Referendum: parents' rights versus public health

By Kendra Caruso | Feb 26, 2020
Photo by: Kendra Caruso Kaleigh Van Der Swaagh stands behind a table at an event about vaccinations at the Colonial Theatre Jan. 15.

Belfast — For registered nurse Melissa McDonald, the March 3 referendum question about vaccination exemptions is more than just a public health issue. She said she nearly died from measles when she was in elementary school, right around the time the vaccine first became available.

The People's Veto Referendum, Question 1 on the March 3 ballot, asks voters: "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?"

McDonald remembers lying in a hospital bed in her family’s dining room in Baltimore. She said she remembers her mother and grandmother crying over her after the doctor told them there was nothing more he could do. She said she turned to face the room's cream-colored wall and remembers feeling nothing and not caring about dying.

She managed to survive the illness after several weeks of missed school, but still has some permanent vision damage from the disease. Over her lifetime she said she has seen drastic reductions in deaths from communicable diseases like measles because of vaccines.

A yes vote on the referendum would allow philosophical and religious exemptions and a no vote would preserve the current law passed by the Legislature that will go into effect in September 2021.

McDonald said she is confused as to why some people are against vaccines, because the United States has experienced fewer cases of diseases that are deadly or that reduce quality of life as a result of widespread vaccination.

“Why would you want to risk something like that?” she asked. “That’s why we don’t have polio and smallpox and dysentery.”

There was a 100% decrease in deaths from polio, smallpox and diphtheria by 2017, compared to figures from the 20th century, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But for small-business owner Kaleigh Van Der Swaagh of Belfast, Question 1 is about parental and personal autonomy. She said it is governmental overreach to require children to be vaccinated to attend public schools and daycares without considering the parents' religious or philosophical preferences.

She said some religions prevent people from consuming products from animals like cows and pigs, which she said are sometimes contained in vaccines. She said she worries that the law will force some parents to quit working to homeschool their children.“A lot of these parents can’t educate their children at home,” she said. “They don’t have the means or resources.”

There were at least 12,875 unvaccinated kindergartners statewide in the 2018-2019 school year, according to the Maine CDC. Van Der Swaagh said a large portion of those students probably will be homeschooled by parents who cannot afford a personal tutor and do not have the capability to properly homeschool their children.

She said the law is not a necessity in the state because Maine’s herd immunity is at a high-enough level. Herd immunity refers to the effect of having nearly everyone in a population vaccinated against a particular disease. Maine’s target vaccination rate for herd immunity is 95% and most schools in each Maine county were above or just below that rate for vaccines in the 2018-2019 school year, according to the Maine CDC.

Lincoln was the only county that had school immunization rates just below 90% on average during that school year, the Maine CDC says on its website.

While Van Der Swaagh was seeking signatures in 2019 for the referendum, she said, she had many heated debates with people about the issue. She said a common claim was that pharmaceutical companies were not donating to organizations opposing the referendum.

But pharmaceutical companies Merck and Pfizer donated $500,000 to opposition group Maine Street Solutions for its ads against the referendum, according to Bangor Daily News articles in recent weeks.

She said she also received death threats from opponents and comments from people that they wished she and her son would die for her stance on the law.

She said she moved to Belfast because it seemed like an open and welcoming community, but her experience advocating for this referendum and seeing the community fight over Nordic Aquafarms’ proposed land-based fish farm has made the town feel like less of a community.

“We all have to live together after March 3,” she said. “I don’t want this to rip apart our town when it's already in shambles over the fish farm.”

Van Der Swaagh said the law could have an adverse effect on the economy, as well as on some children’s education, and might force people who do not support the mandate to move out of state.

Melissa McDonald sits at her kitchen table with her cats in Brooks Feb. 19. (Photo by: Kendra Caruso)
Comments (5)
Posted by: John E Marshall | Feb 29, 2020 10:32

Oh yes, lets go after "Big Bad Pharma" whose profits on vaccines are a meager percentage of their revenue stream. This is especially true in a low population state with a low birth-rate like Maine where there is also a  risk of  nuisance liability suit from families with an autistic child who will blame vaccination, aluminum cookware or their OB. Perhaps all three.

We will, of course, expect Big Pharma to do immediate all out production of a CD-19 vaccine when one is developed.

Posted by: TROY HOWARD MIDDLE SCHOOL | Feb 27, 2020 19:49

Previous post from Ellie Weaver RN,  BEN    Retired

Posted by: TROY HOWARD MIDDLE SCHOOL | Feb 27, 2020 19:47

As a retired School Nurse of 16 years in a local school system I support a No vote on Question 1. Having had multiple interactions with families in discussions pertaining to vaccinations, the main rational given was they did not want their child to have the number of shots  recommended. There were few cases when a question of an allergic reaction or previous medical concerns prevented the vaccine administration.  The process of writing for a Religious or Philosophical exemption seldom had any supporting documentation to back up the decision, and the schools do not have the right to question the decision.

