California lawmakers on Wednesday approved a bill barring most parents from opting out of vaccinations for children enrolled in school, voting after a nearly four-hour emotional hearing that saw multiple people ejected for shouting over legislators.
The final vote was 6-2, with Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, and Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber, opposing. The Senate Health Committee chair, Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-Azusa , abstained. The measure faces several more committee hearings before a potential Senate floor vote.
Conceived in response to recent outbreaks of diseases such as measles and whooping cough, Senate Bill 277 removes the “personal belief exemption” allowing California parents to enroll kids in school without having them receive the prescribed range of shots. Doctors and public health officials warn that climbing rates of exemptions threaten to undo the “herd immunity” protecting people who are too young or ill to be vaccinated.
“If it were just a decision about their child, I think you would find no quarrel with having a right to make that decision,” said Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, but “you’re making a choice not just for your child, not just for your family, but a choice that affects another person’s child.”
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In explaining his reason for opposing the bill, Nielsen said parental rights must outweigh the public health goals informing SB 277.
“I have very profound feelings about parental rights and responsibilities and great dismay in American society over the decades how much that parental right, that parental responsibility has diminished,” Nielsen said.
Multiple studies have rejected the notion of a link between vaccines and autism; vaccine manufacturers years ago removed the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal from vaccines. While medical professionals acknowledge there are some risks to vaccines, including allergic reactions – a federal court has authorized nearly $3 billion in damages since its inception – they say those risks are far outweighed by the perils of diseases such as measles and whooping cough.
“There is no scientific controversy about vaccine safety and vaccine effectiveness. The science is clear on this,” testified Dean Blumberg, a physician at UC Davis Medical Center.
But parents who eschew vaccinations dispute those findings and deplore SB 277 as an attack on their personal freedom. They have mobilized in an effort to defeat the legislation, with hundreds attending a Tuesday night screening of a film linking autism to thimerosal and scores attending a rally ahead of the hearing.
“Our work is just beginning,” an advocate named Karen Kain, who warned that vaccines contain “aborted fetal tissue” and formaldehyde, told the crowd. “Let’s tell them our stories.”
They did. After the event activists poured into the Capitol, filling multiple overflow rooms and providing much of what was around an hour and a half of testimony. Many spoke of children being injured or even killed by vaccines.
“Innocent people will die” if the bill passes, testified Terry Roark of Clayton, who said her child had died from a vaccine, her voice quavering. “Innocent children will be killed.”
That type of pathos animated much of the hearing, with the overwhelmingly anti-SB 277 audience repeatedly applauding or scoffing in response to comments. At least two people were forcibly removed by security after they yelled over lawmakers, leading Sen. Holly Mitchell, D-Los Angeles, to warn that the tone of debate had veered into misrepresentation and invective.
“The danger, I feel as a policymaker, is when assertions are made in public comment that aren’t fact-based,” Mitchell said. “That’s irresponsible.”
Her voice rising with indignation, Mitchell asked bill opponents to find language in SB 277 barring vaccine exemptions for children with medical disorders, which numerous witnesses contended the bill would bar. Eventually, a physician who has become a prominent vaccine dissident conceded he could find none.
More than just holding separate beliefs, lawmakers and activists seemed to be operating from distinct sets of facts. When Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, a pediatrician, said there were no confirmed deaths from measles vaccines, he was greeted with laughter and someone shouting the word “lie!”
Many people who skip vaccinations distrust government studies and advisories and believe officials have downplayed the true hazards of vaccines. They argue that approvals of new vaccines are driven by profit rather than necessity.
They have found a champion in Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who arrived at the Tuesday night film screening and the pre-hearing rally on Wednesday to warn that federal health authorities such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been compromised by the pharmaceutical industry’s influence, calling the organization a “cesspool of corruption.”
Kennedy and his allies have also criticized the number of vaccines recommended for pediatric use rising over the years. While not questioning the medical usefulness of vaccines, the sole Democrat who voted against SB 277 questioned the logic of allowing the California Department of Public Health to expand the number of vaccines to the list required for attending school.
“If I’m being asked to mandate that people are getting a vaccine,” Roth said, “I’m somewhat reluctant to turn over to a California departmental agency the opportunity to add mandated vaccines to the list.”
Call Jeremy B. White, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 326-5543.