BRIDPORT — Monday’s season-opening legislative breakfast in Bridport offered a preview of two emotional debates on personal freedom that could play out on a grander scale this spring in the Statehouse.
At issue: Should families be given broader rights to have their children opt-out of vaccines designed to protect them from deadly diseases, and should terminally ill people be allowed to opt-in to a proposal that would allow them to take their own lives under medical supervision.
Bill S.199 proposes to extend the termination date of the state’s immunization pilot program, which requires kids in schools or group care settings to be vaccinated against certain communicable diseases. The program, which is scheduled to end this year, allows parents to decline vaccinations for their children based on religious or philosophical reasons.
The bill would extend the program through December of 2014 and remove the ability of a family to exempt their child from a vaccination for “philosophical” reasons. A family would still be able to exempt their children from immunization based on religious beliefs.
The proposed law, introduced by Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland Town, is drawing criticism from some Vermonters who object to the notion of the state requiring their children to be vaccinated. They note some children have become ill or died as a result of violent biological reactions to certain immunizations.
State Sen. Harold Giard, D-Bridport, said he has received a lot of constituent feedback on S.199.
“People want that choice; they do not want the state forcing them into having their child immunized,” Giard said. “People are concerned with the ingredients that not only go into the vaccine, but the carrier that goes with it. Apparently, when they make vaccines, there is a list of other items that go into the drug … People are very concerned about that.”
Giard said he believes the decision should be left up to the parent, and that the state should focus on educating people about the “positives” of the vaccinations rather than mandating them.
Addison resident Paul Boivin said he is concerned about what might happen if a lot of people opt-out of the immunization requirement.
“I believe the world is full of freedoms and choices and responsibilities that go with it, and with the vaccination issue, the problem that concerns me is if we have enough people that opt out of being vaccinated then we will have no herd immunity,” Boivin said of the broader societal consequence.
Boivin argued that people who opt out of vaccinations should sign a form guaranteeing they will pay 100 percent of their health costs if they should become ill.
“It’s simple; if you want freedom and choice to go without being vaccinated, then you take the responsibility for the results of your decision,” Boivin said. “This should not be rocket science.”
Rep. David Sharpe, D-Bristol, acknowledged lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have concerns about S.199.
“We cherish out freedom and our freedom of choice, but in the Legislature, we have this difficulty where public good meets personal choice,” Sharpe said. “We have that with a woman’s right to choose, death, schools and now with vaccines. It’s always a very interesting and difficult conversation to figure out where is the public good more important than personal choice.”
Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton, agreed with Sharpe in the tough decision S.199 presents to lawmakers. He also agreed with Boivin’s observation that a person’s personal choice not to be immunized for a disease could affect the lives of other people.
“The theory from the medical establishment is that if too many people make that choice (to opt out of vaccinations) we lose the herd immunity,” Jewett said. “The impact is not just on the individual, but on all of us.”
He noted that the state has not had to resort to massive quarantines for epidemics — such as for whooping cough — for generations.
Addison resident Tim Buskey recalled being quarantined for scarlet fever as a child, and one of his childhood friends having polio. Many of the childhood diseases of yore have been wiped out thanks to vaccines and parental vigilance, he said.
“My father always taught me, ‘With freedom there is responsibility,’” Buskey said. “If you want to maintain your freedom, you have to maintain your responsibility.”
Deborah Plouffe told the breakfast participants assembled in Bridport’s Grange Hall that she’s pleased children now don’t have to worry about contracting many serious diseases, in part because the kids before them dutifully got vaccinations — often in school.
“There is responsibility when you live in a society,” Plouffe said.
But Robert Wagner, a Ripton resident who is running again this year as an independent for state Senate, voiced opposition about the bill’s intent and the manner through which the Legislature solicits testimony on issues like S.199.
“This (freedom of choice) is a natural right, it is not yours to give or take away,” Wagner told legislators. “You need to allow more parents to testify on these bills.”
Wagner alleged that hearings on health care-related bills in Montpelier are dominated by “experts” who are beholden to pharmaceutical companies who in turn donate campaign funds to the Democrats who control both the House and Senate.
Jewett, the House assistant majority leader, disputed Wagner’s contention, arguing that any citizen can testify at legislative hearings and that the House and Senate committee rooms are open to anyone who wishes to listen and speak.
“Our building is open every day,” Jewett said of the Statehouse. “This state has the most open government in the country, maybe the world.”
‘DEATH WITH DIGNITY’
Lawmakers were also asked to weigh in on so-called “Death with Dignity” legislation that has been introduced again in both the House and Senate this year. The bill would allow terminally ill patients the option of taking their own lives under specific circumstances monitored by a physician. Oregon has had such a law for more than a decade and Death with Dignity proponents are lobbying Vermont legislators to vote on the measure this year.
Giard said the bill rests in the Senate Judiciary Committee and, in assessing the current feelings of his colleagues, believes the initiative would be defeated in the Legislature’s upper chamber if it were brought to a vote this week.
Giard said he has not yet made up his mind how he would vote on Death with Dignity legislation, saying he has read a lot of literature on the subject since he began receiving phone calls from constituents on both sides of the issue. He said that while he appreciates the value of human life, he has become aware of the artificial means by which some people are kept alive — sometimes in a coma, or with pain muted by morphine.
“It is not pretty how we do death now,” Giard said. “When you die in a terminal coma, you die of dehydration, you die from lack of nutrition and possibly pneumonia, but you will indeed die.
“I’m conflicted over this… it’s a huge change in society,” Giard said. “It is turning the corner on a fundamental premise of working very hard and spending the time and effort of keeping people alive.”
Giard has received a lot of feedback from constituents on the Death with Dignity bill — including from his own wife, Shirley, who disclosed on Monday that she has been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. She was candid in stating her desire to have a Death with Dignity law as an option.
“I know where I’m headed, but it doesn’t mean I want to die that way, or that I want to put my family through the financial pressure,” Shirley Giard told the audience of her medical outlook. “I want to choose the way I die, the way I choose how to live. It is my decision, not someone else’s.”
Middlebury resident Marnie Wood noted her late sister chose to end her own life under Oregon’s law.
“She had a beautiful death,” Wood said of her sister.
“This (Death with Dignity) legislation offers an opportunity for all of us to know more about death.”
Still, the proposed law is not settling well with many Vermonters. Among them are Paul and Mark Boivin, who said they both took care of their parents during their final days. Both are squarely opposed to right-to-die legislation.
“Everything in life is a challenge,” Paul Boivin said. “I have been on rescue (squad) since 1977. I have seen people take their last trip to the hospital and I have seen people breathe their last breath. Death is not really that bad. There are some instances where death is tragic, but it is one step. Everything that we do in life is a challenge. Do we think our next trip in our next expedition is going to be any easier?
“If you don’t have the bad, you’re not going to have the good.”
The next legislative breakfast, sponsored by Bridport Grange No. 303 and the Addison County Farm Bureau, will be held on Monday, Feb. 13, at the Bristol American Legion Hall. The breakfast starts at 7 a.m. and the program begins at 7:30 a.m.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]