Should anti-vaccination organisations be listed as charities?

Anti-vaccine lobbyist and AVN spokesperson Meryl Dorey at home in Newrybar.
Anti-vaccine lobbyist and AVN spokesperson Meryl Dorey at home in Newrybar. Photo: Edwina Pickles

Last week, the Medical Journal of Australia (MJA) ran an interesting opinion piece by Jane McCredie, a writer specialising in science and medicine. The topic of the piece was the recent legal win by the Australian Vaccination Network, in having its charitable fundraising status reinstated after originally being stripped of it two years ago.

That means that the organisation can conduct fundraising appeals along the lines of lotteries, donations, competitions and sponsorships, as well as actively undertake membership drives. All in the name of charity!

The Australian Vaccination Network (AVN) has been variously described as a pressure group, an anti-vaccination lobby group and a provider of misleading and inaccurate vaccination information. In the past few days the organisation has had its plans to advertise its message on American Airlines flights scrapped by the airline after a public backlash. So is this an organisation that should be able to undertake charitable fundraising? 

Science and medicine writer Jane McCredie is certainly uncomfortable with the association between the Australian Vaccination Network and the word charity. “I think organisations that receive official recognition as a charity should have to show that their operations are of benefit to the community,” she says. “I don't believe an anti-vaccination group would be able to do this. The AVN spreads unscientific anecdotes about the alleged harms of vaccination, which probably influence some parents not to have their children vaccinated. This puts those children and others they come into contact with at risk of contracting potentially lethal diseases. The case of four-week-old NSW baby Dana McCaffery shows the importance of what public health officials call 'herd immunity' (meaning that if enough people are vaccinated against a disease it becomes hard for that disease to spread so that even those who have not had the vaccine are less likely to catch it). She died of whooping cough about three years ago, a disease contracted while she was still too young to have been immunised.”

 Now, having a charitable fundraising authority isn’t the same thing as being a charity – not as far as the Australia Taxation Office is concerned – but I’ll bet that a great many people out there aren’t aware of that, let alone understand the different implications.  Certainly the Australian Vaccination Network website doesn’t make the difference clear, as they write about their: “loss of our authority to be a charity” – despite the fact that that’s an authority they have never held. From a marketing point of view, it’s a benefit to be associated with the word; a charity, after all, invokes impressions of philanthropic goals for the greater good. Would - or should – an organisation such as the AVN be able to describe themselves that way?

 The main problem is that there is no cut-and-dried definition of what a charity actually is, hence use of the word is open to a bit of creativity. The Government has, however, announced that they will introduce a statutory commonwealth definition of charity and will expand it to encompass certain child care organisations, self-help bodies, and closed or contemplative religious orders from 1 July 2013 - definitely a step in the right direction!

In the meantime, what qualities do you think should be mandatory for organisations, to qualify as a charity (with all the wonderful tax benefits and social esteem benefits that go along with that) or to describe themselves along those lines? Is an anti-vaccination lobby group a good contender for that description? What about the Australian Breastfeeding Association? Or the (hypothetical) Australian bottle-feeding association? Where should the line be drawn when it comes to both the ability to fundraise, and the ability to use the word charity?

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