Will Australia’s New Anti-Vax Law Be a Bellwether?

DoHAlogoBy now, you’ve likely heard something about Australia’s move this past weekend to enact a first-of-its-kind initiative to tie government childcare benefits to vaccination. Specifically, families in Australia seeking public childcare assistance who opt out of vaccinating their children for non-medical reasons will be denied two childcare assistance payouts meant in part  to cover the cost of a babysitter or daycare. The government is also tightening religious objections, requiring that objectors belong to a religion whose ruling body has officially taken an anti-vax stance.

The Australian government has wisely chosen to frame this law aimed at “vaccine hesitancy” (so-called by the WHO) as one meant to protect other children. It cites the danger that non-vaccination poses to the public at large and insists that it gives vaccinating parents “confidence that they can take their children to childcare without the fear that their children will be at risk of contracting a serious or potentially life-threatening illness because of the conscientious objections of others.” As anyone who has done rational research into vaccination knows, the herd immunity issue is a huge one, and basing this decision in that reasoning is sound. Vaccination is very much a public health issue; and those who work against the public health will now be denied the public’s help.

Not surprisingly, the law quickly drew criticism in some corners. The anti-vax crowd quickly condemned the move, with social media crusaders and anti-vax organizations calling it a move to force parents to vaccinate their kids (it isn’t, it just adds a consequence to the decision not to vaccinate) and starting up the expected online petition campaigns. I’m sure there will likely also some sort of legal challenge in Australian courts, though I haven’t seen any actual news about that yet. A vocal minority, represented mainly in news and social media comments sections, is also taking issue with how this law is mainly targeting a certain segment of the population: those who need public assistance to get by. In some ways, it’s making the choice to be anti-vax a privilege of the wealthy.

Even as an imperfect law, it’s a step in the right direction. The important question to ask is: will Australia’s new law be a bellwether for other nations plagued by the anti-vax movement?

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One would hope so. Australia isn’t the largest nor the most powerful government in the world, but they are a major continental government, and taking this step is certain to make other governments take notice. Should Australia’s move withstand legislation and legal challenges, it could very well serve as a model for other governments looking to protect the health of their citizens.

Still, politics are complicated and I doubt many other countries will choose to be — or have the ability to be — as bold as Australia. Here in the United States, for example, I don’t see the federal government moving to pass such a law anytime soon. Not only is our political system moving towards an election cycle, which always makes politicians skittish about bold political moves (unless they poll well); but welfare benefits are also very much under the state’s sphere of control. It’s possible that we could see a partial adoption of such laws in the U.S., depending upon the state and the political climate therein. Such state-level moves wouldn’t have the teeth of a federal policy, though.

Cynical as it may sound, the fact that such a law could lead to the payout of fewer government subsidies to poor people is likely to appeal to some U.S. politicians and their constituents. Sadly, there are those out there who are all about stopping legitimately struggling families from getting much needed public assistance because Bootstraps and Drugs Maybe; perhaps they could turn their concern over welfare spending to a more legitimate cause and do us all some good.

In countries in Europe such as the U.K., where socialized medicine is the norm, perhaps there’s an even more direct play that could be made: vaccinate or pay for your own healthcare. That would be another case of “punishing the poor” while wealthy anti-vaxxers gratefully suffer the oppression of having to pay for their medical coverage, though, so it’s possible those governments would hesitate to do so.

Truly, there’s no perfect solution to the irrational choice to not vaccinate a child. Imperfect or not, however, Australia has made the bold choice to act. It’s a move that other governments need to take for the sake of the public health. It’s tragic enough that anti-vax parents are basically free to place their own children at risk to appease their own stubborn ignorance of science and medicine; but the rest of us shouldn’t have to see our kids put at risk as well.

About Alison Hudson

Alison is a writer and educator living near Ann Arbor, MI. She blogs regularly about skepticism, games, and the transgender experience.
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9 Responses to Will Australia’s New Anti-Vax Law Be a Bellwether?

