What started with a pretty mild Facebook post by me about the Measles outbreak 6 months ago became a letter to the editor and then a Moveon petition, an I <3 Immunity icon, a grassroots team, and now California law. I admit I did not know quite what I was getting into when I became involved in vaccine politics. But I knew my purpose.
Unlike my parents who were at times threatened and ostracized for their beliefs, I’ve had a pretty easy time in my generation standing up for what I believe: women’s rights, gay rights, social justice, ending discrimination and racism. I’ve lived in 8 cities in 5 states and 4 countries. But in my age group in those years progressive politics were the way. I did think I was the rebel by piercing my nose and getting illegally tattooed at 16. But that was superficial stuff. It was my parents, the old depression era kids who were the courageous ones. At a time in our lives when most parents seek a safe and happy neighborhood for raising a family they chose to move us to the urban hotbed of civil rights activism in 1970. They lived and breathed and raised in us the change they wanted to see. They lost friends and made many more. It was awkward and chaotic at times but it was our life and the values it imprinted on my sisters and me are permanent.
It startles and saddens me that speaking out on this cause, a common sense public health measure, has drawn more ire than any position I have ever taken. It’s an important cause but it does not deserve the drama. My colleagues and I have been stalked, bullied, harassed, insulted and mocked for speaking up in favor of vaccines for schools. With the issues of terrorism, racial violence, prison reform and poverty, I find it disturbing that vaccines for schools causes such unwarranted hatred toward good people. That the plight of having to homeschool if they don’t participate in vaccine requirements is equated with discrimination for immutable characteristics like gender, race, ethnicity, disability is appalling. This is not a moral dispute, this is a dispute of the privileged who enjoy two very different versions of reality.
I did not dedicate my life to the poor, the sick, the needy. But because of early training from my activist mother I have a deep appreciation of what it means to care about our public. The public is us – all of us. This vaccine law that just passed in California doesn’t protect my kids, vaccines already protect them. This law protects us.
Six months of intense work culminated in two days of excitement. I had the honor of being there to greet Senators Pan and Allen as they exited the final Senate vote on Monday. And then Tuesday morning as I was taping signs on boxes of letters of support I heard news that the Governor had signed the bill as soon as it had hit his desk. I cried with relief, hugged the first person I saw and trembling, shared a photo of us holding the faxed letter to our team. Reason had won.
In support of the bill, a group of parents and grandparents organically developed to become Vaccinate California, co-sponsor of the legislation. At the core of this group are some amazing humans I can now call my friends: a pediatric oncology nurse, attorneys, a law professor, an autism advocate, a Spanish teacher, school nurses, an immunologist, a pediatric trauma doc, delegates, scientists, a software developer, science teachers, mothers of medically fragile children, a school administrator, an actor, a filmmaker, writers, myself a designer. It was like the UN of diverse intellectual achievement.* If you doubt the authenticity of this bill’s public support in it’s passage I can tell you it had broad and diverse support. Yes we had impressive endorsements by entities, but it was the individuals who signed up to help pass this law who were most impressive to me. Not one of these people I am referring to benefits financially from this work, yet poured hours of priceless time and energy into grassroots organizing to try to make this state safer for all, especially the most vulnerable. I have learned immensely from these people and hundreds of others who have communicated with us over the course of this project. I learned about science, the law, government, politics, social media, organizing, psychology, ethics. What I learned most was the power of collaboration, having a shared sense of purpose, and the value of remaining positive and civil and focused.
I also had the honor of meeting the Senators and Assemblymembers who authored this bill and the staffers – a special breed of people who juggle labyrinthine schedules, their own babies, a nonstop stream of unpredictability, and in the case of this bill a torrent of both inquiring and assaulting phone calls. Good smart people are running this state.
Whatever your position is on the topic (there are two) I will say this: our political process is intact. Tens of thousands of Californians spoke up to protect public health by ensuring all schools are equally protected against certain diseases, a bill was drafted, vetted through four legislative committees with more testimony than any other bill in recent history, voted on seven times, and signed by the governor.
A Libertarian will never see this law as a good thing. I understand, but I’m not Libertarian. I see government working for us, with limitations and with our help. I want our taxes to pay for the safest roads, the cleanest water, the clearest air, the best schools and healthcare, the fairest society, the strictest gun control, and the cleanest bill of public health. I will never say that is too much to ask. I am happy to say I have met lawmakers who have the conviction and smarts to work toward these goals. We do need laws to govern and protect and this is one of them.
Throughout this project I have been constantly reminded that there are other pressing causes besides vaccines. I feel much more strongly, for instance, about racial discrimination and educational parity than immunization law, but I did not have a clear role to play in those issues at the time. This cause arrived on my doorstep in Napa because of the peculiar community I found myself in with a newborn and kids at school: one in which I initially felt akin but then discovered to be science skeptical, vaccine averse, and disease vulnerable. The pro vaccine voices were there, but they were silent.
During the final hearing on the bill in the Assembly Health committee after testimony in which I spoke, Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a vociferous supporter of this bill, was emphatically stating the public health reasons for this policy change. I was sitting in the front with my 2 year old in my lap when a woman from the opposition stood up behind us and began screaming and waving her arms. It was a frightening and chaotic few moments while the sergeants removed her. In the mayhem as MJ clutched my neck in fear, the only thing I made out from the woman’s howling rant was “My child is more important than yours Gonzalez!!”
A kid just died from Diphtheria in Spain. His parents didn’t vaccinate because they believed vaccines were dangerous and now they are both angry and mourning the unnecessary loss of their child. That child was also important, but no more or less.
I hope now that this law has passed more people like me feel empowered to speak up in favor of vaccines; not to start an argument but to make the matter of fact statements: “Yes, I vaccinate my kids. It’s important for their health and the health of others around them. Yes schools should require vaccines just like they ban guns, smoking, and foods that could cause a deadly reaction in allergic kids.”
Legislation is a collaborative process. Questions that were raised at the very beginning about homeschool options and medical exemptions, two of the primary concerns I heard after the bill was introduced, were explored in committee and articulated in amendments. But those clarifications of language were not acknowledged as such by the opposition. What we still hear is this: vaccines are bad, this law is bad, everyone who supported it is bad.
I did not create this problem or seek to be divisive by speaking up. I offered my voice as a parent, provided my skills as a designer, and my passion as a children’s health advocate to the coalition of many working toward this solution. I do hope more vaccine skeptical parents take a second objective look at the facts,** ask questions of actual experts in medicine, open their minds to the possibility that vaccines are a safe and reasonable requirement to participate in school.
*The biggest debt of gratitude I have is for the leadership and friendship of the brilliant, patient, compassionate, tireless, and fierce Leah Russin.
*Some good resources for questions on vaccine science are:
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia Vaccine Education Center
Vince Ianelli, MD’s list of vaccine references
The Vaccine Page on Facebook: provides respectful support for parents and others wanting to learn about vaccines
Warning: Do not rely on NVIC, as it is the biggest mouthpiece for the anti-vaccine movement, consistently disseminating counter-factual and deceptive material. The name is misleading.
Information about the law can be found here.