“The state must respect parental rights,” state Rep. Jeff Hanley, R-Pittston, said last week, echoing a sentiment heard often in opposition to a bill that would eliminate most exemptions for childhood vaccinations. “This is truly about freedom.”

So let’s talk about L.D. 798 and how it relates to personal freedom.

The bill would end religious and philosophical exemptions to vaccination for children attending public or private school in Maine, leaving only rare medical exemptions.

But that’s different than requiring vaccination. Under L.D. 798, as they are now, Mainers would still be free to refuse to vaccinate their children — for whatever reason they choose.

Six hundred or so Mainers made that decision for their new kindergarteners last year in Maine, part of a trend that has given Maine one of worst vaccination opt-out rates in the country — and is increasingly putting kids in danger.

A few opt-outs here and there don’t make much of a difference when everyone else is vaccinated. But once vaccination rates fall below 95 percent, herd immunity is threatened, and the chance of an infectious disease outbreak rises quickly.

In the 2017-18 school year, 31 Maine elementary schools had opt-out rates of 15 percent of students or higher; at some, the rates were over 25 percent.

Sure enough, outbreaks in preventable diseases such as chicken pox, whooping cough and the measles are on the rise — with the latest last week in Falmouth. Maine has one of the worst per capita rates of pertussis, or whooping cough, in the country, with a rate five times the national average.

Most parents who decline to vaccinate their children do so because of unfounded fears over the safety of vaccinations. As last week’s hearing showed, they are both the victims and propagators of ridiculous and dangerous internet conspiracies — and they are making life difficult for Maine students with actual health concerns.

At best, the outbreaks are disruptive. For some students, they can be deadly.

In the last year, our newspapers have heard from a Falmouth teen whose rheumatoid arthritis treatment suppresses his immune system, and a Kennebunk girl who had to take extra precautions while dealing with leukemia. Reporters talked to parents of a girl in Windham and a boy in Portland, respectively, who both had liver transplants, and whose immune systems are weakened from the ensuing medications.

By refusing to vaccinate their children, parents are making life more difficult and dangerous for kids like that — kids who cannot “opt out” of their very real health issues, and who shouldn’t have to worry if their schools are breeding grounds for communicable diseases.

Nothing said here is likely to change the minds of anti-vaccination parents, and under L.D. 798, that’s legal, too — parents opposed to vaccinations are free to believe whatever nonsense they like.

They can believe vaccines are harmful, even though complications are exceedingly rare, and any connection to autism is a complete fabrication. And they can believe vaccines are unnecessary, despite the countless lives saved and pain avoided since their discovery.

Under L.D. 798, they have the freedom to think whatever they want about vaccines. They even have the right to act upon that belief by refusing to vaccinate their children — they just wouldn’t be able to send them to school, too.

They wouldn’t have the right to put others in danger anymore — and that’s the way it should be.


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