On Thursday, New York lawmakers voted to join several other states and rescind religious exemptions for vaccinations. This legislation, signed immediately into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo, will require all school children to be vaccinated, regardless of any religious objections.
New York has been one of the hardest hit by a spate of measles outbreaks across the country, with many cases appearing in Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community. Vaccine rates have been driven down by targeted anti-vaccine misinformation campaigns, with additional exposure to the highly infectious measles virus provided by frequent travel to Europe and Israel, which have experienced over 100,000 measles cases this year alone.
The decision to rescind religious exemptions in New York adds to an already heated debate being fought on two fronts - a pro-vaccine versus anti-vaccine battle, and a battle over First Amendment religious freedom.
However, the undeniable truth of the matter is that there are no valid religious objections which justify vaccine refusal. There are three important reasons why we should support the New York legislation to outlaw religious objections, and call for other states to follow suit so that we may banish deadly diseases to the pages of history.
Vaccines are safe and effective
There is a worldwide scientific consensus that vaccines are safe and effective, and their safety and efficacy are backed by hundreds of reputable studies. In addition, medical exemptions exist to protect those who are unable to be vaccinated for a valid, medically-supported reason. Conversely, the claims of the anti-vaccine community are based solely on debunked misinformation, anecdotal evidence, and unsubstantiated pseudo-science.
Religious objections aren’t supported by religion.
Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish community has been at the epicenter of New York’s measles outbreak. Waves of targeted anti-vaccine propaganda (such as claims that vaccines contain monkey, rat, and pig DNA) have resulted in some believing that vaccines are not permitted by Jewish law. However, the New York Times reported that “Most prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbis agree that vaccines are kosher, and urge observant Jews to be immunized.'' With this in mind, there simply is no doctrinal basis which supports the refusal to vaccinate when it comes to the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community.
Freedom of religion vs. Externalities
Not only is there an overwhelming amount of scientific evidence which supports the safety and efficacy of vaccines, there is also clear evidence that failure to vaccinate has a concrete impact beyond the individual. Known as “externalities,” a parent’s decision not to vaccinate their child creates a non-consensual risk for others. Those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons are protected by the concept of “herd immunity,” and every needlessly unvaccinated person increases the risk for those who depend on herd immunity for their protection.
The fact is that there is no acceptable religious reason to support vaccination exemption. For the ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities in New York, there is no doctrinal basis to reject vaccination. For others who refuse vaccinations based on religious objections, not only are they rejecting the settled science which supports the safety and efficacy of vaccines, they are placing others at risk without their knowledge or consent.
Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. stated that “the right to swing my fist ends where the other man’s nose begins.” When we analyze the First Amendment, it is clear that there is a line which exists between the protection of one individual’s religious rights over the rights to life and liberty of another. The unsubstantiated decision not to vaccinate for religious reasons crosses this line.