“Do you want to reject the new law that removes religious and philosophical exemptions to requiring immunization against certain communicable diseases for students to attend schools and colleges and for employees of nursery schools and health care facilities?”

That’s the question voters will be asked when they go to the polls March 3. If they have been following the disingenuous Yes on 1  people’s veto campaign, they will probably be confused.

Voters might be surprised to learn that they won’t be asked to vote against Big Pharma, as the campaign claims on its signs. They won’t be asked to restore access to education. They won’t be voting on “medical freedom.”

A “yes” victory on this question would simply restore an opt-out of immunization requirements based on personal beliefs. The Legislature acted last year because those exemptions were being abused by people who are motivated not by religion or philosophy, but by a discredited reading of scientific literature that says vaccines cause more harm than good.

If there were a legitimate scientific argument to make, this referendum wouldn’t be the way to make it. If the public health value of vaccines were truly a matter of controversy – and it is not – then immunizations shouldn’t be required for anyone, not just people of a particular belief system. The correct way to make the argument against vaccine requirements would be a bill before the Legislature that would make all  vaccines optional for everyone.

But since there is no real controversy among scientific, medical and public health authorities, vaccine skeptics have decided to make an end run, and claim they are in favor of free thought or against corporate greed.


The pharmaceutical industry is a grossly bloated sector of the health care system that makes obscene profit off people’s need for medicine. But vaccines make up only a small fraction of their business. Drug manufacturers probably make more money treating diseases than preventing them. If Question 1 succeeds, and the religious and philosophical exemptions were restored, the most Big Pharma could lose was the business of a few hundred Maine families. That’s hardly enough to shake the foundations of a trillion-dollar industry.

Question 1 supporters should be arguing for their position on religious or philosophical grounds, but even there they have trouble.

No religious denomination forbids the use of vaccines. Philosophy, which means “love of wisdom” in Greek, usually uses reason as a tool to find truth. Neither of these systems of thought is the foundation of the growing movement toward vaccine skepticism. That is driven by a cynical distrust of official sources and an irrational devotion to fringe doctrines that reinforce paranoia.

You could make a better case for making vaccines optional if the people who opt out were the only ones at risk, but they are not. People with suppressed immune systems can’t be vaccinated and are at risk when they come into contact with people who have chosen not to immunize. Because Maine law preserves medically necessary exemptions from vaccine requirements, these people are protected from infection only by widespread immunity among the people they encounter.

The real question that voters will have to decide next month is this: Despite a medical and scientific consensus in favor of using vaccines to limit the spread of disease, should some people be allowed to opt out, putting the most vulnerable members of their community at risk?

When you ask it that way, the only right answer is “no.”

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