As Maine lawmakers consider changes to vaccine mandates, debunked conspiracy theories take hold
A slate of Republican-backed bills either repealing or preempting vaccine mandates drew hours of emotional testimony before the Legislature's education committee today. The hearings also became a platform for anti-vaccine activists and conspiracy theories.
In 2019, the Legislature made Maine was one of a half-dozen states that eliminated non-medical exemptions for vaccine requirements for school children.
The law was briefly suspended because of a people's veto referendum, but it was reinstated in 2020 when 72% of Maine voters supported it at the ballot box.
Since then the Maine CDC has reported some improvements in student vaccination rates for mumps, measles and pertussis, but at the same time, the requirement has fueled resentment among conservatives who believe the law infringes on religious liberty and unfairly penalizes students who say vaccines violate their faith.
13-year-old Ali Bell, of Houlton, is one of those students, and she pleaded with lawmakers to overturn the 2019 law.
"Do you know what it feels like to wake up every morning and learn in isolation when you've gone to school your entire life?" she asked. "Do you know how hard it is to sit on the sidelines and cheer on your teammates that you've always played with? Do you know how hard it is to see pictures of your friends dressed up, going to dances and not being able to go?"
Bell was one of scores of people who testified in support of legislation that would reinstate philosophical and religious exemptions, an issue currently in Lewiston public schools where roughly 120 students are out of compliance with the vaccine mandate.
Lawmakers also heard testimony on bills that would bar the state from making vaccination a requirement to attend any public education institution in Maine, and other measures that specifically target mandates for COVID-19 vaccines.
And it was during discussions of the COVID vaccines that debunked claims spread during the pandemic became a central feature of the hearing.
"It certainly appears that the intent is to harm or to kill. This is essentially legislating murder. It is not possible to legislate murder and grant yourselves immunity," said Christiane Northrup, a former OBGYN and celebrity doctor who is now known for spreading falsehoods about the efficacy, safety and purpose of the COVID vaccines.
She told lawmakers that the vaccines were part of a "global genocide enterprise" to depopulate and control humans, a goal she said was foretold in the creation of the Georgia Guidestones, a landmark of inscribed granite that became the focus of QAnon adherents because one inscription mentions capping the world population at 500 million.
No lawmaker challenged Northrup's claims, though several asked her to elaborate.
The hearing sets up a potentially contentious work session on the proposals before they advance to the Democratic-controlled House and Senate, where they face long odds for passage.