Science Is on Trial as Parents Battle for Vaccination of Their Children During a Custody Dispute in Canada

In July of 1925, the state of Tennessee had a law prohibiting the teaching of evolution in the public school system. A substitute teacher named John Scopes, at the urging of civil liberties groups, admitted to having taught evolution in the classroom. At the time, the textbook being used for science curricula explained the theory of evolution, so it was very difficult to not teach it in some way, even if it was answering questions from students who actually read their textbook.

The Scopes Trial, as it came to be known, drew in much attention from the public. The hearings were broadcast on radio both live and in recordings. It was such a spectacle that the prosecuting attorney — in what some call a display of showmanship by both the prosecution and the defense — testified for the defense, answering questions about how concepts of natural history as stated in religious texts was unreasonable and not to be interpreted literally.

In the end, John Scopes was found guilty of breaking the law, and his conviction and fine was overturned on a technicality later. Nevertheless, science was put on trial that year. Established concepts of natural selection were put up against religious dogma. One was based on science and evidence while the other was a philosophical concept based on beliefs and tradition. The trial never really declared a winner, per se. But that did not stop people from choosing sides and calling it the way they saw it. This is a fight that is still happening this century, by the way.

In Canada, a discussion is brewing over the custody dispute between two parents. One parent, the father, is arguing that his children should be immunized. The other parent, the mother, is against vaccines. The initial dispute went to arbitration instead of an actual court hearing. In that arbitration, the mother brought forth anti-vaccine arguments that convinced the arbitrator to rule in her favor. As the Toronto Sun reported:

“Arbitrator Herschel Fogelman accepted the evidence of Dr. Toni Bark, despite the Chicago-based medical doctor having been rejected as an expert vaccination witness in a recent case in the United States.

“Choosing not to vaccinate is not illegal, negligent nor immoral. It is a personal choice,” wrote Fogelman in his controversial decision. “I am unable to find any risk to (the children) if they remain unvaccinated. Further, I am satisfied on the evidence the vaccines may pose additional risk to them.”

Self-represented at the time, the dad tried to introduce his own expert report from Dr. Alana Rosenthal, a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases and consultant in infectious diseases at Sick Kids and North York General Hospital. She concluded that no scientific studies have shown vaccines to be harmful.

But the arbitrator said Rosenthal would have had to testify in person — and despite the father`s offer to contact her — he refused to accept her evidence.

The dad not only lost his bid to have his kids vaccinated — they are now 13 and nine — but was ordered to pay $35,000 in the mom’s legal costs, which included the $11,000 she paid Bark.”

Dr. Toni Bark is a medical doctor who now practices homeopathy almost exclusively. She also claimed in a court hearing in the United States to be an expert in “vaccine injury,” something Dr. Bark calls “adversonomics,” which was something the judge wasn’t buying. This is the case the Toronto Sun article was referencing when it was mentioned that Dr. Bark was rejected as an expert vaccination witness:

As for the case in Toronto, the judge has allowed the father to present his own expert witnesses before the court, and a donation campaign has been established for the father to raise the funds necessary for the legal battle. As for the experts, many of them have volunteered to testify at no cost, as some of they say they see this fight as necessary to establish the rights of the children to be safe from vaccine-preventable diseases.

Unfortunately, as the Toronto Sun article concludes:

“Justice Jasmine T. Akbarali, though, rejected the dad’s “fresh evidence” challenging Bark’s credentials or his “bald allegation” that “Dr. Bark is a hired gun, takings tens of thousands of dollars to testify against the use of vaccinations.”

More worrying to the father was the judge’s decision to accept the new evidence from their children’s pediatrician: “Her ‘greatest and only concern at this point in time is for the psychological and emotional health’ of the children in view of the high-conflict divorce, and the media attention this case has attracted,” Akbarali noted.

While the pediatrician recommends vaccinations to all her patients, she wrote that she believes the 13-year-old is mature enough to decide for himself and “has expressed the wish not to be administered any vaccinations at the present time.””

Like with the fight over evolution almost 100 years ago, this is certainly not the last time the courts will weigh in on whether parents have the right to refuse protection from vaccine-preventable diseases for their children. The weight of the evidence provided by people with impressive degrees who create their own pseudoscientific groups and institutions to fight against science-based evidence will also be on trial. Fortunately for science and the advancement of knowledge, science is not settled in the courts anymore… Just ask Giordano Bruno, who was burned at the stake for his “impenitent, pertinacious, and obstinate” thinking that the sun was the center of the solar system and that there were other galaxies out there.

Featured image on this post is by www.weisspaarz.com on Flickr.

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Author: René F. Najera, DrPH

I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, an online project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. All opinions expressed on these blog posts are not necessarily those of the College or any of my employers. Check out my professional profile on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/renenajera Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

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