You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Banning Philosophical Exemptions to Vaccination While Keeping Religious Ones Makes No Sense

Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Forty-eight states in America have laws allowing children who attend public school to do so without being vaccinated—if they have religious reasons. In 19 of those states, you can also avoid vaccination if your exemption is based on philosophical reasons. 

Every other kid, save those with medical exemptions—compromised immune systems and the like—must be vaccinated, and for good reason. We know what happens when vaccinations aren’t required, and we’re starting to see the expected epidemics. 

West Virginia and Mississippi are the only two states that don’t allow either philosophical or religious exemptions from vaccination. California is poised to join them, as its state Senate just approved a no-exemption bill by a wide margin (medical exemptions will still be allowed). 

Vermont has just joined the Rationality Crowd, but they didn’t go whole hog, reports Michael Specter in a New Yorker piece, “Vermont says No to the anti-vaccine movement,” The state eliminated philosophical exemptions for vaccinations but also recently mandated labeling for GMO foods, those derived from genetically modified organisms: 

Just a year after Vermont became the first state to require labels for products made with genetically modified organisms, Governor Peter Shumlin on Thursday signed an equally controversial but very different kind of legislation: the state has now become the first to remove philosophical exemptions from its vaccination law.

The two issues are both emotional and highly contested. But Vermont’s decisions could hardly be less alike: the G.M.O. bill, which has enormous popular support, has been widely criticized by scientists—largely because no credible evidence exists suggesting that G.M.O.s are dangerous. The vaccine law, however, opposed by many people, is the strongest possible endorsement of the data that shows that vaccines are the world’s most effective public-health tool. 

There was serious opposition to the bill by Vermont legislators, one of whom said this: 

“There is something deep in the core of my being,’’ Representative Warren Kitzmiller, of Montpelier, said during the debate over the philosophical objection. “And it simply will not allow me to vote to remove a parent’s right to make this serious decision on what is in the best interest of their child.”

What's a "parent’s right”? Do you have a “right” to allow your child to become infected, and then go to school and infect others (vaccinations don’t always work), perhaps starting an epidemic? What “right” does a parent have to take away protection of not only their child’s well being, but that of other children as well? Do parents also have a “right” to refuse, on the grounds of religious belief, scientific medical care for their sick children? (Forty-three of our 50 states also confer some kind of civil and criminal immunity on parents who do that.) 

The fact is that privileging unevidenced belief over medicine—whether that belief is based on religion or “philosophy”—is not in the best interests of any child, and should be legislatively curtailed. And yet, Vermont distinguishes between those two types of belief: It has eliminated philosophical exemptions, but not religious ones. That’s a general view, for far fewer states allow philosophical than religious exemptions from immunization. 

“Vaccines work and parents should get their kids vaccinated," Vermont Governor Peter Shumlin said about the bill that he signed. "I know there are strong feelings on both sides of this issue…. However we’re not where we need to be to protect our kids from dangerous diseases, and I hope this legislation will have the effect of increasing vaccination rates.” 

But the same argument—vaccines work and protect children and society at large—holds for religion. Although the majority of Vermont’s exemptions were granted for philosophical belief (Vermont is the least religious state in America), there is no substantive difference, at least relevant to exemptions from shots, between religion and philosophy. Both are deeply held personal beliefs, and both promote a code of conduct. The only difference is that religion usually includes belief in a god, and often is based more strongly on faith and dogma than on reason. But why should that make one set of beliefs more worthy of respect than the other? Shouldn’t philosophy be given more respect since it’s usually based on rational considerations and not indoctrination into belief by one’s parents and clerics? (This, by the way, raises legal issues: Can someone denied a philosophical exemption sue on First Amendment grounds since religious exemptions are still allowed?)

Those religious exemptions remain because Americans have a strong respect for faith and belief in gods—a respect that, for reasons I don’t understand, exceeds that for other deeply held philosophical (or political) beliefs. It’s time to stop seeing faith as some kind of virtue, and recognize it for what it really is: beliefs based not on evidence but on emotional resonance.

The New Yorker, which has long been infected with the Respect For Faith virus, doesn’t say a word about religious exemptions. Referring to Representative Warren Kitzmiller’s statement that philosophical exemptions remove parents’ “rights,” Specter sees that as "a reasonable position, and many people hold it. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, only sixty-eight per cent of Americans believe that childhood vaccinations should be required. Among younger parents, the percentage who object is even higher." He continues:

Data and science are obviously not the only issues that matter in this debate. But it’s hard to see how all rights can be equal: If parents want their children to remain unprotected from vaccinations, perhaps they should have that right. But should those children then be allowed near other students, in public places like playgrounds, or anywhere else where they could infect people with weakened immune systems? By removing the philosophical objection, at least one state has begun to say no.

In fact, data and science are dispositive in this debate, as the legislature of Vermont has recognized. I wonder if Specter thinks that parents should be allowed to refuse medical care (antibiotics, insulin, and so on) to children on religious grounds, as do many religionists like Christian Scientists and Jehovah’s Witnesses? After all, those children rarely pose a danger to anyone else. It’s telling that a magazine widely seen as the voice of liberalism is so afraid to criticize superstition, especially when it endangers children.

A version of this post first appeared on WhyEvolutionIsTrue.