Michigan mom Rebecca Bredow has been ordered to spend seven days in jail after refusing to vaccinate her son. Bredow was sentenced on Wednesday nearly a year after a judge ordered her to have her 9-year-old vaccinated, the Associated Press reports.
Michigan allows parents to waive vaccination requirements for their children based on religious or personal beliefs. Before parents are allowed to fill out this waiver, parents or guardians of children who go to public or private school in Michigan are required to take an educational session to learn about the diseases that vaccines can prevent, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Bredow says she did just that, and that she won’t vaccinate her son due to religious reasons.
But her ex-husband, James Horne, who shares custody of their son, wants to have their child vaccinated. Bredow says that she and Horne originally agreed to delay their son’s vaccines for three months after he was born in 2008 and two years later they agreed to stop all further vaccinations.
Watch This This Is What It’s Really Like to Live With Type 2 Diabetes
However, it appears Horne changed his mind. And, as part of the ongoing custody battle, the Washington Post reports that Bredow’s attorney signed a court order last November saying that her son had to be vaccinated (which means she had to get it done). But after almost a year, she has continued to refuse. “I’m a passionate mother who cares deeply about my children, their health and their well-being. … If my child was forced to be vaccinated, I couldn’t bring myself to do it,” she said during her hearing, per the AP.
“I understand you love your children. But what I don’t think you understand is that your son has two parents, and dad gets a say,” Judge Karen McDonald told Bredow in court, per the AP. The judge awarded Horne temporary custody of their son and ordered him to be vaccinated.
It’s important to note that Bredow is going to jail because she violated a November 2016 court order to vaccinate her son—not specifically because of her vaccination beliefs, Cason D. Schmidt, J.D., a research assistant professor at Texas A&M University, tells SELF. “Contempt of court is a punishment for violating a court’s order and is essential for preserving the authority of the justice system,” he explains. “Courts would be powerless if everyone could ignore decisions with impunity.”
Still, her vaccination beliefs are tightly wrapped up in the case. And the story showcases just how intense things can get when people decide not to vaccinate their children for nonmedical reasons.
Research overwhelmingly finds that vaccines are safe and crucial for children’s health, but many states still allow for some exemptions.
Vaccination laws are decided at the state level, and all 50 states require children to receive certain vaccinations before they go to public school, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, there are some exceptions, which are broken into medical and nonmedical reasons. Medical reasons exempt children with certain severe allergies, those who have cancer, and those who have a blood disorder, per the CDC. (It’s worth noting that, because these individuals cannot get vaccinated, they depend on the herd immunity which happens when the majority of people around them are vaccinated). On the other hand, nonmedical exemptions include personal beliefs, religious reasons, or philosophical reasons for avoiding vaccines.
Michigan law is a little vague when it comes to nonmedical exemptions, stating that parents and guardians can opt out of immunization requirements for religious convictions or having an “obstruction” or “objection” to vaccination. “It doesn’t say what the nature of that [obstruction or objection] has to be, but it can’t be ‘because I’m not able to get off from work to vaccinate my child,'” says Denise Chrysler, director of Michigan’s The Network for Public Health Law. “There has to be an objection to the vaccine.” Parents are also asked to check off which specific vaccinations they’re opposed to when they fill out the waiver, she says.
Few states (California, Mississippi, and West Virginia) don’t allow for any nonmedical exemptions. The majority of states let parents cite religious exemptions, per the Pew Research Center, while 20 states allow parents to use a waiver for religious and personal reasons.
California used to allow parents to cite religious or personal beliefs but that changed in 2015 with the passage of SB 277, which came on the heels of a measles outbreak that was traced back to Disneyland.
“There was much [legislative] movement following the 2014–2015 measles outbreak,” Leila Barraza, J.D., M.P.H., an assistant professor at the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health at the University of Arizona, tells SELF. “As more outbreaks keep happening, this may be a trend we see in the future—a trend of more states making it more difficult for parents to seek exemptions from vaccine requirements.”
Despite the amount of states currently allowing vaccination exemptions, the American Medical Association strongly urges parents to vaccinate their children.
“We know that vaccinations are safe and effective. We know their benefits far outweigh any risks. And we know that as physicians, we must encourage our patients to listen to the science and facts behind this issue,” former AMA president Robert M. Wah, M.D., said in a statement on the organization’s website in 2015.
Although California no longer allows for nonmedical exemptions to vaccines, Danelle Fisher, M.D., chairwoman of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells SELF that she “absolutely” was asked about it in the past. “When there is not a true medical reason to postpone or delay vaccines, I’ve never felt comfortable refusing on the behalf of the child,” she says, adding that some parents ultimately decided to leave her practice because of it. Even now, she says she’s had a few patients whose parents have asked her to sign a medical exemption form when it wasn’t necessary (she said no). “The vast majority that ask for it really don’t have a good medical exemption,” Dr. Fisher says.
“I see people who want a vaccination exemption a lot,” nurse-practitioner Kara Schrader, an assistant professor of health programs at Michigan State University, tells SELF. “But education of the parents does seem to make a difference.”
Vaccination is a mutual decision between parents and practitioners, she says, adding, “I’m not going to kick someone out of my practice because they’re not vaccinating.” So, if a patient says they don’t want to vaccinate their child, Schrader says she’ll ask them why and talk to them about the importance of vaccination and the science behind it. She also hands them pamphlets from the CDC and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
In her 12 years of practice, Schrader says she’s only had two parents who have still declined to vaccinate their infants after learning the facts.