After a lengthy and contentious debate, the California Senate on Thursday approved a controversial proposal requiring vaccinations for nearly all California schoolchildren.
Senate Bill 277, which would make California only the third state in the country without religious and personal belief exemptions from vaccinations, passed 25-10. The vote followed mostly partisan lines, with the majority of support coming from Democrats. It now heads to a new round of hearings in the Assembly.
“Together we are turning the tide to stop communicable diseases before any more families are hurt,” Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, said after the vote. “By passing this bill, the Senate, in a bipartisan manner, has sent a strong message: Vaccines save lives. Every child has a right to a safe school.”
Pan and Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, introduced SB 277 following a high-profile outbreak of measles that began at Disneyland last December. The measure aims to boost school immunization statewide, as rising opt-out rates in many California communities have led to the return of diseases like whooping cough.
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But opponents packed committee hearings by the hundreds to testify against SB 277, arguing that it would impinge on their personal medical choices and the right of their unvaccinated children to receive an education.
Anti-vaccine advocates once again filled the gallery of the Senate during a tense discussion that lasted for more than 50 minutes.
Allen, who introduced the bill as “the son of a childhood victim of polio,” said people of his father’s generation “still can’t believe that we have allowed communicable diseases that we have the tools to fight back into American society.”
“If this bill were really about personal choice, we wouldn’t be here,” he said. “This is about how each of our personal choices impact others. It’s the personal choice that someone might make that might end up making someone else sick.”
Several Republican senators tried to stall the bill by introducing a series of amendments that would have reinserted the religious exemption and required labeling of vaccine ingredients. All of them were quickly tabled by Democrats.
Sen. Joel Anderson, R-Alpine, raised the most vociferous objections, declaiming SB 277 at length as a violation of religious freedoms. “Do you have a right to steal my soul without my knowledge?” he asked, prompting murmurs across the Senate floor.
“Why is it a religious exemption is so scary to this Senate body?” Anderson added, pointing out that inmates have a right to practice their faith in California prisons.
“I find it very odd that this bill treats us law-abiding citizens as lesser citizens,” he said. “So now what I’m getting from this is I have to commit a felony and be sentenced to prison before I can practice my faith. That’s outrageous.”
Allen retorted that prisoners are also required to be vaccinated as a matter of public health.
Three Republicans joined Democrats in voting for SB 277, including Sen. Andy Vidak, R-Hanford, who said after the vote that he thought frequently of his great uncle who died in an iron lung.
Sen. Richard Roth, D-Riverside, was one of two Democrats voting no. He still had concerns about the list of mandated vaccines.
“I’m not sure there was a full explanation,” he said.
Outside the Senate, a group of vaccine opponents from the California Coalition for Health Choice thanked senators who voted no as they left. They said they would step up efforts in the Assembly to highlight the impact SB 277 would have on schools and the difficulty of acquiring a medical exemption for immunizations.
“The only thing we can do is continue to educate our officials” about the personal belief exemption, Lisa Bakshi, a mother from Placer County, said. “The parents who do it now, do it for very legitimate reasons. We don’t do it because we are uninformed.”
Senate Bill 227
25 yes (22 Democrats, 3 Republicans)
10 no (8 Republicans, 2 Democrats)
4 abstain (3 Republicans, 1 Democrat)
Ted Gaines, R-Roseville - no
Lois Wolk, D-Davis - yes
Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber - no
Richard Pan, D-Sacramento - yes
Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte - abstain