Hans Pennink/AP Photo
As written, the bill would allow minors to seek a doctor's approval to get common vaccines endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hans Pennink/AP Photo
Groups of parents, advocates and activists are urging D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser to veto a bill passed by the D.C. Council last month that would allow kids as young as 11 to seek vaccines without a parent's consent.
Their push comes as cities and states across the U.S. prepare to distribute the much-awaited COVID-19 vaccine, and touches on flashpoints around required vaccinations, herd immunity, racial discrimination in healthcare and, for some, the spurious claims that routine vaccinations are harmful to people's health.
The bill was introduced by Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh in early 2019 during an outbreak of measles that swept across 31 states, causing 1,282 cases nationwide — the most since 1992. Cheh said at the time the measure would serve to counteract the trend of parents refusing to get their children vaccinated because of health concerns.
As written, the bill would allow minors to seek a doctor's approval to get common vaccines endorsed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The doctor would need to verify that the minor "is able to comprehend the need for, the nature of, and any significant risks ordinarily inherent in the medical care."
D.C. already allows minors above the age of 12 to consent to a range of health services, including contraceptive services, mental health, prenatal care, and abortions; a handful of states currently allow minors of varying ages to access certain vaccines without their parent's consent.
"We've seen a proliferation of diseases that have all been eradicated," says Cheh. "They can get a foothold, and if people are not vaccinated we could have these cases arise again."
The bill drew little controversy as it quietly moved its way through the legislative process over the last 18 months; there was no public opposition during a public hearing in June 2019. But it started attracting attention ahead of a first Council vote in October, when Ward 8 Councilmember Trayon White — who initially co-sponsored the bill — announced his opposition.
"Parents have a fundamental right to direct the upbringing, education and care of their children," he said, citing the example of his own 12-year-old son.
That's the same sentiment shared by Kymone Freeman, an activist in Ward 8 and co-founder of We Act Radio who has been circulating a petition urging Bowser to veto the bill.
"I have an 11-year-old son, and if there was anyone that were to coerce him into taking a vaccine without my knowledge, it would be a problem. He can't even finish his homework," he says. "These are children, and to push the notion that they have the ability to make important decisions for themselves is ludicrous."
Freeman says his opposition — and that of many Black residents he knows — also stem from the history of racism in health care and scientific research, including the infamous Tuskegee experiment where researchers allowed hundreds of Black men to die from syphilis as part of a federal study without ever obtaining informed consent. Freeman says he's not anti-vaccine, but does have concerns with the COVID-19 vaccines, which he believes have been "rushed."
The Washington Informer, a historically Black newspaper, said Cheh's bill would put "parental authority in jeopardy." Former congresswoman Cynthia McKinney lambasted it on Twitter, and local activist Tony Lewis, Jr. said the bill "terrified" him, prompting a Twitter exchange with Cheh about the measure.
The bill passed 12-1 on a first vote in October, with White as the sole dissenter. But in a final vote last month, he was joined by Ward 5's Kenyan McDuffie and At-Large Robert White, both of whom are Black and have young children.
"My position is that 11 is too young and my other concern is that we should not diminish the difficult relationship between governments and the Black community with respect to vaccines," says Robert White. "That baggage is very real and very legitimate and a lot of people in the Black community feel disrespected."
Cheh says she understands these concerns, but still believes they are outweighed by medical necessity. She says the bill was endorsed by the Medical Society of D.C. and the local chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics. It was also marshaled through the legislative process by Ward 7's Vincent Gray, who chairs the Council's health committee and is also Black.
"The truth is vaccinations are the most effective essential tool to prevent communicable diseases," says Cheh. "Without vaccines, we would have a proliferation."
But some fringe organizations — not affiliated with the groups of Black residents who have expressed concerns about the bill — contest even that widely accepted medical knowledge.
The bill has drawn the ire of anti-vaccine groups like Children's Health Defense, an advocacy group founded by Robert Kennedy, Jr. that has been accused of peddling misinformation and myths about vaccines. "It puts children's health and safety at risk not only for serious reactions and possible death, but also puts children at risk of becoming victims of under-documented over vaccination," said the group last month, urging followers to urge Bowser to veto the bill.
Cheh says that has led to an avalanche of angry emails and phone calls to her office about the bill; she says it's "by degrees more vitriolic" than any bill she has worked on in her three terms on the Council. In a voicemail shared with DCist, one caller called her "demonic."
"What are you people thinking? Where are you trying to take our society? What are you trying to do to our children? Are you one of these sick, nasty, crazy people that's over here kidnapping kids and part of this pedophile sex ring that our government is a huge part of? Do we need to put you on blast? What kind of sick human being are you?" the caller said.
The bill has also gotten attention from pro-vaccine activists across the country. Kelly Danielpour, a California teenager who founded VaxTeen, a group promoting vaccines for minors, recently wrote that states across the U.S. should consider following in D.C.'s footsteps. "I am fortunate enough to have pro-vaccine parents, so I can only imagine the courage it takes to question your parents' misguided beliefs. States should empower teenagers to act," she wrote in an op-ed published recently in the Los Angeles Times.
White and Freeman stress they are not anti-vaccine; White says he keeps his two young daughters up on their vaccinations, and is urging people to take the COVID-19 vaccine as long as it's available. But he is pushing for Bowser to veto the bill. She has until next week to decide whether to do so; as of Friday, her office said no decision has been made.
"I'd like the mayor to veto the bill and for the Council to consider an older age, but also importantly have some discussions with the Black community about their concerns," says White.
Cheh thinks the bill is necessary and has the appropriate safeguards in place; doctors, she says, will serve as gatekeepers to ensure that any minor over the age of 11 seeking a vaccine actually understands what they are asking for. And she hopes people recognize that decisions about vaccines aren't only about individuals, but also communities.
"That wariness is not just your own decision when you have a communicable disease," she says. "You're making a decision about your child and other people. You have to keep that in mind."