Examples of the victory of fear and misinformation over science and reason in public policy are easy to find, and I find myself writing about them often. But occasionally the pendulum swings in the right direction for a bit, and we gain a little ground in the never-ending conflict between rational, science-based governance and faith-based, anti-science politics. My own state of California has provided a welcome example this year.
In the spring, I worked to support the passage of SB 277, a bill eliminating non-medical exemptions from school vaccination requirements, and I was thrilled to see the bill pass the legislature and be signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in June. IN his signing statement, the governor emphasized that “the science is clear that vaccines dramatically protect children” and that “the evidence shows that immunization powerfully benefits and protects the community.” Despite the hysteria and misinformation marshaled against the legislation, both the legislature and the governor made rational decisions in the best interests of public health.
Even more encouraging is the failure of the opposition to SB 277 to generate enough public support for a referendum overturning the measure. California’s referendum system too often makes public policy decisions a popularity contest, but in this case even the relatively low number of citizens needed for the referendum process could not be sufficiently misled to support this anti-vaccine measure.
Only a few days ago, the governor signed yet another important public health measure, SB 792, which requires childcare workers in daycare facilities and other settings to be appropriately vaccinated. The anti-science and anti-government hysteria associated with this bill was, if anything, even more strident and absurd than that regarding SB 277, yet the legislature and the governor did what was best for the public based on science, not fear.
Finally, Governor Brown recently took another tough stand on a science-based issue, this time vetoing a “right-to-try” law, AB 159. This well-intentioned but misguided legislation was intended to make it easier for people with terminal or untreatable illness to get access to experimental, unproven drugs with the notion that ”they have nothing to lose” and so should be allowed to use experimental therapies. Right-to-try laws sound like they are intended to benefit patients, but they are really part of an organized campaign to use these patients’ suffering as a toll to undermine FDA regulations and the drug approval process. The doctors at Science-based Medicine have written extensively about how these laws actually put patients at risk of greater suffering and earlier death, and how they undermine the science-based system of drug testing that protects all of us from harmful therapies. (1, 2, 3). In 24 states so far, desperate patients and their families and advocates have been used to force passage of such laws on purely emotional grounds despite the evidence that they do not help patients. These laws, like the “health freedom” movement have much more to do with a general distrust of government regulation and a libertarian political view than with evidence-based efforts to help patients.
It is refreshing, if still to uncommon, to see politicians making sound, science-based decisions about health policy and resisting the emotional, fear-based rhetoric of anti-science and anti-government activists. I’m not naïve, and I’ve seen enough change in the political winds over the decades to realize the pendulum will continue to swing, but it is worth celebrating each victory and hoping for gradual progress to a more rational, science-based culture.