The political side of the vaccine battle in Texas

HOUSTON – There has been an intensifying battle over Texas laws regarding vaccines.

One of the most vocal groups started four years ago on social media but quickly evolved into a 9,000 member political action committee debating potential laws and getting involved in local political races.

“I had no idea that vaccines were actually controversial,” said State Rep. Sarah Davis (R-Dist. 134)

When Davis first got into politics, she admits she didn't realize not everyone shares her support of vaccines.

“At first I kind of thought, 'is this serious, are they serious?'” Davis said.

Davis is talking about the opposition she encountered from Texans for Vaccine Choice while trying to advance pro-vaccine legislation in 2017 and 2018. As a cancer survivor, Davis fully supports a robust vaccination program.

“They've made themselves very, very visible and very, very vocal,” Davis said.

Former Dallas area state Rep. Jason Villalba also felt the group's influence in 2015 when he proposed a law making it harder for parents to opt out of having their children vaccinated based on reasons of conscience. In fact, members of Texans for Vaccine Choice said the group formally organized in response to Villalba’s legislation.

“Were you prepared for that level of resistance to your bill?” Channel 2 Investigator Robert Arnold asked.

“You know, I was surprised that they came at me so quickly and so vocally,” Villalba said.

The group not only defeated the measure, but members also continued by campaigning against Villalba, who lost his last bid for reelection. Members also tried to help unseat Davis' through donations to her opponent in the primary and through old-fashioned block-walking. 

“(They) drove down from Dallas and from all over the state to help campaign against me,” Davis said. 

Jackie Schlegel, founder of the group,  said the goal of members is to preserve parental choice when it comes to vaccines and prevent discrimination against those choosing not to vaccinate their children.

“Why form a political action committee?” Arnold asked.

“We had to, we didn't have a choice, they took this fight to the state legislature,” Schlegel said. 

Schlegel said the group is not anti-vaccine but believes parents, not the government, should decide whether their children are vaccinated. Schlegel said since vaccines are not risk-free, parents should have the right to make a decision as to which vaccines their children will or will not receive. The organization’s website shows a list of bills favorable to the group’s position, measures they oppose and those they are “watching.” The organization also lets members know which legislators they see as favorable to their position.

“As a parent, I am obligated to make the best choice for my children,” said Schlegel. “This issue is no different than how I educate my children or how I feed my children.”

Critics of Schlegel’s organization accuse members of being disingenuous when discussing their position on vaccines. 

“They don't have a lot of facts in them, but they have a lot of fear and anger and they sell that,” said Jinny Suh, founder of Immunize Texas.

Suh's organization works to see more pro-vaccine parents involved in the political process and helps promote pro-vaccine legislation. 

“You know, the children don't get a choice in this. As much as the other side wants to say it's about choice, those kids don't get a choice,” Suh said. “Debate is great, measles is worse.”

During the last legislative session, Schlegel and Suh were on opposite sides of bills that would make it easier for parents to obtain campus-level vaccination and exemption rates. Currently, the Texas Department of State Health Services publishes vaccination and conscientious exemption rates by school districts and by county. Since many private schools are akin to being a district unto themselves, campus-level rates are available by default.

During hearings on these issues, some parents described a cumbersome process to obtain this data on a campus level and lawmakers pointed out some districts comply with these requests and some do not. Suh argues parents need to have this information in order to make an informed decision as to where they want to send their child to school.  

“I have to think, 'Well, what does that mean? Because there are 130 schools in my district.' It doesn't tell me anything about where I live,” Suh said in reference to the districtwide exemption rates published by the state.

Schlegel argued against the bill, stating it would lead to increased bullying and discrimination. 

“This bill seeks to create forced vaccine compliance in a hostile environment for those making informed medical decisions with their chosen medical provider,” Schlegel stated during an April 23rd State Senate committee hearing.

The measure was left pending in committee.