How France Is Handling Its Own Vaccine Debate

The same tensions between liberté and legislation collide for parents who face two years in jail for refusing to vaccinate their children.

Ashley Walborn of Aurora holds her 1 year old son Nathanyel Jr. as he gets his VAR shot, the last of 6 shots from LPN Jessica Capetillo during his pediatric vaccination at Kaiser Permanente East Medical offices in Denver.

(Photo By Joe Amon/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

Liberty’s always been the thing, in America, even before a famous copper bell ever cracked in Philadelphia. This Monday, Sen. Thom Tillis, Republican of North Carolina, suggested that maybe businesses shouldn’t require their employees to wash their hands after using the bathroom. We need room for individuality! Elsewhere in the arena of public health and hygiene, the number of measles cases in the country was mounting, and the roiling debate over vaccinations has jabbed its way into the presidential field. Does she or doesn’t she, would he or wouldn’t he, and should, and must we? One by one, politicians are voicing their views, not to mention their own measles and mumps records. And just as this is happening in the United States, across the Atlantic, the same discours is taking part in France. A French couple stands accused of mistreatment: they could face two years in prison, and a $35,000 fine, for refusing to vaccinate their children.

Samia and Marc Larère live in Auxerre, Burgundy, not two hours by car from from Paris. They are not new-agey spiritual types, they say, but they do believe in alternative medicine. The Larères have two small children, and they decided not to vaccinate them against polio, tetanus, and diphtheria.

Last October, when the Larère children were 3 years and 15 months old, the couple appeared in court. Before the hearing, Samia spoke of studies “that prove that vaccines can make our children ill,” through additives like mercury and aluminum, according to The Guardian. She told the French website that she has a son from her first marriage, a teenager now, who was vaccinated, and who’s always sick. They are wary of pharmaceutical giants and their “toxic” products. As Marc put it, “We’re talking about the physical integrity of my children.” 

Children in France cannot enter schools without proof of vaccination against diphtheria, tetanus, and polio, but failure to vaccinate in and of itself is not necessarily against the law. Which is exactly the issue in dispute: the magistrate of the Burgundy court heard the Larères case, and referred it up to the country’s highest legal authority, framing the issue—a parent’s right to refuse to inoculate—as a constitutional matter.

The Larères see this as a cautious victory, the first step. Jacques Bessin, the president of the organization paying the couple’s legal fees, the National Union of Citizen Health Associations, told Le Monde, “We’re finally going to ask the real question: am I genuinely free to manage my body and to refuse treatment that can have more serious consequences than the disease?” The couple’s lawyer spoke of vaccines as “a bureaucratic nuisance.”

Gregory Leroy, a French deputy prosecutor, pointed to the hundreds of millions of lives saved. “Nothing has brought as many benefits as vaccination,” he said, pointing to 20th century history. But he granted that there is a real issue at play in the case.

France’s Health Minister, Marisol Touraine, has less patience for legal and philosophical quandaries. She, who has pushed to have trained pharmacists, and not just doctors, administer vaccinations, framed this as an issue for the safety of the entire population. “Vaccines, they are absolutely fundamental to avoid disease,” she said. “There is a movement that is preoccupying me today, of suspicion, even defiance against vaccines. Touraine continued, “Freedom stops where public health begins.”

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