VERGENNES — The Vermont Senate’s support for lifting a provision in state law that allows parents to exempt their children from vaccinations for philosophical reasons is not sitting well with some Addison County residents.
“I am in favor of the vaccinations, but I am not in favor of the government telling people to do it,” Addison resident Mark Boivin told participants at Monday’s legislative breakfast at the Vergennes American Legion Hall.
At issue is the Senate’s 25-4 vote on March 2 in favor of lifting an exemption allowing parents to decline vaccinations for their children for philosophical reasons. Children in the state are currently required to receive a variety of immunizations before entering public school or child care settings.
Families can still opt children out of vaccinations for religious reasons.
The Senate’s March 2 vote came after some emotional debate between those emphasizing parental oversight over children’s health issues and those stressing the importance of preventing the spread of diseases.
Ultimately, Addison County’s two Democratic state senators — Harold Giard of Bridport and Claire Ayer of Addison — found themselves on opposite sides of the vote.
Giard voted “no,” saying at Monday’s breakfast that it was “one of the most difficult decisions I have had to make in the Senate.”
He explained that he believes it is important for children to be immunized in order to prevent the spread of diseases, but was ultimately swayed by phone calls and e-mails from parents saying they should have the final say on what medications are put in their children’s bodies. Some parents who testified before the Senate voiced concern over potentially harmful side effects in vaccinations.
Giard said he learned, through speaking with opponents of the bill, that parents had done a lot of research “and knew more about immunizations than I had listened to on the Senate floor … I though the testimony from Senate (Health and) Welfare (Committee) was kind of weak, when you compared to taking away something as big and fundamental as taking away a parental right to make a decision about what to do with their children.”
Giard conceded he is still “conflicted” over his no vote and is “angry” over what he said was a lack of complete information upon which to base his decision.
Meanwhile, Ayer — chairwoman of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee — said she was confident in her “yes” vote.
“In the end, you need to balance individual rights with what is best for the state,” Ayer said. “And, in the end, four out of five of us (in the Senate) came down on the side of public health.”
The bill now goes to the House, which will take additional testimony.
“It does seem to touch on some emotional nerves, frankly on both sides,” said Rep. Willem Jewett, D-Ripton and House majority assistant leader.
“It has been quite interesting for me and my colleagues to watch the Senate struggle with this,” Jewett added. “It is not a complete thought until both Houses have acted and the governor has in fact signed it. The work is still in process and our committee will take it up.”
Jewett offered some insights into his views on the bill. He said there are four countries in the world that have yet to control polio — including Afghanistan, a nation in which there are currently U.S. troops.
“In the past, the reason we have gotten such high immunization rates, frankly, is government coercion,” Jewett said.
Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, called the child vaccinations a public health issue with potential big implications if a lot of children are allowed to opt out.
“I don’t want to get to that point where you are now yelling at me why we haven’t done something to protect you,” Lanpher to the breakfast attendees.
Shirley Giard, who is Sen. Giard’s spouse, said parents have good reason to be wary of the chemical ingredients of immunizations. She pointed to news reports of vaccinations being manufactured and tested in Third World countries.
“You got to think about where our medicine is being tested and coming from,” Shirley Giard said.
Bridport resident Margaret Klohck said she could recall the days when polio was a feared disease in the U.S. and when school children lined up to get their immunizations.
“I really feel that vaccines are important; we are much better with them than without them,” Klohck said. She added she worries about instances where parents don’t have their children vaccinated because they forget and consider it an unnecessary chore.
“Those are the kids I think are at risk,” she said.
Jan Louise Ball of Addison argued that parents should decide whether to vaccinate their children. She said three of her children had been vaccinated against diseases and now are suffering through some health problems. She added the daughter who didn’t get vaccinated is the strongest of the children.
“Immunizations are poison to our children,” she said.
The next legislative gathering will be a “governor’s lunch” on Monday, March 12, to begin at noon at the Rikert Nordic Center in Ripton. The event, featuring Gov. Peter Shumlin, will begin at noon and end at 1:45 p.m. Free Nordic skiing will be available after the luncheon.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]