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D.C. Council approves bill allowing children to get vaccines without parents’ consent

A dose of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine.
A dose of the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine. (Elaine Thompson/AP)
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A bill passed by the D.C. Council on Tuesday would allow children as young as age 11 to obtain vaccinations without their parents’ consent.

Under the legislation, if a doctor determines that a minor is capable of informed consent, they would be able to seek government-recommended vaccinations their parents object to on religious grounds. They also could get vaccinated against the human papillomavirus — which is recommended for older children but opposed by some parents because the virus is sexually transmitted and they object to their teenagers having sex.

The bill, which was approved 12 to 1, requires that the doctor send the vaccination record in such cases to the child’s school, rather than to the parents, and seek compensation directly from the insurance company without involving the parents.

The idea for the legislation was born out of measles outbreaks in the United States last year, but council member Vincent C. Gray (D-Ward 7), who shepherded it to passage as chair of the health committee, said the hope of an imminent corona­virus vaccine gave the bill new urgency.

“One thing that we’ve learned from covid, for example, is that policymakers, lawmakers, need to make science-driven decisions about public-health policy,” Gray said at a breakfast for council members before the legislative meeting Tuesday.

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To become law, the bill must pass a second vote of the council and then go to Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) for her signature.

Council member Trayon White Sr. (D-Ward 8) voted against the legislation. White, who has a 12-year-old son, said he sees 11-year-olds as too young to make independent decisions about their medical care.

“Parents have a fundamental right to direct the upbringing, education and care of their children,” White said, before claiming that vaccines, which are generally safe, are a risk to children’s health. White cited the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, which has been used by conspiracy theorists to argue that vaccines are dangerous.

“Medical professionals and schools should not be permitted to coerce impressionable minors into procedures capable of causing injury or death behind their parents’ back,” he said.

The bill as originally proposed by council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3) would have included children of any age. In revisions, the health committee limited it to children 11 and older.

The legislation adds vaccines to the list of medical services that youths in D.C. can access by law without their parents’ involvement, including substance abuse and mental health counseling and birth control prescriptions.

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White also expressed concerns about a potential coronavirus vaccine last spring, when he responded to an Instagram comment from a person who raised the history of the notorious Tuskegee experiments, in which Black men with syphilis were left untreated so that doctors could compare their condition to men who were treated.

“You really think I would be promoting something that’s going to be giving vaccines to my people?” White wrote to the Instagram poster.

Asked about that comment in May, White told a Washington Post reporter that his words had been taken out of context.

“I’m always skeptical about vaccines being given, particularly to the Black community, so I like to learn about it,” he said. “I wouldn’t be promoting anything to the people I represent without having knowledge of what it does.”

On Tuesday, White’s pledge to vote against the bill prompted other council members to extol the importance of vaccines in public health.

White responded: “There have been comments about the Centers for Disease Control having [approved] these said vaccinations. For me, it’s not an issue of the vaccination. It’s an issue of the council voting to circumvent the inclusion of a parent making a decision about their child.”

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A representative of the D.C. chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which strongly supported the bill, said vaccination rates at D.C. public schools range from 87 to 93 percent but have fallen below 85 percent at some charter schools.

Anjali Talwalkar, a D.C. health department official, said that vaccination rates among D.C. students have fallen for the past five years.

Herd immunity from the measles virus requires a vaccination rate of 95 percent, pediatrician Helene Felman said when testifying in support of the bill.

Children’s legal access to vaccines without their parents’ permission varies widely by state. In Alabama, Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and South Carolina, according to Pew research, minors can make all health-care decisions for themselves, though the age at which the laws apply varies.

In South Carolina, for example, minors age 16 and older can make their own medical decisions. Some states, including California, Delaware, Minnesota and New York, according to Pew, give some minors the right to seek vaccination on their own, but only against sexually transmitted infections.

During Tuesday’s meeting, the council also passed legislation to regulate electric scooters, allow charter schools to preferentially admit low-income students and extend unemployment benefits for an additional seven weeks.

Fenit Nirappil contributed to this report.

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