Earlier this week, a 17-year-old Washington resident posed a question on Reddit: "Can I get the COVID-19 vaccine if my parents won’t provide consent?"
“I’m 17, turning 18 in June, and I want to get the vaccine asap (definitely before I go to college and I want to try and be fully protected by the summer so I can like work and see other people safely),” the person posted. “I’ve been trying to convince them that it’s safe now, but it doesn’t really seem to be working.”
The answer is: It depends.
Ohio opens up vaccine eligibility to people 16 and older on March 29, but per state law, 16- and 17-year-old Ohioans won't be able to get the vaccine without parental consent.
With vaccine supply finally ramping up, health officials are planning for a new problem — more vaccine doses than willing arms to put them into. Undoubtedly, some of those vaccine-hesitant adults have teenage children who disagree with them.
As eligibility opens throughout the country, this thorny question may require more scrutiny — and understanding.
Teens and vaccines
When Ethan Lindenberger showed his mother scientific research confirming no link between vaccines and autism, she said, "That's what they want you to think."
In March 2019, the 18-year-old from Norwalk, Ohio shared this story while testifying before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions about his effort to get vaccinated against his mother's wishes.
"For my mother, her love, affection and care as a parent was used to push an agenda to create a false distress," Lindenberger said in his opening statement. "And these sources, which spread misinformation, should be the primary concern of the American people."
That year, nearly 1,300 measles cases were reported in 31 states. Lindenberger and other teens who educated themselves on the critical role of vaccination in public health took to Reddit, asking how to get the shots they missed as children.
Some didn't even know which ones they had received.
Kelly Danielpour was 16 years old at the time. Upon seeing the post, "I thought this was the most amazing thing I had ever heard," she told Mahoning Matters.
The Los Angeles teen parlayed her interest in global public health and this issue specifically into Vaxteen, an organization that provides teens information on their health rights and advocates for laws allowing minors to consent to vaccination.
Vaxteen's resources include advice for teens about talking to their parents, since, as Danielpour noted, most of the parents in question are vaccine-hesitant rather than outright anti-vaxxers.
She encourages other teens to "try and understand where [parents are] coming from, why do they have these beliefs and educate and provide information in a respectful way ... But there are situations where a parent can't change their mind."
If conversation fails, some teens have the law on their side — depending on where they live.
Minor health care consent laws
Consent for vaccination — and most other health care — is governed by state law.
In most cases, you must be 18 years old to make your own health care decisions. But there are some exceptions for certain types of health care like birth control or treatment for sexually transmitted infections.
Another exception is enshrined in the legal concept known as the "mature minor doctrine," which stipulates that a health provider can determine if a minor has enough maturity to make medical care decisions without parental consent.
Only some states have legal precedent for practical use of the doctrine, however.
Here are some examples:
- In Illinois, minors who are 12 years old or older do not need parental consent to receive the Human Papillomavirus or Hepatitis B vaccines, but they must have parental consent to receive all other vaccinations.
- In Idaho, minors of any age do not need parental consent for all health care services, including vaccines, if the provider determines the minor possesses "requisite comprehension."
- D.C. City Council recently passed a law — that Vaxteen advocated for — allowing minors age 11 and older to consent to vaccination if the health care provider determines the minor meets the standard for informed consent.
The Washington, D.C. legislation was drafted in response to measles outbreaks in 2019, but, in October 2020, council member Vincent C. Gray (D-7th Ward) said the COVID-19 vaccine gave the bill a new urgency, the Washington Post reported.
What about Ohio?
Ohio state law does not include provisions that allow minors to make their own health care decisions.
For some local providers of the COVID-19 vaccine, the question of parental consent for minors won't even apply.
Both Mahoning County Public Health and the Youngstown City Health Department receive only the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, which are not yet approved for people under the age of 18.
Mahoning Matters on Tuesday asked Gov. Mike DeWine about the requirements for minors receiving the COVID-19 vaccine.
"We're going to follow the law as we do in regard to all vaccinations," he responded. "We're not going to compel anyone to get the vaccine. This is an individual choice. These individuals are minors, and I'll have my staff correct me if I'm wrong, but you would assume a parental permission slip would be ... obtained before that person would be able to get their vaccine."
In a state without a law that enshrines the mature minor doctrine, a minor wanting to get a vaccine would have to lawyer up, said Attorney David Betras.
"Technically, you could try to emancipate yourself from your parents," he said. "Or you could actually file something in juvenile court, saying, 'Hey they won't let me get it, and I want to get it,' and the judge could maybe intervene."
Danielpour is hopeful that the effectiveness of the vaccine and the results of trials on younger people will alleviate some vaccine hesitancy in parents. She's certain people play a crucial role and getting past the pandemic.
"Vaccines mean hope to all of us. They mean freedom," she said. "I know at the beginning of the pandemic, everyone I knew, we all social distanced and stayed home even though we were told that we were not at risk of getting COVID or if we got it we would be fine. It's everyone older who would be affected, and we obviously stayed home to protect them.
"So, I think teens are a very important part of this."