A group of state lawmakers announced legislation Wednesday that would abolish an exemption from the mandate that children get vaccinated before they enter school if it conflicts with their parents' personal beliefs.
Surrounded by mothers holding babies, five lawmakers said during a Capitol news conference that the legislation was needed to address a trend among many parents not getting their children immunized against common diseases and the spread of some preventable illnesses including measles and whooping cough.
"There are not enough people being vaccinated to contain these dangerous diseases," said Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), a pediatrician. "We should not wait for more children to sicken or die before we act."
Gov. Jerry Brown signaled that he was open to such a bill. "The governor believes that vaccinations are profoundly important and a major public health benefit and any bill that reaches his desk will be closely considered," said Evan Westrup, a spokesman for Brown.
The legislation does not address children who are completely home-schooled. It would still allow children to avoid vaccination for medical reasons including allergic responses and weak immune systems. The mandate only applies to children attending public or private schools.
Currently, 13,592 children have personal belief affidavits on file; of those, 2,764 were identified as based on religious beliefs. Pan said if the bill passes, the religious exemption would also disappear but he is open to a separate conversation on that issue.
The bill was drafted after 92 cases of measles have been reported in the state, most of them linked to visitors or employees at Disneyland or those who came in contact with them during the holidays.
Sen. Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica) is a co-author of the bill and said he was supporting it even though his district included pockets where many parents are not having their children immunized.
Currently, two states, Mississippi and West Virginia, do not allow exemptions except for medical reasons, and 46 states allow exemptions based on religious beliefs, according to Catherine Flores-Martin, Director of the California Immunization Coalition.
Any proposal to eliminate the personal belief exemption is “absolutely insane,” according to Alan Phillips, a North Carolina attorney who has represented clients in California and other states seeking exemptions.
Phillips said many parents were concerned about reports that vaccines can damage their childrens' health and they want more scientific proof of their safety. “Given the concerns that I have, one of which is this unknown about serious adverse events, collectively I have a concern that anybody would not have a right to make that decision for themselves and their children,” he said.
Pan has cited a state study indicating that in some communities in California more than 10% of parents are using the personal belief exemption to avoid the state’s vaccine mandates for their children.
“Vaccines prevent serious and potentially life-threatening diseases and parents deserve to know the rates at the school they trust to protect their child,” Pan said.
The new legislation would also require the notification of parents of the vaccination rates at their children's schools. It is supported by Kris Calvin, chief executive of the California chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Eliminating the personal belief exemption is opposed by Matthew B. McReynolds, senior staff attorney at the conservative Pacific Justice Institute, a Sacramento-based organization that advocates for parental rights and religious freedoms.
“Its concerning to me that the measles outbreak seems to have prompted some hysteria and this seems like a pretty sweeping approach to what really is a very limited problem that could be addressed in other ways,” McReynolds said.
He said the exemption is a compromise between public health experts and parents who have concerns about the side-effects and methods of manufacture of some vaccines.
“Wholesale doing away with that exemption eliminates the compromise and its regressive,” McReynolds said.
He also said parents who lose the ability to be exempted on religious grounds could have cause to challenge that change on grounds it violates their First Amendment rights.
“Its definitely something that could be subject to challenge and I think its an open question what the court would do with that,” he said.
Senate Republican leader Bob Huff of Diamond Bar said Wednesday that GOP lawmakers are very concerned about the recent outbreak of measles.
“While medical experts are overwhelmingly in agreement that vaccines are safe, preserving the freedom of choice has also emerged as part of this important discussion,” Huff said. “We look forward to reviewing the proposed legislation in detail and weighing what appropriate actions should be taken in the coming months.”