  1. Michael says:

    More than a few Australians will take issue with your statement that this affects only “poor” people. That depends on your definition of ‘poor’, I suppose (we are all poor compared to Gina Rinehart), but in fact even very well-off families are entitled to child support in Australia. For example, a couple with three children would need an annual income of over $175,000 a year before their benefits are reduced to zero. Social media comments that this is a law aimed at the disadvantaged are just so much hooey. It affects, by far, the majority of the families here in Oz. That is why it is such an important move and has a huge amount of support in the wider community. The only sour note is the discovery that there is a religious exemption – the Church of Christ,Scientist; an oxymoron if ever there was one.

    • Alison Hudson says:

      It’s not “my” statement. Just one of the many reactions online. And the fact that the well-off can also get benefits doesn’t mean the law doesn’t adversely affect the lower income brackets; the wealthy are going to be much better able to defer the cost of the lost childcare benefits than someone who relies on daycare to be able to make it to a job and who has little to no flex in their budget.

      • Michael says:

        So this was not your statement? “By now, you’ve likely heard something about Australia’s move this past weekend to enact a first-of-its-kind initiative to tie welfare benefits for the poor to vaccination. ”

        Perhaps you could indicate where the “quote” comes from then. Certainly not from the page it links to. Come on, Alison, own it. You did not check your facts when writing this story and you are still guessing about who gets what. For a start the payments are graded according to income. Those less well off tend to live in areas where childcare is cheaper. There are all kinds of variables and neither you nor I are in a position to determine who will be the worst affected. Loss of income tends to be subjective, I suspect. The point is, the law will have an impact on ANY family that makes the stupid and anti-social decision not to vaccinate the children, so that there is a very simple solution whatever the income level.

        • Alison Hudson says:

          You weren’t clear enough at first. I thought you were referring to the “A vocal minority, represented mainly in news and social media comments sections, is also taking issue with how this law is mainly targeting a certain segment of the population: those who need public assistance to get by.” line.

          However, the move by the government is widely being reported as affecting “welfare” in the international press [BBC, NPR, and the AP all reported it that way, among others], a program that, by and large, is meant to support the poor [“a government program for poor or unemployed people that helps pay for their food, housing, medical costs, etc.,” according to Merriam-Webster; “Statutory procedure or social effort designed to promote the basic physical and material well-being of people in need,” according to OED]. So technically, the statement that “welfare benefits for the poor” were being impacted was not incorrect, just not all-encompassing.

          However, I have gone back and altered the first line to be more encompassing of the scope of the move. Thanks for the clarification.

          • Michael says:

            Well at least you had the grace to change it, even if you do still consider your initial error justifiable based on the idea that others got it wrong as well, so it can’t possibly be your fault. As for the Merriam-Webster reference – seriously? And I thought you were a champion of critical thinking, rather than just an opinionated commentator on the ill-researched “facts” of others.

          • Alison Hudson says:

            Really? Of all the things to critique, you’re discrediting me because I offered up a dictionary definition in a discussion about the common meaning of the word? It’s like you’re just looking for ways to be contrary.

          • Michael says:

            Alison, that was a passing comment and was far from being the only thing I criticised, as well you know. You are now being childish and i really cannot be bothered further with someone who believes that repeating the errors of others absolves them of all error. Really! You just have to grasp the fact that you got it wrong which you have in any case tacitly admitted by correcting the error. It really is this sort of defensive “I can never be wrong” attitude that undermines the very useful contribution that skeptics would otherwise make. An ad hominem attack on me does nothing to alleviate that.

          • Alison Hudson says:

            Oh, bother.

  2. Torchwood. says:

    Good for Australia. The entity paying for the child should be the one making the health care decisions. You want to make all the choices? You make all the payments. Government makes the payments? Government gets to make the choices. Your church wants to dictate the choices? Your church can pay for them.

    You don’t have any money to pay for what your children need? Don’t have children.

    Don’t like taking personal responsibility for your choices? Tough.

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