When it came to immunising their daughter, Ellen Groves and her partner had always assumed they would make an educated decision together when the time came. Little did they know that the decision had been made for them, more than 50 years ago, by the French state…
It started at the baby health clinic, when we said we’d prefer to wait to vaccinate our then-two-month-old daughter. “Okay,” the doctor shrugged, “but when she starts playschool, she’ll need to have her vaccines. C’est obligatoire.”
31 jabs before they’re two
In France parents are obliged to have their children vaccinated against three illnesses, diphtheria, polio and tetanus (DTP), in order to benefit from state-subsidized childcare. Don’t wish to vaccinate? Then keep your child at home or cough up for a nanny. Later, unless you want to home school, you’ll face this dilemma again as the same trio of immunisations is mandatory for entry into state schools. In addition to the compulsory three, the French health ministry recommends another seven vaccines, for a total of 10 immunisations, involving some 31 jabs, by the time a child turns two.
My partner and I began researching vaccines. We found out that two of France’s vaccination obligations have been in place since before the Second World War. Immunisation against diphtheria became compulsory in 1938, followed by tetanus in 1940 and then polio in 1964. We weighed up the risks of each compulsory vaccination against the risks of each disease and the latter paled in comparison.
Fine and prison sentence
Stunned, we discovered we were running another risk altogether. Failure to vaccinate in France incurs a 3750 euro fine or a six-month suspended prison sentence. While these sanctions have never been imposed, the threat is there. A proposal to provide a get-out clause of conscientious objection (as available in certain U.S. states with mandatory vaccination programs), was thrown out by the French parliament in 2003.
This disproportionate deterrent actually contradicts the government’s own legislation reserving the patient the right to refuse treatment. The public health code stipulates that no medical act or treatment can be carried out without the patient’s full consent.
Yet, the National Council of Medical Practitioners (Conseil National de l’Ordre de Medecins) urges doctors not to sway when faced with patients who refuse to immunise. In what makes a chilling read, recommendations published in 2004 instruct practitioners to overcome “the ignorance, neglectfulness, or unfounded beliefs” of any patients refusing the obligatory or even recommended vaccinations. An “ultimate tool of persuasion”, it continues, is to order patients to sign an official document certifying their refusal for inclusion in their health records. This is generally successful, the recommendations state, in “finally conquering any reticence”.
Back at the baby health clinic, we discovered the government’s program of three obligatory vaccines is a farce. DTP, the compulsory vaccine trio, actually comes as a package of four, with whooping cough thrown in. People who suffer serious side effects from a mandatory vaccine are legally entitled to government compensation. With the quadruple shot, how can it ever be established which of the four is to blame?
When our daughter turned one, we obtained a highly-sought after place at a local playschool. But what to do about her vaccines? A vaccination certificate is required in each child’s application. After days of deliberating, we informed the playschool’s director that we were running on a “delayed” vaccine timetable. Not a problem, she said, please can her doctor just write a note specifying the dates on which she’ll receive them. After a long search we found a doctor who respects our right to wait – indefinitely. Certain doctors here will willingly sign forms of “contre-indication”, inferring there’s a medical reason for non-compliance. With such certificates in hand, schools and nurseries cannot refuse admittance.
Some parents have been bemused by our reluctance to have our daughter vaccinated. One friend admitted that she didn’t even know which vaccinations her children had, let alone what they contained. Others become defensive. “You can only choose not to have your daughter immunised,” I’ve been told on more than one occasion, “because my children have been.” I respect it’s your choice to have you children vaccinated, I respond. I’d simply like to be given the same choice in choosing not to.
Other parents saw nothing wrong in a hefty fine or a suspended spell behind bars for refusing to immunise. “Bah oui,” (“But of course”) a friend shrugged in the face of my outrage, before laughingly promising to come and visit us in prison. “I’d rather have my child vaccinated than baptized,” declared another. To me, that sums it up. In a country where the separation between state and religion is fiercely defended, the medical world has reached quasi-religious status: vaccine doctrine has become gospel and doctors’ advice followed without question. Ask about the risks of vaccinations and you’re a non-believer. Refuse to participate in the program and you’re guilty of heresy. But above all, you’re actually breaking the law. Your right to choose whether or not to inject a mixture of questionable chemicals for questionable results into your child’s body is but a casualty of the greater cause of public health.
Our daughter is now happily enjoying her first few mornings at playschool, thanks to an understanding doctor. Fingers crossed that by the time she’s ready to start school, France’s mandatory vaccination program will be outlawed as the violation of human rights it truly is.