Protesters gather to oppose the efforts to end the personal belief exemption on vaccinations in California in 2015.

With Legislation Looming, Chiropractors Get Political on Vaccines

In February, thousands of people gathered in Hartford, Connecticut, to protest a bill that would have made it harder for parents to leave their kids unvaccinated. And one group of medical practitioners came out in large numbers to support the non-vaccinators: chiropractors.

More than 100 members of the Connecticut Chiropractic Council — one of two statewide chiropractic organizations — showed up to protest. Many closed their offices or postponed appointments to be there, according to the Council’s president, Jason Jenkins. And at least 19 chiropractors, including several members of the CCC’s board, testified against the bill in the state legislature in mid-February during a 22-hour hearing.

“Part of the reason we’re passionate … is because we believe in the body’s natural, innate ability to function and heal.”

The legislation would end a 60-year-old policy that allows parents to send their kids to school without vaccines, provided they claim a religious objection to immunization. The bill is currently awaiting a vote from the Connecticut House of Representatives. “Part of the reason we’re passionate about” the issue, Jenkins told Undark, “is because we believe in the body’s natural, innate ability to function and heal.” Vaccines, he continued, are often unnecessary and ineffective — and could be dangerous to kids.

Those claims run against a robust, decades-old scientific consensus, as well as more than a century of detailed evidence that vaccines save lives. But Jenkins is not alone in tying his opposition to vaccine mandates to chiropractic principles. In the past several years, as more states have considered tightening their vaccination policies, chiropractors have quietly emerged as sources of fundraising and support for the movements fighting to defend religious exemptions.

These chiropractors’ involvement highlights the new coalitions that are using political action committees (PACs), advertising campaigns, and grassroots organizing to try to protect vaccination exemptions — over the vigorous objections of physicians and hospitals.

It also underscores the long entanglement of chiropractic and medical freedom laws in the United States, as well as the uncertain role that the country’s more than 70,000 chiropractors occupy in the American medical system, where they sit somewhere in between mainstream care — certain chiropractic services are covered under Medicare and some Medicaid plans — and the wide world of alternative therapies.

For years, chiropractic care and vaccine opposition have tested the degree to which the state will tolerate dissenters from the medical consensus.

Those disputes have their roots in 19th-century Iowa, when D.D. Palmer, a healer who claimed to use magnetism to fix various ailments, reported that he had restored hearing to a partially deaf janitor after forcefully resetting the vertebrate in the man’s upper spine.

Claiming that targeted adjustments of the spine could fix most diseases, Palmer began treating patients in 1895. The field grew quickly but often clashed with medical doctors — and with licensing laws. Indeed, in the early 1900s, hundreds of chiropractors, including Palmer, were jailed for practicing chiropractic, according to several histories of the profession. Today, Life University, a small college in Georgia with a chiropractic program, has a bell tower on campus dedicated to chiropractors who have been arrested in defense of the profession, with 600 of their names etched in a cell-like chamber at its base.

During those years, anti-vaccination movements also grew in the U.S. A 1905 Supreme Court case ruled that, in the interest of public safety, local and state authorities could mandate vaccination. (That same ruling helps justify the kinds of quarantines that officials may use to contain the Covid-19 outbreak.)

In response, coalitions of libertarians and alternative healers, including many chiropractors, began to push back on vaccination laws, said James Colgrove, a historian at Columbia University who has studied vaccine exemption fights. Members of these coalitions often brought together three distinct camps. There were the libertarians who dislike any state-mandated activity, regardless of their personal feelings about vaccination. There were people who dislike vaccines themselves. And there were advocates of what is often called medical freedom.

“The argument is that people have an inherent right to decide how they want to medicate their bodies, what kind of medical systems they want,” Colgrove said, “and that a compulsory vaccination law is privileging a certain school of medicine” — specifically the world of medical doctors and conventional drugs, called allopathic medicine — “over other forms of medicine like chiropractic, like homeopathy, like herbalism, like naturalism.”

Along with joining the medical freedom camp, many chiropractors, even well into the 20th century, also rejected the idea that microorganisms like viruses and bacteria cause many diseases, and they questioned the science behind vaccines. As Palmer wrote in 1910: Vaccines are “filthy animal poison” that “pollute the blood.”

