What It’s Like to Be Labeled an ‘Anti-Vaxxer’ in L.A.

An El Sereno mom behind this weekend’s “Health Freedom Rally” in Santa Monica opens up about the issue that’s costing her friends on Facebook

When Sandy Fleming began planning an upcoming rally in Santa Monica to protest California’s SB 277, the El Sereno mother of one and her co-hosts were out to convince governor Jerry Brown to veto the bill, which would require nearly every child in the state to be fully vaccinated to attend public or private school. (Exemptions for medical reasons remain available.)

Well, Brown signed the bill into law on Tuesday, stating, “The science is clear that vaccines dramatically protect children against a number of infectious and dangerous diseases.”

But Fleming—who has decided that she will vaccinate her children against the measles but not all of the diseases mandated by the bill—hasn’t scratched her weekend plans. The rally will go on as scheduled this Friday. “Our message has changed,” she says of the nearly 300 people expected to gather at the Santa Monica Pier. “It’s repeal SB 277—and we’re not going away.” We asked her why.

Why do you oppose SB 277?
Because we don’t have a situation or a pandemic that warrants the government forcing parents to make medical decisions. Being able to make decisions between you and your doctor is a right we have had for all of our lives, and it’s so important. Think about being able to decide with your doctor how you’ll be treated for cancer or a simple flu. There’s never been a one-size-fits-all medicine. This bill breaks the parent-doctor conversation. Don’t even bother reading warning labels, you don’t have an option in this case.

But what about this year’s measles outbreak?
The outbreak was about 150 cases in a population of 30 million. We’ve had more cases of pneumonia in the last year. Or lightning strikes in the country. It’s because of the way the media sensationalized the measles outbreak that it’s being perceived as a pandemic.

Do you have friends or family who disagree?
Yes, I do. It’s something I’ve learned to not talk about with friends who are 100 percent for the bill and think anyone who questions the CDC’s [suggested vaccine] schedule is crazy. We’ve agreed to disagree, but we can be friendly with each other. Other friends are in the middle of the road—those usually don’t have children—and we can have a conversation about it. But it’s sad that in some cases it’s something we can’t talk about anymore.

Have you lost any friends over the issue?
I’ve lost some Facebook friends. I’ve been called anti-science, which is funny because I was a chemistry teacher. I love science, actually!

What other experiences have you had as a result of being against mandated vaccines?
There’s a judgment put on us that we made our decisions based on a fear of autism that’s been debunked, that we follow Jenny McCarthy-isms. It’s so easy for people to say I’m just following celebrity blogs and that’s how I make medical decisions. That’s hurtful. It’s not the case. So many parents did exactly what they were told to do [by doctors] and found out the hard way [about vaccine-caused injuries]. The lady who is afraid that her child might get measles if she goes to the grocery store has a legitimate fear. But the fears of other parents don’t matter. It’s so disheartening.

Has your daughter been vaccinated?
We’re planning on partially vaccinating our children. They’ll have most of the vaccines that you and I have. I was brought up in the ’80s. When she’s school age she’ll be up to date with what I was up to date with, but the vaccine schedule currently requires more. I feel it’s not worth the risk to take the vaccine for certain diseases.

Where does that leave you now that the bill is law?
If SB 277 didn’t go through my daughter would enroll in private or public school. She would engage like any other child and nobody would know. But now that this bill is going through it’s going to change the experience that she has. We’re left with three options: to vaccinate under duress, to home school—not something many families in Los Angeles can afford to do—or leave the state. When we try to enroll her in kindergarten, we’ll have to make that decision and there will be a light cast on us as parents. This bill creates a second-class citizen.

Those in favor of the bill might point out that medicine advances; there are lots of things we do differently to protect our health today than we did, for example, in the ’80s.
You’re right. We’re also constantly making mistakes. There was a time when there were campaigns telling us not to eat eggs. Then you should eat eggs. We’ve seen changes. They are saying, “We’re increasing the number of vaccines because we have the technology and it’s available.” I say let the parents decide. Every year drugs that we thought were safe are being recalled. Why can’t parents, who are the ones who have to deal with the ramifications of injury when it occurs, decide if they want to take the risk?

Has Governor Brown’s signing of the bill slowed the anti-SB 277 movement down?
It’s added fuel to the fire. Our numbers for the rally doubled overnight. Monday night we were looking at 150 people coming. We have over 3,000 people invited and over 270 people are now confirmed. It angered parents and they feel like they need to continue to voice their disagreement.

This interview has been condensed and edited for flow throughout.