DES MOINES — Legislation allowing Iowans to exercise a “personal conviction” exemption from state law requiring their children to be vaccinated before enrolling in licensed day care and public school won preliminary approval Thursday.
A three-member subcommittee approved House File 7 after Republicans argued the immunization mandate violates Iowans religious liberties and personal freedoms.
“It always seems to me that to force somebody to put something in their body just seems against the liberties we have in this country,” Rep. Sandy Salmon, R-Janesville, said. Although she promised to continue reviewing material presented by health care advocates, she said whether to immunize children should be an individual decision.
Rep. Beth Wessel-Kroeschell, D-Ames, said immunizations are a public health issue and “by making this exemption we are becoming a danger to others.”
Iowa allows parents to exercise a religious or medical exemption to immunization requirements. Sponsored by Rep. Ken Rizer, R-Cedar Rapids, the proposed legislation would add “personal conviction.” All states allow medical exemptions, 45 allow religious exemptions and 19 allow philosophical exemptions.
The number of religious exemptions in Iowa has risen to 1.3 percent or 6,737 K-12 students, Deborah Thompson of the Iowa Department of Public Health told lawmakers. Currently, Iowa’s immunization rate for mumps, measles and rubella — or MMR — is 91.8 percent, 43rd among states.
Although some people assume Iowans with philosophical opposition to vaccinations use the religious exemption, Thompson said evidence from other states shows a correlation between the number of exemptions and an increase in the number of children not immunized.
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Pediatrician Nathan Boonstra said the most tragic things he has seen in his practice at Blank Children’s Hospital in Des Moines, “have been cases of disease in children that could have easily been prevented with a vaccine.”
Parents have latitude in making decisions for their children, but “to not immunize without good medical reason puts that child at risk,” he said.
The common good — protecting the community from preventable disease — even if it might seem to infringe on personal freedom was cited in arguments against the bill.
“I think in this country, every now and then, when we decide you become a danger to yourself and others, we give up a little bit of our constitutional rights in order to protect the whole,” Thompson said, suggesting drunken driving laws as an example.
Lori Harvey of Boone, representing Vaccine-Free Health and Iowans for Health Freedom, supported the bill because of studies linking vaccines and autism.
“Autism has skyrocketed because of the mandate every single child be vaccinated,” she said, asking the lawmakers to “give parents the option to say ‘no.’ ”
Although the vaccination-autism theory persists, the preponderance of medical studies have found no link between vaccinations and autism. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention promotes vaccinations for children as a means to avoiding potentially harmful diseases.
Complications from immunizations are rare, Wessel-Kroeschell said. “I would like us to consider not only our own personal selves, but when we become a danger to others we need to take precautions.”
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However, Sen. Dennis Guth, R-Klemme, told the committee that although he’s not anti-vaccine, “I would be opposed to the fact we force people to do that.”
“Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness certainly includes what we’re going to stick in our bodies as far as vaccinations and things like that,” Guth said.
Subcommittee Chairman Steve Holt, R-Denison, said he was speaking for parents who believe their children have been made sick by immunizations.
“And while they may or may not be correct, I will not dismiss their concerns,” he said. “I believe in freedom. I do not believe in this context that government should have the right to order parents to immunize their children.”
Instead, government should try to convince people of the value of immunizations, “but ultimately, I believe that decision must be left up to parents.”
The next decision will be up to the House Human Resources Committee.
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