Vaccinations and the Misreporting of the “Parent’s Bill of Rights”

If there’s one thing I hate more than faulty reporting of a political issue, it’s when the faulty reporting is mine. Earlier today on Twitter I wrongly accused Progress Now Colorado of misstating the text of a bill, Colorado Senate Bill 15-077 (the “Parent’s Bill of Rights”). I apologized for that, and I here apologize again. The basic issue is whether and in what respect the bill touches on parental choice with respect to vaccinations.

Unfortunately, some of the other reporting of the bill significantly mischaracterizes it—including that by Progress Now Colorado. Here I’d like to clarify what the bill actually says, correct my own factual error, and comment on other reporting about the bill.

Some preliminary remarks: I have no position on the bill in question, because I have not researched it adequately to reach a position on it. Offhand, it seems like an overly ambitious, overly broad bill. (It will almost certainly fail, so I see little need to look more closely into it at this time.)

As a matter of political strategy, the bill represents a massive failure for the Colorado GOP. The state senate is definitely in play next year, and Democrats will almost certainly use this bill to scare parents about outbreaks of horrific diseases. My state senator, Laura Woods, a cosponsor of the bill, likely will suffer hit pieces on the matter—we live in an extremely competitive district that until recently was held by Democrats. (In an email about the bill, Progress Now Colorado explicitly named Woods and only her, even though she is not the bill’s primary sponsor.) The bill, introduced January 14 (see the legislature’s web page), winds through the legislature just when national debate rages about vaccinations. So why stir that pot for a bill that doesn’t even have a chance to pass, especially using the names of at-risk legislators? Strategically, the bill is idiotic.

Cleverly taking advantage of the media storm surrounding vaccinations, Progress Now Colorado described SB-77 this way in an email this morning:

One of the worst attacks we’re seeing right now is on public health and education. News reports this week show that Colorado has the lowest rate of childhood vaccinations in America. Right-wing politicians like Rand Paul have come under fire for suggesting that vaccines might be responsible for mental health problems in children, even though that theory has been totally discredited by scientific research.

Right on cue, Colorado conservatives in the Senate have introduced a bill reaffirming the “right” of parents to not have their children vaccinated. With outbreaks of preventable diseases like measles and whooping cough making nationwide headlines, is there a worse message we could send to Colorado parents?

The email’s description is technically accurate but incomplete. The nine-page bill includes a single line about immunization. Here’s what the relevant section of the bill states:

The board of education of a school district, in consultation with parents, teachers, and administrators, shall develop and adopt a policy to promote the involvement of parents of children enrolled in the schools within the school district. The policy must include . . . [p]rocedures by which a parent can learn about the parental rights and responsibilities under the laws of the this state, including the right to . . . [b]e exempt from any immunization laws of this state.

In other words, the bill doesn’t do anything to alter current immunization laws; it merely directs school boards to help parents better “learn” about existing statutes. (Why parents might need the help of school boards to learn about statutes they can easily look up for themselves is beyond me.)

Again, the bit about immunization takes up a single line of a nine-page bill—yet not only Progress Now Colorado but various news outlets made it seem as though vaccinations was the primary issue of the bill.

An article by CBS4 carries the title, “Bill Would Support Parents Opting Out Of Child Vaccinations.” Although the article is technically accurate, it is misleading in that it doesn’t even mention any aspect of the bill besides vaccinations until the fourth paragraph.

The headline of a 9News article states, “‘Parents Bill of Rights’ proposal underlines vaccines, sex education opt-outs.” Again, the article (by Eli Stokols) is technically correct, yet it wrongly implies that the bill is predominantly about vaccinations and sex education. (The bill mentions sex several times, but that too is only a minor aspect of the bill.)

Stokols’s article also wrongly claims the bill “authoriz[es] Colorado parents to make all medical decisions for their children until they’re 18.”  Actually, the bill expressly allows government to intervene when there is a “compelling governmental interest” in doing so, if that interest “is of the highest order, is narrowly tailored, and cannot be accomplished in a less restrictive manner.” The bill also offers exceptions “as otherwise provided by law.”

Notably, the bill mentions neither vaccinations nor sex in its summary; instead, the summary states, “The bill establishes a parent’s bill of rights that sets forth specific parental rights related to education, health care, and mental health care of minor children.”

