Testimony of NYVIC's Martha Fitzgerald
March 14, 2002
Public Health Emergency Planning and Response and the
Model Emergency State Health Powers Act (MESHPA)
I would like to thank the NYS Assembly for its efforts to protect our health and safety in the event of an emergency and for holding this public meeting to hear our concerns. I would like to address the 4th topic on the Notice of Public Hearing: "Are individuals' constitutional and legal rights during such emergencies appropriately protected under current law? Under the Model Act? What changes are needed?"
I was very encouraged to see that the bill introduced into the assembly on November 30 has been updated in keeping with the second (December) draft of the MSEHPA, in particular because it defines a "public health emergency" more precisely, because it respects the rights of individuals who are "unable or unwilling, for reasons of health, religion, or conscience" to undergo vaccination or treatment, and because the language which criminalizes the refusal of vaccination or treatment has been omitted.
To me these are very important issues. This proposed law gives tremendous power to the executive branch, and we need a clear definition of "health emergency" to prevent a situation where a governor, who isn't necessarily a doctor or scientist, might be pressured by special interests to declare martial law, in the guise of a "health emergency," and issue edicts which are beneficial to the special interest but not necessarily to the public. If this should occur, it would place our democracy in great danger.
It is also crucial for the law to protect those who object to vaccination or treatment because of health, religion, or conscience. Obviously, medicines and medical procedures should be made available to all who choose them, but, at the same time, the law must protect the rights of those who decide against them for any reason. That includes those who have studied the available facts regarding a specific vaccine or medication, weighing the relative risks and benefits, and decided that in this case the risk isn't worth the suggested benefit.
I would also like to see the addition of guarantees that isolation and quarantine will not be used simply as punitive incarceration, in order to coerce citizens to fall in line. If isolation or quarantine should become necessary, individuals should be confined to their own homes, not in public "camps." The confinement should be as non-restrictive as possible, should be terminated as soon as the threat is over, and those affected should not be prevented from obtaining alternative health care, foods, or medications of their choice. They also should not be prevented from obtaining professional or educational tools, such as computer access, so they can still make a living or continue their education while they are unable to go to work or school.
In the absence of long-term studies that might guarantee the safety of vaccines, any law mandating them must guarantee the right of informed consent. Forcing anyone to submit to experimental medical procedures against his/her will violates every standard of human rights. And informed consent has two parts: health-care providers must be forthcoming with all the information on risks as well as benefits, and patients (or parents of minors) must have the option to give their consent voluntarily.
While the drug industry is seeking relief from the usual testing requirements for safety and efficacy in order to stockpile enough vaccines for the American public more quickly, they are also seeking to be released from liability for deaths and injuries that result. In view of this, how could NY state justify mandating citizens to undergo a risky, arguably "experimental," procedure against their will?
It cannot be denied: vaccines have risks. Two diseases which most often come to mind in connection with bio-terrorism are Anthrax and Smallpox. Death from vaccinia vaccination for Smallpox has been estimated to occur in 1 in 1 million vaccinated persons. These deaths are most often the result of encephalitis or progressive vaccinia. Both conditions are highly fatal and most often affect those being vaccinated for the first time, especially infants and those with immune deficiency conditions. Because of the increased number of persons with challenged immune systems today, this estimate is probably too low.
The MSEHPA would appear to prevent harm from vaccines or treatment with provisions such as: "A vaccine to be administered must not be such as is reasonably likely to lead to serious harm to the affected individual," but in fact there may be no bio-markers to predict who will be adversely affected.
The right to think for oneself, to control one's own body, and to make decisions about how to preserve one's own health are among our most cherished rights. Having the government infringe on these rights is like a throwback to the Middle Ages, when the Church, allied with government, denied citizens the right to personal religious belief and practice of their choice. I'm sure they thought they were saving souls from damnation by preventing them from thinking for themselves. After all, didn't they know better than the masses what was the "right way" to worship? Of course, now we see things differently ... or do we?
The Constitution provides the right to hold views different from the majority, and the right to act conscientiously in accordance with those views. Just as the government is restricted from establishing religion, the government must not sanction one theory of health and disease over all others. Many people have enhanced their immune system and their health through improved diet and exercise, and the use of non-invasive therapies when needed. They hold that chemicals in vaccines are detrimental to their body's natural ability to defend itself. Across the US, legislators are becoming more respectful of the individual's right to choose alternative methods of health care that depart from the dominant medical paradigm of drugs and invasive techniques. Respecting the rights of persons who are unable or unwilling for reasons of health, religion, or conscience to undergo a vaccination or treatment is a guarantee that no government sanctioned paradigm or system of beliefs will retain absolute authority over an individual's freedom of choice.
- The law must contain safeguards to prevent any official or special-interest group from seizing power on the pretext of a health emergency.
- Vaccines, medication, and other treatment must be made available to everyone who chooses them for their protection.
- The law must protect the rights of individuals to make an informed choice in the matter of vaccination, medication, or other treatment for themselves and their families, and "informed choice" means the right to decline.
- Isolation and quarantine must be as non-restrictive as possible, and must not be used as coercion against those who exercise their right of choice.
While I respect and appreciate the Legislature's intentions to prepare for bio-terrorism and other large-scale emergencies, experience, common sense and morality mandate that we allow the individual to make the final choice in matters affecting his life and health. After all, who has more at stake than the affected individual?
Thank you again for allowing me to state my concerns.
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