Raleigh, N.C. — Several dozen parents opposed to vaccines came to Raleigh Tuesday to ask lawmakers to preserve the state's religious exemption from immunization requirements.
Surrounded by children, the protestors held signs comparing mandatory vaccination to Nazi Germany, war crimes and terrorism.
Current state law requires certain immunizations before a child can enter school in North Carolina. However, parents can opt their children out of those requirements simply by stating in writing that they have a religious objection to vaccinations.
A proposal filed last week by three state senators would remove the religious exemption entirely and add several other vaccines recommended by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to the list of those the state requires. Medical exemptions for children who cannot be immunized would still be allowed with a doctor's signature.
Bill sponsors cite increasing use of the exemption by parents who believe vaccines are dangerous.
The anti-vaccination movement picked up steam after a 1998 British study purported to show a link between childhood measles vaccinations and autism. That study has since been debunked and retracted after investigators found the researchers misrepresented and made up data.
The CDC and the vast majority of pediatricians and experts recommend childhood vaccines, citing the very low incidence of adverse reactions to them in numerous studies.
Nonetheless, low risk is not no risk. Adverse reactions, though rare, do occur, and vaccine opponents point to those as proof that the vaccines are not safe for children.
"We have a right to our own bodies," Youngstown mother Kerri Pechin said Tuesday. "By pumping in known toxins, we're doing our bodies a disservice."
Pechin, a mother of eight, believes it's an issue of parental rights. She doesn't believe the risk of an outbreak of communicable disease is as great as public health experts say or that unvaccinated children substantially increase that risk.
"We think it's more of a control issue than a safety issue," she said. "Somewhere I read any measles that have come in have come in from outside the United States.
"I don't think we're a threat to the public. If you have a vaccine, why would you be afraid that you would catch something?" she added.
Asked about the risk to people who cannot be vaccinated because their immune systems are compromised, such as children being treated for cancer, Pechin responded, "If you’re immune-compromised, a cold is deadly. So, then you’re talking about, does everybody with a cold stay home?
"I think it should be a human right to decide if this is going to be put into our bodies or not. That’s all," she said. "People see this as a choice, a freedom, and it should not be taken away."
Sen. Tamara Barringer, R-Wake, says she's been deluged with calls and messages from parents. She said she and the other two sponsors, Sens. Jeff Tarte, R-Mecklenburg, and Terry Van Duyn, D-Buncombe, are committed to having an open public meeting to allow all sides to express their concerns.
"We are going to have thoughtful, rigorous and deliberate debate and discussion about this," Barringer said. "Nothing's been decided. I'm completely open-minded."
Of vaccine opponents, Barringer said, "If what they say is true, then we will legislate accordingly."