Battle Lines Drawn In Fight Over Vaccination Exemptions In Maine

Feb 4, 2020

The opposing sides in Maine’s upcoming vaccination referendum officially kicked off their campaigns Tuesday in Augusta.

On March 3, Maine voters will be asked to overturn a new law that eliminates religious and philosophical exemptions for child vaccinations. The campaigns both for and against Question 1 say there’s much more at stake than the fate of the new law.

The Yes and No campaigns for Question 1 held back-to-back press conferences in packed rooms at the State House Tuesday morning. The Yes campaign, which spearheaded the veto referendum, was first up.

Co-chair Cara Sacks says Maine voters should repeal what she calls a draconian law that takes away the right to cite personal and religious reasons for exempting schoolchildren, as well as employees of nursery schools and health care facilities, from mandatory vaccinations.

Dr. Zach Mazone speaks in support of repealing Maine's law tightening vaccination emptions at a Yes on One news conference Tuesday in Augusta.
Credit Patty Wight / Maine Public

“For the parents who will never sacrifice their parental rights. For the students who insist on their right to an education. For the people of faith who value their religious liberty. And for all Mainers who understand that we are in this together, and that good public health policy should bring people together, not tear them apart,” she says.

Dr. Zach Mazone, a family physician in Bath who specializes in lifestyle medicine, says he objects to the new law because it would force him to essentially act as a policeman instead of a doctor who counsels patients on their medical choices.

“After giving the patient the available information, I’m to respect, and, as much as I can, support their decision. This does not compel me to approve or to personally agree with the decisions that my patients chose for themselves. Rather it’s intended to ensure I respect the will and choice of my patients,” he says.

Protecting personal freedom is a common thread in the arguments made by Yes on 1 supporters. Republican state Rep. Heidi Sampson, who sits on the committee that heard public testimony on the vaccination bill, says the referendum is a fight against tyranny.

“The law is nothing more than a massively grotesque governmental overreach masquerading as public health,” she says.

But opponents of Question 1 — those who want to preserve Maine’s new law — say it has everything to do with public health. The group is backed by dozens of health care organizations, including the Maine Medical Association. Family physician Dr. Amy Madden, president of the association, she says childhood vaccination is one of the most critical public health initiatives of our time.

“Advances in modern medicine have made vaccine-preventable illnesses like measles essentially a thing of the past. I say ‘essentially’ because should we lose this community immunity, then we risk the reemergence of outbreaks of measles or other vaccine-preventable illnesses,” she says.

Pediatrician Dr. Laura Blaisdell, co-chair for No on 1, says the state is already heading down that path. Last year’s School Immunization Report for Maine found that several counties have dropped below the herd immunity target of 95 percent, and the vast majority of exemptions are nonmedical.

Blaisdell says the new law that makes it harder to opt out of vaccines is reasonable.

“With the exception of clean water, there is no single preventative health intervention more safe and effective than immunizations. The benefits extend beyond prevention of disease. Vaccines protect our neighbors, allow for safe schools, enable safe travel, extend life expectancy, save millions of lives, and trillions of health care dollars,” she says.

The two groups did trade barbs. Blaisdell says the Yes campaign uses deception and half-truths to scare Mainers. And she rejected its claim that her group is in the hands of big pharmaceutical companies.

“Maine Families for Vaccines is a group of concerned parents, educated physicians and a coalition of nearly 50 Maine-based organizations who all say this referendum is dangerous, and it puts kids’ lives at risk,” she says.

The campaigns have a little less than a month until voters will decide the issue on March 3, the same day as Maine’s Democratic presidential primary.