Pandemic fight, ‘personal liberty’ collide in state legislatures

There are nearly 500 bills related to COVID-19 vaccination pending in the country – including in New Hampshire

A person gets a vaccine
The House Executive Departments and Administration Committee will hold a public hearing on the vaccination amendment Tuesday at 1:30 p.m. via Zoom. (Getty Images)

Rep. Tim Lang introduced his “immunization freedom” bill in 2019, before COVID-19, to end a state requirement that foster parents be vaccinated against the flu and other communicable diseases. Once the pandemic arrived, so did out-of-staters determined to recast it as an anti-mandate, “personal liberty” bill, similar to nearly 500 others pending in state legislatures across the country. 

New Hampshire does not mandate a COVID-19 vaccine (or masks as of Saturday), and state law allows exemptions for people who oppose other immunizations. There is no legislation proposing a mandate or a vaccine passport. That has not discouraged those who oppose both. More than 500 people registered support for Lang’s bill at a hearing before the Senate House and Human Services Committee Wednesday, and several testified. 

An Ohio lawyer, who is calling on every state to pass legislation punishing those who “intentionally lie” about COVID-19, said a vaccine mandate would legalize religious discrimination. A New York doctor, who urged parents against vaccinating their children during that state’s 2019 measles outbreak, said vaccines are medically harmful. A Texas law professor argued that mandates are illegal and said every court that has said otherwise in the last 116 years is wrong. A Texas doctor, who claims he cured his own COVID-19 with a hydroxychloroquine cocktail, told senators COVID-19 is not contagious or killing as many people as the CDC reports.

The New York Times reported in March that the Stop the Steal movement that alleged election fraud has refocused its efforts on the COVID-19 vaccine. The National Conference of State Legislatures has counted nearly 500 COVID-19 related bills pending across the country. A majority seek a prohibition on mandatory vaccines and vaccination passports. 

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Maine, Minnesota, and Kansas are among states that oppose vaccine mandates on the grounds the vaccine is “experimental.” Bills in Alabama and Alaska would stop schools from requiring the vaccine. Colorado lawmakers are considering preventing all employers, including those in health care, from requiring mandates; Alabama is debating extending that to entertainment complexes. 

Lang, a Sanbornton Republican, summed up what became a common theme among supporters at last Wednesday’s hearing. “Where there’s a risk, there should be a choice, and that’s what this bill is about,” he said. “It’s about allowing that individual to weigh the risk and make the choice.”

Lang’s bill says: “Every person has the natural, essential, and inherent right to bodily integrity, free from any threat or compulsion that the person accepts any medical intervention, including immunization. No person may be compelled to receive an unwanted medical intervention, including immunization.”

It largely reiterates existing state and federal immunization laws, said Sen. Tom Sherman, a Rye Democrat. Patients cannot be vaccinated or otherwise treated against their will. And where immunizations can be required, individual rights are protected. Public schools require students to be immunized against polio, measles, mumps, and other diseases, but provide religious and medical exemptions. Hospitals are allowed to require immunizations or mask coverings for employees working with patients. Private businesses can do the same for workers who may pose a threat to others but must provide exemptions or accommodations for religious beliefs and disabilities.

“I remain perplexed why we need this bill,” Sen. Becky Whitley, a Hopkinton Democrat, told Lang at the hearing. “This bill is trying to solve a problem that doesn’t exist.”

The committee could vote on the bill as early as next week. Sen. Kevin Avard, a Nashua Republican, has indicated he will support it, asking Lang if he would oppose adding penalties to the bill. Sherman and Whitley made clear they oppose it. And Sen. Jeb Bradley, a Wolfeboro Republican who chairs the committee, said it still needs “a lot of work,” including potentially adding a requirement that long-term health care facilities, which saw a significant number of the state’s COVID-19 deaths, should be required to mandate vaccines for staff who work with patients. 

Sherman, a gastroenterologist, said he is concerned the broadly worded bill would allow parents to object to critical medical care for their children. “This is not limited to vaccines, and it is not limited to adults,” he said. “I agree that adults should be able to make their own choices. But the state has an obligation to protect children.” He and Whitley also see the bill as favoring individual rights over public health. 

Dr. Gary Sobelson, representing the New Hampshire Medical Society, voiced the most forceful objection to the bill, saying it does not balance a person’s right to decide their own medical treatment with public health safety.

“Your privileges must rightfully end when they impose on mine,” he said. “The right of an individual to decline a medical intervention … can’t override the right of a co-worker or a patient or innocent bystander to be harmed by that choice. That is essentially what you’re considering today.”