The state Assembly passed a closely watched bill Thursday compelling schoolchildren to be fully vaccinated, approving the measure on a 46-30 vote that blurred party lines.
The legislation, which sparked furious protests from worried parents, heads next to the Senate for a vote on amendments taken in the Assembly before it can go to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk. The bill passed the Senate by a comfortable 25-10 margin in May, and while the Democratic governor has taken no official stance, he has called vaccines “profoundly important.”
Perhaps no bill this year has fomented the same level of passion as Senate Bill 277, which would erase the broad personal belief exemption that allows California parents to enroll children who have not received the entire range of recommended shots. Proponents argue it would protect public health by shoring up a key bulwark against the spread of disease, while its critics say it removes parents’ ability to decide which vaccines their children receive.
The vaccine debate has raged nationwide, with millions of parents questioning the safety of what had long been considered routine vaccinations.
“I understand that the decisions we make about our children’s health care are deeply personal,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, who voted for the bill. “While I respect the fundamental right to make that decision as a family, we must balance that with the fact that none of us have the right to endanger others.”
Spurred by the measles outbreak that began at Disneyland and rippled outward, as well as by the resurgence of eradicable diseases like whooping cough, legislators and public health allies moved this year to close the personal belief exemption. They argued that high rates in personal belief exemptions helped spur the Disneyland outbreak spread, and warned that unvaccinated children endanger others who are too young or sick to be vaccinated.
“This isn’t just about Disneyland and this isn’t just about the need to make sure we wait for a crisis,” said Assemblywoman Catharine Baker, R-Dublin. “I’ve heard that from some of my colleagues: ‘This isn’t a problem right now, we should wait for a crisis.’ Colleagues, do you hear how unreasonable that argument is?”
Angry parents have inundated the state Capitol for each hearing, traveling from far away and waiting in line for hours to denounce a bill that they say prevents them from raising their children as they see fit. Many recounted how their children have suffered serious medical repercussions from vaccines.
“This is not about vaccines,” said Assemblyman Rocky Chávez, R-Oceanside, who opposed the bill. “This is about freedom of parents to make the best choice for their children.”
The vote didn’t break cleanly along party lines. Baker spoke of supporting the bill despite her daughter having suffered an adverse vaccine reaction and argued that responsibility to society at large sometimes outweighs personal choice.
“If you have an effect on other people in your community, you need to take responsibility for that,” Baker said. Other Republicans joined her in support.
At the same time, multiple Democrats voted no. Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, warned about government overreach, while Assemblyman Mike Gatto, D-Los Angeles, suggested the measure could be unconstitutional and raised the specter of a “slippery slope” of government mandates.
“The core question here is whether the state can tell parents what medicines to put in a child’s body,” Gatto said.
Other opponents noted the extraordinary level of pushback the bill has touched off as a sign the bill squelched popular sentiment.
“When was the last time you saw so many different people from so many walks of life across political persuasions that came to this Capitol to protest?” asked Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield. “We have awoken a sleeping giant.”