Chiropractic has gradually experienced a schism between practitioners who push for more evidence-based treatments and a reconciliation with modern medicine, and those who hew to the original principles of Palmer and his followers. A 2019 article in a leading chiropractic journal compared this arrangement to “an unhappy marriage.”

Today, many chiropractors support and even advocate for immunizations, although specific numbers are difficult to pin down. One 2014 survey of more than 500 Canadian chiropractors found that 56 percent of respondents agreed that vaccinations had improved public health. Nevertheless, many chiropractors oppose vaccination, sometimes tailoring treatments to families that choose not to vaccinate.

Despite the thin evidence on the effectiveness of some chiropractic treatments and the fracture in the field, some parents continue to pursue treatments for their children. Jennifer Reich, a sociologist at the University of Colorado, Denver and the author of the 2016 book “Calling the Shots: Why Parents Reject Vaccines,” said that for many parents she has interviewed who choose not to vaccinate, chiropractic care feels like an important alternative to help keep their kids healthy.

“Chiropractic adjustments were often mentioned as one of the many well-care strategies — or immune promoting strategies — they participated in for their children,” Reich said.

The current spate of legislative battles over vaccine exemptions started in 2015, when a measles outbreak at Disneyland, potentially fueled by dropping vaccination rates, sickened 147 people, many of them children. At least 20 people ended up in the hospital.

In the past year alone, the issue has sparked major legislative battles in New York, Oregon, New Jersey, Colorado, and Connecticut, with similar legislation pending in Illinois. Supporters of the bills argue that religious exemptions endanger children. Opponents say the measures infringe on personal liberties by coercing people to accept medical procedures they don’t want. Courts have generally sided with the supporters, upholding the right of states to mandate vaccines, citing public safety.

“It is not your inalienable right to allow your child to catch and transmit a potentially fatal infection,” said Paul Offit, a pediatrics professor at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and prominent vaccine proponent.

The backlash, though, has been fierce, if often unsuccessful. In Maine, for example, after lawmakers eliminated the state’s religious exemption in 2019, advocates for keeping vaccination exemptions collected enough signatures to put the measure to a statewide referendum. A group of parents also launched a PAC, Mainers for Health and Parental Rights, powered by a $25,000 loan from a family chiropractic office manager in Augusta. By late October, the Portland Press Herald reported that an additional $26,000 had come in from nearly 40 chiropractors — which, along with the initial loan, accounted for nearly one-third of the PAC’s $161,841 fundraising haul.

“It is not your inalienable right to allow your child to catch and transmit a potentially fatal infection.”

Since then, according to state election filings, Maine chiropractors and chiropractic offices have donated at least $10,000 more. The vaccine mandate opponents used these funds to launch a statewide ad blitz, including bus stand ads and TV commercials, pinning the pro-vaccine policy on “big pharma.”

Chiropractors have also been important donors to anti-vaccination causes in other states. In 2018 in Oklahoma, for example, an anti-vaccination organization helped unseat Ervin Yen, a Republican state senator who had proposed banning religious exemptions. In the run-up to the election, chiropractors donated at least $4,000 to the PAC associated with a small organization, Oklahomans for Health and Parental Rights, and another $2,400 to Yen’s opponent.

On its website, the group lists 11 coalition partners around the state, including an insurance firm, a natural beef supplier, and six chiropractic offices.

And in 2019 in Oregon, more than a dozen chiropractors, including the chair of the public health committee of the Oregon Chiropractic Association, testified against a bill that would have ended religious exemptions. The association, which spends around $25,000 on lobbying state lawmakers each year, according to recent federal tax filings, put much of that budget toward helping kill similar legislation in 2015.

Chiropractic association representatives in California have also lobbied unsuccessfully against an exemption bill, according The Los Angeles Times.