Given that SB-77 does not alter existing vaccination laws, but only creates new guidelines for educating parents about those laws, what do existing state laws say about vaccinations? Revised Statute 25-4-903, pertaining to “school entry,” states, “It is the responsibility of the parent or legal guardian to have his or her child immunized.” It offers exemptions for health reasons, on the basis of “a religious belief whose teachings are opposed to immunizations,” and on the basis of “a personal belief that is opposed to immunizations.” I’m not sure, but I’m guessing the statutes apply to homeschoolers and to students in private schools as well as to students in government schools. I’m also guessing that, because of the compulsory attendance laws, all parents of school-age children legally must comply with these statutes, ether getting the immunizations or filing for an exemption. Those points merit further research.

Obviously, neither Progress Now Colorado nor any Colorado Democrat is likely to come out publicly in favor of repealing the existing exemptions. So they support, at least tacitly, the exact same vaccination policy that the Republicans they’re demonizing support.

But, for some reason, neither reporters nor political hacktivists see the percentage in running the headline, “Democrats Support the Exact Same Vaccination Laws that Republicans Support, Quibble Over Providing Information”—even though that is the essential truth here.

So where did I go wrong in my initial reporting? In my initial hasty reading of the bill, I looked for the term “vaccination” and missed the related term “immunization.” That was simply an oversight. I thought Progress Now Colorado was reading an implication into the bill that it didn’t explicitly cover. I hastily Tweeted my erroneous conclusion.

Thankfully, Eli Sokols corrected me, pointing me to the relevant line in question, at which point I thanked him and apologized to Progress Now Colorado and to Alan Franklin (a supporter of that group) for my error. I again apologize to those parties, and I again express my appreciation to Stokols for taking the time to point out my error. This serves at a good reminder not to come out swinging without firmly nailing down the relevant facts.

I take solace in the fact that, with this report, I feel I’ve done the matter justice.

Update: Alan Franklin reports that “anti-vaxxers”—people opposed to vaccinations—testified today in favor of the bill. This underlines my point that, strategically, the bill is a disaster for Republicans. I bet the Democrats on the committee can barely contain their glee at witnessing the farce; it’s as though Republicans are writing the attack ads against themselves. I do find it interesting that both the opponents of vaccinations and Democratic operatives are trying to paint the bill as something that it is not: a measure altering vaccination exemptions. At any rate, in case my position was not clear by implication: Vaccines are a wonderful, life-saving medical advance, and parents generally should get their children vaccinated against the relevant diseases.

Second Update: I made yet another error in the original version of this report, and I rewrote it just before 6 pm local time to correct the mistake. (This time Alan Franklin corrected me, which I again appreciate.) Originally I saw the religious exemption in state statutes but missed the exemption for “personal belief.” Originally, I remarked that having only a religious exemption is wrong; however, because there’s not only a religious exemption, that remark was misplaced. Again, I do not have a well-developed policy position on such issues.

Third Update: In an article time-stamped 5:31 pm (but that I read some hours later), ABC7 reports that SB-77 passed out of committee on a party-line vote. The article contains this remarkable passage:

The measure also mentions the controversial topic of immunizations, underscoring current Colorado law that allows parents to opt out of vaccinating their kids for medical, religious or personal beliefs by signing a waiver. 7NEWS asked if the bill would get rid of the waiver process.

“Yes, I mean, I would assume so,” [bill sponsor Tim] Neville said.

But I see no language in the bill that would remove the waiver process for vaccination exemption; the language quoted above certainly doesn’t do that. So I must conclude either that Neville had no idea what the reporter (Lindsay Watts) was asking, or he doesn’t fully understand his own bill. (That would not come as much of a surprise; legislators have a staff to write the language of bills.)

The article also summarizes: “Opponents argued at Thursday’s Senate Education Committee hearing that the measure would prevent children being physically or sexually abused from getting help, especially if a parent was the abuser.” Although I think the fear is exaggerated, I am concerned about language in the bill such as the following: “Except as otherwise provided by law, no [party] . . . may . . . perform a physical examination upon a minor child . . . without first obtaining written consent from the minor child’s parent.” What does “as otherwise provided by law” cover, exactly? Obviously, it would be a horrible outcome if, even in some cases, abusive parents could use the law to shield themselves from scrutiny. I am, to say the least, extremely skeptical that the bill is well written and narrowly tailored to address real problems.