I do agree that individual families have the right to make medical decisions for their children. The change in the law to require a Medical opinion prior to the school exemption being excepted does not negate this. What it does allows is for both the conversation/education to occur between the parent and Doctor. In most situations families are utilizing medical professionals for illness or injuries for family members, that this expertise is not needed for an issue that has such a large impact not only on the child but the community negates that they are also our Public Health Officers. A

medical Exemption signed by the child's Medical Provider will be excepted as written. That school systems are required to collect, monitor and enforce the exemption system with out a Medical opinion places a huge responsibility on school staff. This conversation and decision process should occur between the family and Health Care providers, with a clear plan prior to the child school attendance.

The rules from the Maine Department of Education sets parameters on when all students need to be vaccinated or have their Exemptions delivered to the school, this allows ample time for families to comply with State law.

Posted by: Patricia Keyes | Feb 27, 2020 17:29

A 'Yes' vote will Reject the legislature's new law that makes vaccinations mandatory for attendance in practically all educational venues, kindergarten to college, and even online classes (which makes no sense at all). This means no more philosophical, religious or even medical exemptions! For the 40% of our population (and growing) who are genetically proven to be crippled by vaccines resulting in severe autism, there would be no legal participation in school, nor in jobs in the healthcare or childcare industries!

Disregarding the hearing process, marked by little advance notice, after more than 13 hours of testimony lasting until 2 am, from parents and health professionals around the state, more than 80% of which were strongly against this bill, the majority party ignored the testimony and passed this law. This means RSU-71 would eject as many as 357 students from the system, even previously vaccinated students who were a day late on the latest round, losing more than $4,434,368 in funding! And let's not forget the absolute lunacy of allowing politicians, not yourself, nor your doctor, to force a medical procedure on you, tantamount to physical assault, against your will! And what other procedures will they have lined up behind the curtain in the name of false security? Did you know that 34% of medications and vaccines come from China? The country that sends us toys with lead paint? Need I mention Coronavirus?

Voting 'yes' to repeal this bad law will not stop anyone from getting vaccinated. It merely allows each Maine person to continue to make their own choices. If you believe in vaccines, and you trust that they work, you can get vaccinated, same as usual. You don't have to worry about getting a disease from an unvaccinated person, because you believe vaccines work, and you got vaccinated.

Let the people who know their own bodies make their own decisions. I don't go to a game show host to get brain surgery. I certainly don't want to go to a politician, heavily backed by big pharma, to get medical advice, never mind excluded from society. Nobody is against quarantine for persons exposed or exhibiting symptoms.

You can't blame general practitioner doctors, but they are not taught anything about vaccines as they currently exist. They have an astronomical amount of information to force into their heads to graduate, so they can PRACTICE. Be sure they do not know everything, especially in these days when science is exponentially increasing the total amount of factual information being learned each year. Newly graduated doctors get free samples to sell or give away to patients. They are given a schedule suggested by the people who make profits from the sales. They are told to follow standard of practice to avoid lawsuits. (This goes for your pets, too, folks!)

Life is not safe. You cannot have complete control of your world, and the people in it. What matters is not how you die, but how you live. The CDC is NOT interested in public health anymore. They are interested in the corporate "donations" to their "fund". They are MAKING MONEY off of vaccines and they KNOW the vaccines ARE DANGEROUS, especially to kids from age 12 mo - 3 yrs. And the statistics for damage to black children, especially black boys, are more than double than for other subcategories of our national demographics. Why won't they tell you this? Because one of the CDC executives who has lied to Congress and the press now works for MERCK, and MERCK holds the patent on MMR 3-way vaccines. It's the ability to put 3 diseases in one shot that they have patented. The mercury in these vaccines is dangerous. If they would simply vaccinate for one disease at a time (unpatentable), just measles, just mumps, just rubella, and do the next at least a month later, there would be no problem. But MERCK would lose money! This is a massive coverup. And they expect 1 in 2 children to be on the Autism spectrum by 2032 because of these "untested" vaccines.

This is horrendous. And 50% of kids in the U.S. are now genetically predisposed to bad reactions right out the gate! They can prove that vaccines will cause irreparable damage. And ignorant people want a one-size-fits-all ban, against human free will, LIFE, LIBERTY and the PURSUIT of HAPPINESS.

Vote for freedom from Orwellian control of the individual. Vote YES on 1.

Posted by: Paul Sheridan | Feb 27, 2020 09:00

Here's the thing: I am all for allowing parents deciding to not vaccinate their kids.  You have "agency" over them, and are responsible for them, however your decisions turn out.  You also get to cover their medical bills, correct?

Good thing to have, freedom, I would say.

But...and a big BUT it is, your freedom stops when you harm others.

So, go ahead do not vaccinate your children.  That means you will be home-schooling them.  So, good, they are not in school with all of our kids.  Please keep your kids inside, and do not bring them to the public library, the swimming pools, beaches, lakes, the movie theater, the local stores, big and small, etc.

Without vaccinations, you can be a carrier of some of these diseases without contracting the disease itself.  Search for "Typhoid Mary," a real person, who infected 51 people, 3 who died.

Kind of a lousy life for your kids, but it is what you have chosen.  They are statistically in more danger at home from a fall down some stairs or a dresser tipping over than they are from side effects from vaccines.

I am old enough to remember the sheer terror felt by school kids over polio until there was a vaccine. The images of kids' lives spent living in an iron lung are still very clear to me. Please do an online search about this and educate yourself.

And--America, just because you do not "like" science does not make it any less real.  Facts count.

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