A major chiropractic gathering in the state, California Jam, has featured the anti-vaccine crusader Robert Kennedy Jr. as a speaker for the past several years, along with its usual lineup of professional talks, live music, and costume parties. (For 2020, the theme was Woodstock.) CalJam attendees raised $30,000 in 2018 for Kennedy’s organization, Children’s Health Defense, which is best known for its anti-vaccination activism. In 2019, CalJam sold raffle tickets and hosted a fundraiser that aimed to bring in at least $100,000 for the organization, according to Facebook posts by CalJam’s founder, Newport Beach chiropractor Billy DeMoss.

A representative of CalJam, who gave his name only as Adam, told Undark he was unable to confirm the exact size of the final donation.

Laura Bono, a spokesperson for Children’s Health Defense, declined repeated requests from Undark to share the size of CalJam’s donation, eventually citing a policy of not disclosing donor information. But, Bono said, California Jam had been “a very supportive group” for the organization.

Chiropractors, she added, are “enlightened” about the vaccine industry.

The vaccine choice advocacy could have effects on public perceptions of chiropractic, which has sometimes struggled to win and maintain coverage under insurance plans.

Robert Reed, executive director of the Maine Chiropractic Association, which has not taken an official stance on exemptions, told Undark that he has been frustrated by perceptions that all chiropractors in Maine oppose vaccines — which, he said, does not reflect the true diversity of his organization’s membership.

Reed pointed out that during hearings in 2019 involving chiropractors and Medicaid reimbursement, some state lawmakers brought up the immunization issue. “That was a litmus test for some people in the state legislature making decisions on the bill,” he said.

Vern Saboe, a chiropractor in Albany, Oregon, and the lobbyist for the Oregon Chiropractic Association, said that while the organization had lobbied to keep exemptions in 2015, they had not engaged on the issue last year, citing other, more pressing priorities.

And while vaccine mandate opponents have successfully killed legislation in several states, including in New Jersey in January, public opinion may not be on their side. Indeed, despite the efforts of Mainers for Health and Parental Rights, when voters in Maine went to the polls on Super Tuesday on March 3, they upheld the decision to ban religious exemptions by a margin of more than 40 percent.

Nevertheless, for some chiropractors, the rise of religious exemption battles in recent years has been an obvious call for action. Jenkins, the president of the Connecticut Chiropractic Council, said that when legislators in the state began to consider ending the religious exemption, it was not difficult to mobilize his membership to oppose the bill.

While vaccine mandate opponents have successfully killed legislation in several states, including in New Jersey in January, public opinion may not be on their side.

“We definitely have a good amount of chiropractors involved in this,” said Melissa Sullivan, the vice president of Health Choice Connecticut, a PAC that has recently spent $25,000 on billboards to fight the legislation.

Jenkins and other chiropractors stressed that medical freedom was at the core of their objection. “The council’s involvement in this legislation is really to support the parental rights, not only of our patients, but of the citizens of Connecticut,” Jenkins said.

“Chiropractors are not anti-vaccination, they’re pro-informed consent,” said Saboe. “Whenever there’s a risk to any medical procedure, there needs to be a choice.”

Jenkins, who has a practice in Milford, Connecticut, raised concerns about the safety of vaccines, too, despite the scientific consensus that vaccines are almost always safe. “The science is still out as to the efficacy of the vaccine,” he said. He also questioned whether diseases like measles and pertussis, or whooping cough, are actually dangerous to people in industrialized countries.

“They’re childhood infections that, as we are afflicted with them at a young age, they’re actually producing an immune system that recognizes foreign substances,” Jenkins said.

Mortality data from the 20th century tells a more complicated, and more tragic, story. In the 1950s, before the widespread introduction of the measles vaccine, the disease killed an average of 500 children per year in the U.S., sending thousands more to the hospital. Those numbers had plunged to near zero just over a decade after the introduction of a vaccine, according to federal statistics.

An outbreak of measles last year in and around New York City infected 600 people, and sent several into intensive care. Many doctors and public health officials indicate that statistics like this terrify them.

“You get to a few thousand cases of measles in this country,” said Offit, “you’ll start to see children dying of measles again.”

Michael Schulson is a contributing editor for Undark. His work has also been published by Aeon, NPR, Pacific Standard, Scientific American, Slate, and Wired, among other publications.