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By Rose Hoban
In the wake of legislators filing a new bill that would all but remove religious exemptions from childhood vaccinations for schoolchildren, several dozen opponents of vaccine mandates descended on Jones Street Tuesday to protest the measure.
Standing in front of the General Assembly Tuesday morning with a sign reading “Stop Medical Terrorism,” Lisa Jillani, who heads a Charlotte-based organization called People Advocating Vaccine Education, called the bill “draconian.”
“I have religious exemption to vaccinations, and contrary to what Jeff Tarte says it’s not a bogus exemption; it is my personally held religious belief that I should not vaccinate myself or my children,” Jillani said.
When asked her religious denomination, Jillani said she had none. She said she has a “very, very close relationship with God. I pray every day. I see God’s guidance in everything. And there is no way… I will go to any lengths to keep myself and my children unvaccinated.”
Bill sponsor Sen. Jeff Tarte (R-Cornelius) said he understood that people have their personal beliefs and that those can be the basis for not getting a child vaccinated. But he also said the state has an interest in seeing that schoolchildren get vaccinated.
“You have a loud vocal group who has a position and you have others who have other positions,” Tarte said. “There’s probably multiple positions in this particular issue. But it’s also important [to ask], ‘How do we balance individual rights with the greater good in the case of the whole population?’”
Jillani was not so sure about the obligations of parents with regard to the rest of the population.
“It will probably sound cold to say this, but it’s each parent’s responsibility to protect their child,” she said. “If my child were immune-compromised, I would never expect another parent to have a procedure performed that might risk their child just to protect mine.”
The issue of parents’ rights was on the mind of Kerri Pechin, who came to the legislature from Youngsville with most of her eight children. Only the oldest two of her children are vaccinated, and one of her children was holding up a sign reading: “Don’t confuse the real issue, it’s not about safety, it’s about a parent’s right to choose.”
“I gave birth to these children and I believe in God,” Pechin said. “He made human beings. He gave these children to me, he did not give them to the state.”
She pointed at the grassy field behind the legislative building and said, “As far as I know, they were not born in the middle of this field by the state.”
Pechin also said she doesn’t try to tell others not to vaccinate their children, that the decision should be a parent’s choice.
But according to civil libertarians, the issue is murkier, said Sarah Preston, the governmental affairs representative for the ACLU of North Carolina, which has not taken a position for or against the bill.
“While parents have wide leeway in how they bring up their children, the state unquestionably has a compelling interest in protecting children from dangerous diseases,” Preston said.
She said the ACLU is monitoring the bill closely for changes in the language that might alter her organization’s stance.
“At the moment, we think that the bill as written appropriately balances those interests,” Preston said.
She said things that might alter the ACLU’s position would be changes to the number of diseases vaccinated against, how effective those vaccines are and how dangerous the diseases vaccinated against are.
She also said her organization would have an issue if the bill attempted to extend the vaccine requirement to people who homeschool their children.
Sen. Terry Van Duyn (D-Asheville), another of the bill’s sponsors, said she had expected opposition to the bill. She said she’s sympathetic to people’s fears, as she has a son who is autistic, that she is firm on the public health issues.
“In the county where I live, we have pockets of the population where vaccination opt-out rates are as high as 30 percent,” she said. “[Public health officials] talk about how as a state we have 95 percent vaccination rates, but that’s the average. That doesn’t tell the whole story.”
Van Duyn also said she’s heard from many of her constituents who are unhappy with her sponsorship of the bill.
“I understand that they’re concerned, but I’m hoping that they’re willing to stick it out with me as we get more information and find a way to thread the needle,” she said. “It’s not my intention to make people do anything; it’s my intention to get more people vaccinated to protect our kids.”
Both Van Duyn and Tarte said the hearing process would be deliberate and transparent. Tarte said hearings would take place in the coming weeks, and that they were lining up experts to speak on the bill.
“We want sunlight on the process. I’m hoping when we’re all done, that [people] will be happy with the process,” Van Duyn said, “even if they may or may not be happy with the outcome.”