couldn’t help themselves, because they honestly believe that vaccination is a profit-making venture of Big Pharma and a fundamental cause of social and medical ills. They can’t help but express their ardently-held beliefs. But in doing so, they undermined their own cause. They themselves played a key role in turning the tide against the philosophical exemption.


17 thoughts on “How the philosophical exemption was lost

  1. newzjunqie

    Good for them – and may they all be shitcanned not just for this but the-sargeant-at-arms fiasco sp?. Arrogance knows no bounds and Mullen is a mere ALEC tool.

  2. jenny

    what a shame. parents have been taken out of the decision on what gets put in their children’s bodies. disgusting step back in time. won’t it be a shame when all those “preventable” diseases come back anyhow.. this time due to the actual vaccines. well.. time to go from philosophical to religious.

  3. Martha Wright

    I would like to see these people in the future when they should face the shame of this crime (yes crime) that they have committed against the conscience of man and the divine, yes divinely placed authority of parents to “protect” and raise their own children.. If they think they are tired now, I wish them prison time where they can have a long time to think about what they have done in their kangaroo legislature. They made their choice coercing people to inject things into their children bodies that they think are fine but the parents believe are deadly to harmful. Many parents, I hope will not do that. I personally know of those who did only to have a child in a wheelchair vaccine injured. If that makes you tired to hear, you try it and see how tired you are. MAY THEY HAVE ENDLESS SHAME AND TROUBLE BACK ON THEIR OWN HEADS. “The man who troubles his own family will inherit the wind”

  4. linda

    This is only a win for BigPharma and the elite. Vaccines are filled with harmful ingredients. It was improved sanitation that quelled diseases in the past. Water Aid is teaching young people in third World countries the value of hand washing, but here they want to push vaccines on us, the Sheeple. Vaccines will spread disease and if you think it is only Children, wait till they target Adults. They are already planning it! Sickness and Death, not protection! These are Crimes against Humanity!

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      As is probably obvious from the above three Comments, this article seems to have suddenly gained the eye of the anti-vax community. They don’t seem to be learning the most important lesson, which is that their fierce and unforgiving advocacy is counterproductive to their cause.

      1. rockie

        Many parents who use the PE selectively vaccinate or to delay. Lots of folks don’t feel comfortable with Hep B at birth. Anyone who tries to lump everyone into the anti-vax camp is not really paying attention.

      2. WarriorMama

        EVERY article, pro and con, gains the eye of those concerned about this issue.

  5. Marcia Aloisi Mayo

    I don’t know of any profession where “too tired” is an excuse to do your job badly. Certainly not that of mother to children with damage from the side effects of pharmaceuticals such as vaccinations. My eldest died after two years in the teaching hospitals of Dartmouth, Boston, and New York City when we were living in Vermont and her thirteen year old sister is sitting beside me in her thirteenth year of struggling to overcome. Far from feeling noble, how can they even feel they discharged their responsibilities responsibly if they didn’t study the issue themselves? I’m showing this article to my children and making it clear that they should be ashamed should anyone be able to say this about how they did their job.

  6. Num Guy

    Fellow Americans: The main reason this mandate and other mandates are passing is that Big Pharma is dangling $$$$$$ in front of our politicians. Big Pharma has complete legal protection. They cannot be sued even if a child dies. Unless this 1986 law is repealed, NOTHING WILL CHANGE. So please sign and share this petition.

  7. WarriorMama

    I’ve heard this before. It seems to be the new mantra as to why that state got their bills killed and we (CA SB277) probably won’t. Not sure I agree. I keep hearing how we’re messing all of this up by shouting about why vaccines are so bad, but if we truly believed they were the be-all-end-all, we wouldn’t be fighting such draconian bills; we’d keep quiet and let the chips fall where they may, like MOST who vax, or those whose children are grown and won’t need to fight for the right to an education. I’m not sure that pounding the choice drum is enough. Choice lives within conviction, reason, research and personal or religious beliefs. I think emphasizing JUST choice when our choices are being systematically taken away, and have been for years (food/GMO labeling, seatbelt laws, helmet laws, right-to-die, privacy in the name of national security) is a bit too-little-to-late. We’ve never taken to the streets before, about anything, yet now suddenly we’ve come to life because it involves our kids. It pays to have a reason for that choice we’re making, otherwise we’re being disingenuous. Forcing a product on the public, namely children, when that product has caused death (1 death is enough), then it becomes more than just about choice. I cannot honestly fight this without a reason, and my reasons is IF THERE IS RISK, THERE MUST BE CHOICE.

    And I’m sorry for all the senators who had to sit through endless phone calls, protests, emails and the like. Boo-f-ing-hoo. Grow a pair and figure out why people are pissed off, and then act accordingly. Recalls can end your misery real quick.

  8. Michael Pinkerton

    The author blames the anti-vaccination movement for the loss of the philosophical exemption. The relentless lobbying by the pharmaceutical industry, along with an intense media campaign to stir up concerns about the un/undervaccinated (the media also being financially linked to this same industry), accompanied by the generally uncritical eye of the majority of the public towards the dominant medical system seem to me to be the critical factors in the loss of the philosophical exemption. The article’s title should be something like, “

  9. Michael Pinkerton

    The article’s title should be something like, “Why I don’t like the anti-vax movement.”

    1. John S. Walters Post author

      While I don’t like the anti-vax movement, my piece was a sincere attempt to evaluate how and why the movement managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.


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