Homeschool activists in Colorado knew they had reason to be wary of the new majority in the state legislature, but they also were disappointed by one of their allies this spring when Gov. Bill Owens (R) signed a bill changing the state’s immunization tracking system.
In the 2004 elections, several state lawmakers who had demonstrated support for the homeschool agenda were replaced by less-supportive officials. Familiar legislation that had been opposed–and previously defeated–by the homeschool community progressed this year through the House and Senate.
On April 29, Owens signed into law Senate Bill 87, which allows Colorado’s health department to create a statewide database of immunization records and to contact parents directly when their children are due or overdue for inoculations.
Treon Goossen, a spokeswoman for Concerned Parents of Colorado–a grassroots group that lobbied against S.B. 87–said the homeschool community’s opposition focused on privacy issues. While some homeschool families choose not to get certain inoculations for medical or religious reasons, she said immunization itself was not the primary objection.
Individual Privacy vs. Public Health
Goossen said creating such a comprehensive database is a frightening prospect for some families, who fear the information in it could be misused. This spring, a laptop computer containing sensitive medical and personal information on 1,600 children was stolen from a state health department employee’s car. Even more disturbing, Goossen said, was the fact that an autism study on the computer’s hard drive contained information obtained without any of the parents’ consent.
Some homeschooling families fear compromised medical privacy could be used to justify removing children from their custody. “There is no way to guarantee the privacy issue,” Goossen said. “There is an agenda out there, and it’s to do away with our freedom of choice.”
Owens said he understands those concerns but his decision to sign S.B. 87 reflected various elements of his political philosophy. “It gets to my fusionist view of balancing libertarian values with what’s in the interest of the community good,” he said.
Owens said he took into account not only individual privacy, but also the state’s responsibility to prevent the spread of potentially serious childhood diseases by reminding parents when it’s time to inoculate their kids.
The second-term governor, who as a state representative in 1988 cosponsored the measure legalizing homeschooling in Colorado, pointed to key protections in the immunization bill as sufficient justification for authorizing changes to the tracking system. The bill gives parents the option of not participating in the database “on the grounds of medical, religious, or personal belief considerations.” Further, health department officials are required to inform parents of their right to opt out.
But Goossen and other activists believe the measure’s protections are inadequate. She said homeschool parents could not truly opt out of the tracking system since their names and birthdates would remain in the database. She also said several legislators during the 2005 session suggested mandating all immunizations for every child unless there was a valid medical reason for failing to immunize. Under such a system, Goossen said, “Any parent that did not comply would face possible charges of medical neglect, and the children would be forcibly immunized and possibly removed from the home or forced into the public school system for ‘monitoring.'”
Goossen argues that even though S.B. 87 stipulates parents cannot be charged with abuse or neglect for opting out of the database, some fear state officials eventually could use the new database as a tool to single out non-participating homeschool parents for prosecution for those kinds of crimes.
Homeschool activists had little confidence that they could convince enough members of the legislature to block passage of S.B. 87. Instead, they worked with the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC), an organization dedicated to informing parents about the risks of vaccinations, to persuade the governor to wield his veto pen.
According to NVIC, the extent of vaccine-related problems is unknown. Although 12,000 to 14,000 injuries or deaths are attributed to vaccines each year, those figures are based on reports from fewer than 10 percent of all doctors. The organization seeks to empower parents and to oppose the imposition of mandatory immunization, according to the group’s Web site.
At press time, House Bill 1161–the measure needed to fully fund the new immunization database–was on the governor’s desk awaiting his signature.
Goossen said homeschool activists planned to promote a repeal of the new law in a future legislative session.
“We will revisit it,” she said. “It’s not a done deal.”
Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a research associate for the Education Policy Center at the Independence Institute in Golden, Colorado.