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By Jerry A. Coyne
As preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough are reappearing in the United States, many anti-vaxxers are re-evaluating their opposition to immunization, and others are questioning nonmedical exemptions from vaccine requirements. The California state Senate, for instance, just overruled a long-standing law that permitted parents with religious and philosophical reservations to send their children to public and private schools without their shots.
This is a sound decision: Vaccinations are safe and essential for the health of our society. We cannot allow philosophy or faith to trump public health. But denying children potentially life-saving vaccines is just one part of the problem; I’d like to eliminate even more exemptions: those now enshrined in many laws permitting religious parents to withhold scientific medical care from their children in favor of faith healing.
Forty-eight states—all except West Virginia and Mississippi—allow religious exemptions from vaccination. (California would be the third exception if its bill becomes law.) A similar deference to religion applies to all medical care for children. As the National District Attorneys Association reports, 43 states give some kind of criminal or civil immunity to parents who injure their children by withholding medical care on religious grounds.
If your faith mandates spiritual healing and your child dies because you offer prayer instead of insulin or antibiotics, your chances of being charged with a crime are slim. There are religious exemptions for child neglect and abuse, negligent homicide, involuntary manslaughter. Several states allow parents to use a religious defense against charges of murder of their child—and in some places they can’t be charged with murder at all. And even when parents are prosecuted, acquiescence to religious belief often leads to their being acquitted or given light sentences, including unsupervised parole. None of this, of course, applies to parents who refuse medical care on nonreligious grounds; those individuals get no immunity from prosecution.
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