We sat outside on a gorgeous spring day here, the four moms and me. Lucia Sciarpa Paxton, a former Spanish teacher and professional photographer, had prepared an impressive lunch. For two hours, as we moved from roasted fennel salad to coffee, the women explained why California should not require vaccinations for schoolchildren.
I had met Paxton, 42, in a hallway outside a state Senate hearing room in Sacramento in April. She had come with hundreds of others to protest SB 277, which would eliminate the state's personal belief exemption. The PBE allows parents to opt out of vaccinating kids against diseases like polio, chickenpox, measles and whooping cough.
The new law, still wending through the Legislature, would not apply to children who cannot be immunized for medical reasons. Nor would it apply to children who are home-schooled independently or under the supervision of public schools, as is the case for Paxton's 14-year-old daughter, Zephyra, who has been selectively vaccinated. Paxton opposes the bill on principle.
Mandatory vaccinations seem like such a no-brainer to me. The personal belief exemption has gotten out of hand, especially in highly educated, mostly white enclaves such as Marin and Santa Cruz counties, imperiling herd immunity. And yes, the bill is a form of coercion. Then again, so are seat belt laws and anti-smoking laws.
Still, I wanted to know more about how these women think. I wanted to listen with an open mind.
Paxton said she'd be happy to talk to me as long as she could include some of her allies in the battle against the bill. As we sat down to lunch, Zephyra left on her skateboard. I could not help but notice she wore a helmet.
We were joined by Joni Martin, 51, a writer and surfer whose two children, 17 and 11, have been selectively vaccinated, including against measles; Barb Matessa, 39, a former schoolteacher who fully vaccinated her 10-year-old son, then decided against vaccinating her 3-year-old daughter for Hepatitis B; and Sharla Jacobs, 42, an entrepreneur and the mother of two children, 6 and 4, who have had no vaccinations.
Jacobs said that she has a mutation of a gene that makes it "very difficult to detox from anything from the outside world," and that she believes children with this mutation have been "injured" by vaccines.
Among vaccine skeptics, I have learned, "vaccine injury" is often a synonym for autism. The word "autism" did not come up until I mentioned it. I got the sense that the women wanted to steer clear of the discredited claim that vaccines cause autism. But I also got the feeling they are sympathetic to a possible link.
"I don't hear a whole lot of conversation about autism," Jacobs said. "It's something the media is hyping up."
So what is their case against the mandatory vaccine bill? Mainly, they don't think the government has the right to interfere with an individual's medical decision and they question whether many vaccines improve public health.
Martin, who has the soothing demeanor you might expect from someone who has studied conflict resolution, did most of the talking.
Rather than force people to vaccinate their kids, she said, the state should gather accurate data about which vaccinations children lack, since so many children with PBEs seem to be partially or selectively vaccinated.
If a school has a low immunization rate against, say, Hepatitis B, she said, "I would argue, are we really going to worry about that?"
(I would, since the vaccine can provide protection for many years against the disease, which often is described as sexually transmitted, but can also be passed among children in day care and school settings.)
Rather than mandating immunizations, Martin said, there ought to be an effort to "encourage and educate."
The exemption rate already is dropping because of a 2013 law requiring parents to be counseled by physicians before filing personal belief exemptions. That law, she said, needs more time to work. (The ACLU has agreed with her on that point.)
Martin said the state should also push for more vaccine safety research. "I think in some ways the government is afraid to do research that would reveal anyone having an adverse reaction to vaccines," she said.
Of course, there can always be more research, but many studies already have examined vaccine safety. There is no question that a tiny portion of children have had serious adverse reactions. But what we do know, unequivocally, is that vaccines save lives.
Originally, opposition to this bill focused on parental rights: "Where there is a risk, there must be a choice," was the slogan. But that argument has gained little traction.
After three committee hearings, the bill passed easily in the state Senate. It is slated to be taken up by the health committee in the Assembly before it goes to the floor for a vote, which could happen by mid-July. No one is taking bets on what the governor will do.
The PR battle appears to have been lost by those who oppose the bill. On Wednesday, a new poll showed that an overwhelming majority of Californians — 67% — believe children should be vaccinated to attend school. More than 8 in 10 said vaccines are "very" or "somewhat" safe.
But now the opposition, loosely gathered as the California Coalition for Health Choice, seems to have shifted tactics. The Assembly's education committee, which is not slated to hear the bill, "needs time to carefully review this bill," according to material from the coalition.
Schools, my lunch companions told me, will be unduly burdened by enforcing the law. Families who refuse to vaccinate but cannot afford to home-school their children would suffer. Parents who speak only Spanish would not be able to provide English-language instruction at home. Children would be denied their constitutional right to attend school.
Yet public school districts — along with the California School Boards Assn., the California School Employees Assn. and the state PTA — are among the bill's most prominent supporters.
The sincerity of my lunch companions was unassailable. I tried hard not to judge as they spoke. As pleasant as our afternoon was, nothing they said changed my mind. We have many things in common, not least a consuming love for our children. When it comes to ensuring their health, however, we are worlds apart.