TORONTO — The medical arguments for vaccinating children against infectious diseases are overwhelming, but they still fail to convince a significant number of parents who seek exemptions in provinces that require shots for kids in school.
It’s the reason Toronto Public Health is now asking Ontario to no longer allow people to opt-out for religious or philosophical reasons — objections that some scholars claim can’t actually be traced to Biblical or academic sources.
“The truth is, no major religion objects to vaccines,” says University of Guelph philosophy professor Maya Goldenberg, who has written a book on vaccine hesitancy due in 2020.
“There are sects within the major religions, like some evangelical churches, or even sects of Judaism and other religions that have determined that they do not vaccinate but it’s not grounded in religious doctrine, it’s more about the interpretation of doctrine.”
Nor does Goldenberg believe there are philosophical objections if that’s understood to mean ideas “grounded in some kind of philosophical framework.” She prefers to describe such views as “personal beliefs” or “conscientious objections.”
“It might be grounded in some philosophical ideas about nature and privileging of naturalness over artificial medical intervention, but there isn’t really a philosophy of vaccine refusal.”
Debate over the validity of non-medical exemptions has flared anew as Toronto Public Health presses the province to drop current allowances for religious and personal beliefs. A spokeswoman says a letter was sent to the health ministry this week, as were similar letters to health partners including Health Canada, the Registered Nurses’ Association of Ontario, and all Toronto school boards.
Vaccinations are a requirement to attend class in Ontario and New Brunswick, while British Columbia launched a demand this fall that students report immunization records. Back in February, a measles outbreak in Vancouver raised concerns about threats to herd immunity, which requires 95 per cent of a community to be vaccinated.
In Ontario, provincial data does not specify which exemptions are based on religion versus personal beliefs, but together they vastly outnumber exemptions based on medical reasons. Ontario Public Health data from the 2017-18 school year found roughly 2.5 per cent of seven-year-olds were exempted from immunizations for non-medical reasons versus roughly 0.2 per cent who were exempted for medical reasons.
Len Riemersma, a pastor at Maranatha Christian Reformed Church in Bowmanville, Ont., says he’d prefer the word “religious” not be associated with exemptions at all, since he, too, knows of no Biblical reason to oppose vaccines.
While he believes God uses many different means to bring about healing — including medicine — he says others believe they should “rely only on God.”
“It’s the small little groupings here on the outskirts and on the margins that say, ‘Oh, it’s this way.’ And then somehow it becomes a religious issue when in most cases, it’s not — it’s an interpretation issue. And to lump it all as religious is kind of unfair to the mainstream groups,” says Riemersma.
Nevertheless, he cautions against the province wading into religion, worrying it could be a “slippery slope” to infringing on religious and other Charter rights.
“For one institution to say, ‘Well, we can tell the religious community what they can and cannot do,’ then where does that stop? I’m a little afraid of that,” he says. “As soon as one says, ‘Well, we can dictate what’s going on,’ then you’re on dangerous ground as far as I’m concerned.”
The intrusion of government is of special concern to many who oppose mandatory vaccines, says one anti-vaccination advocacy group.
“No one, including the government, has the right to insist that another person, or another person’s child, be injected with anything,” Vaccine Choice Canada states in a one-page explainer provided by email.
“Vaccine mandates ignore our right to informed consent, security of the person, self-autonomy and bodily integrity, which includes the fundamental human right to decide what one allows, or doesn’t allow, into oneself and one’s children.”
Many also fear acknowledged risks of getting vaccines, which have included rare instances of serious adverse reactions, while religious concerns include claims that vaccines include aborted fetal tissue, a spokeswoman added by email.
The medical community has debunked widely disseminated claims that vaccines involve human tissue.
Vaccine Choice Canada has taken a firm stand against pressure to drop non-medical exemptions, saying Thursday it intends “to defend our rights and freedoms of Canadians and will pursue a charter challenge against the Ontario government should that be necessary.”
Addressing the various concerns of vaccine-hesitant and anti-vaccine crusaders is difficult, says Goldenberg, because their arguments run deeper than just distrust in Big Pharma, government, or science.
And the reasons are myriad: some might believe the diseases involved are not that serious, or that exposure to infectious disease builds a “natural immunity.”
Others believe organic foods or extended breastfeeding boost immunity; and there are the parents who essentially free-load off those who do vaccinate, believing they can manage any health threat by pulling their kids from school if there’s an outbreak.
Unlike many divisive issues such as climate change, abortion or gun control, Goldenberg notes anti-vaxxers cross the political spectrum, with opponents including left-wing progressives and right-wing conservatives. Even an eco-warrior whose understanding of climate change is science-based can be anti-vaccine, she notes.
“It’s not really about the science, it’s about what follows from those scientific claims,” says Goldenberg, adding it leads to divisive policy decisions.
“Same with climate change — if you accept that climate change is a real thing, is a real threat, then that leads you down to policy initiatives around market regulations, limiting carbon emissions.”
Nevertheless, debate is often framed around the science, and Goldenberg says “we would do well to move away from arguing about the science.”
“Let’s talk about some values and the policy implications,” she suggests.
“If you can separate those two, you can actually get a lot more consensus … and then you can actually get to the issues that are actually at the heart of the conflict, which are value conflicts and policy initiatives that affect people’s lives.”
Cassandra Szklarski, The Canadian Press