Rebecca Bredow, 40, of Ferndale, spent 5 days in jail for refusing a court order to vaccinate her 9-year-old son.
John Wisely/Detroit Free Press
Common vaccines administered to millions of children every year could be put on trial next month in Oakland County in a parental dispute over whether to immunize a 2-year-old.
Lori Matheson of Walled Lake is fighting to avoid vaccinating her daughter, claiming religious and medical concerns. Her ex-husband, Michael Schmitt of Troy, wants their daughter immunized.
Because they can’t agree, the dispute landed in front of Oakland County Circuit Judge Karen McDonald, who scheduled a hearing for Nov. 14 to hear expert testimony on vaccines.
This is the second such case this week to end up in front of McDonald and it raises a dicey legal question:
When divorced parents disagree on vaccinations, who decides?
Increasingly, it’s the courts. Michigan law requires students to be vaccinated, though it allows waivers for parents who object based on medical, religious or other grounds.
At a Monday hearing, McDonald listened to more than an hour of testimony from Matheson on her objections to vaccines, but noted that she’s not a medical expert. McDonald implored Matheson’s lawyer, Amy Ruby, to produce an expert to discuss the medical issues.
Today, Matheson called Dr. Toni Lynn Bark, an Evanston, Ill., doctor who said she’s practiced in pediatrics, emergency medicine and adversonomics, the study of adverse reactions to medicines.
McDonald seemed skeptical, even questioning Bark herself at times.
“Do you have any certifications beyond the degrees you’ve mentioned?” McDonald asked.
“I have a lot of certifications that may or may not be recognized by mainstream medical community,” Bark said.
Bark said she’d been qualified as an expert in courts in Indiana, as well as in Canada and Australia. She’s also given testimony to Congress, Bark said.
Schmitt’s lawyer, Paul Schoenbeck, objected to letting Bark testify about vaccines.
“She’s not an immunologist, she’s not a researcher,” Schoenbeck said. “She hasn’t been in pediatrics in 20-something years. There are specific medical doctors and researchers that testify. She doesn’t qualify as an expert under the rules of evidence.”
McDonald agreed that she hadn’t heard enough evidence to consider Bark a vaccine expert, but agreed to allow her to testify about her own practice. But before she could take that testimony, McDonald adjourned the hearing until Nov. 14, telling Schoenbeck he could bring in his own expert to rebut Bark’s testimony if he thought it was necessary.
Schoenbeck objected, saying he’d already had an expert, the child’s pediatrician, testify at a Friend of the Court hearing earlier this year and he hadn’t planned to argue again the entire case. McDonald said she was exercising her discretion to give Matheson a full review of the case.
Vaccines prompt emotional debate across the country. Public health professionals overwhelmingly champion them as a prevention tool that has saved millions of lives.
“Vaccines have reduced – and in some cases eliminated – many diseases that killed or severely disabled people in previous generations, such as measles, diphtheria, mumps, whooping cough, smallpox and rubella,” said Robert Wheaton, spokesman for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. “Vaccines are safe, effective and benefit everyone.”
A 2011 report by the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine reviewed more than 1,000 research articles on the topic and concluded that “few health problems are caused by or clearly associated with vaccines” and that “the evidence shows there are no links between immunization and some serious conditions that have raised concerns, including Type 1 diabetes and autism.”
The report acknowledged that “vaccines are not free from side effects, ‘or adverse effects,’ but most are very rare or very mild.”
Some parents disagree, saying their children have been severely injured by vaccines.
Sheila VanHemert of Addison Township attended today’s hearing as one of more than a dozen members of Michigan for Vaccine Choice, a group that advocates for the rights of parents to refuse vaccines for their children.
VanHemert said her oldest daughter, Stephanie, born in 1981, suffered a severe reaction to a vaccine as a toddler. The girl’s leg swelled up, her temperature rose to 107 degrees and she experienced seizures. At one point, the girl stopped breathing and VanHemert and her husband raced to get her medical attention, fearing she was dead. The girl revived en route to the hospital.
“It was awful,” she said.
Stephanie VanHemert, now 36, attended the hearing with her mother and said she recalls an out-of-body experience similar to the one depicted in the movie “Heaven Is for Real,” where a young boy dies in a hospital only to be revived later.
All 50 states allow parents to opt out of vaccines for medical reasons, typically requiring a doctor’s note explaining the objection. Michigan also grants waivers for religious or other objections.
In 2014, Michigan approved new rules that require parents seeking a nonmedical waiver to first visit their local health department to receive education on the benefits of vaccines.
Matheson testified Monday that part of her objection is religious, based on the fact that some vaccines are cultured in aborted fetal tissue. Michigan Right to Life issued a statement in support for Matheson’s right of conscience.
“There is absolutely no question that a significant number of the common vaccines are directly cultured on cells from aborted unborn children,” Ed Rivet, legislative director for Right to Life of Michigan. “That is how the vaccines are produced. These cells came from healthy babies who were electively aborted, not from miscarried babies.”
Rivet said vaccines can be made without using fetal tissue and vaccine makers could avoid the controversy by using other production methods.
Jailed for contempt
Last week, McDonald found in contempt of court a mother who refused an order to vaccinate a 9-year-old boy. Rebecca Bredow of Ferndale was sentenced to seven days in jail. She served just over five days, earning one day of credit for her service and living just an hour into her sixth day behind bars, according to her lawyer, Steven Vitale.
Bredow told the Free Press that she was devastated to learn her son was vaccinated when she emerged from jail. The boy was immunized on Monday, according to court testimony. Bredow called her jail stint “the worst five days of my life.”
Contact John Wisely: 248-858-2262 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @jwisely.
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