A bill that would make childhood vaccinations harder to avoid survived its first legislative test Wednesday, after a three-hour hearing marked by raw emotion on both sides of the issue and a packed rally at which Robert F. Kennedy Jr. denounced the measure.
The measure, which would end parents' ability to obtain vaccination waivers for their children based on personal beliefs, passed the state Senate Health Committee on a 6-2 vote.
Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), a physician and author of the bill, told the panel more parents are securing exemptions, exposing more children to diseases that are avoidable through immunization.
"As a pediatrician, I have seen children who have suffered from vaccine-preventable illnesses," Pan told the panel. "This really is about protecting the public health."
Sen. Jim Nielsen (R-Gerber) voted against the bill, saying it would interfere with parental rights. Committee chairman Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina) withheld his vote.
Hernandez said he could not support the bill unless it was changed to accommodate parents who have religious objections or who say it is too difficult to get a medical waiver.
Hundreds of the bill's opponents, many of them parents wearing red and accompanied by their children, attended the hearing after a rally on the Capitol steps that featured an appearance by Kennedy.
The federal government has not done enough to make immunizations safe, he said.
"This bill is premature because they are telling people they can't opt out before we have a system that can protect them," Kennedy told The Times. "The way to solve the problem is to restore faith in the regulatory system and faith in the safety of vaccines."
Kennedy, the son of former U.S. Atty. Gen. Robert Kennedy, has been outspoken in contending that there are health risks, including development of autism, from vaccines.
More than 13,500 kindergartners in California have waivers based on their parents' personal beliefs. The issue took on new urgency this year, when more than 130 cases of measles were reported in California, with some of the first cases tied to workers or visitors at Disneyland.
Under Pan's legislation, SB 277, parents could still be exempted from vaccination requirements for medical reasons such as an immune-system problem. Pan also agreed to exempt children who are home-schooled.
Some relatives of children they believe were injured by vaccines broke down in tears while testifying.
Karen Kain's voice choked as she described her daughter having seizures two hours after she was first vaccinated, eventually dying at age 15 after suffering brain damage.
"She was a beautiful young women whose life was stolen by vaccine injury," Kain said.
Hernandez ordered two opponents of the bill ejected when they tried to shout over legislators. One man angrily accused the officials of attempting "chemical molestation of children,'' while another called the proposal "appalling."
Others jeered when supporters of the bill spoke, and some opponents accused the lawmakers of helping to enrich the pharmaceutical industry, leading Hernandez to threaten to shut down the hearing.
"No personal attacks on either side," Hernandez told attendees.
Medical experts who testified Wednesday said science shows that vaccines are safe.
"There is no scientific reason for opting out of vaccination," said Dean Blumberg, a UC Davis physician representing the American Academy of Pediatrics and the California Medical Assn.
He said declining immunizations puts others, including infants, at risk and noted that about 30 other states forbid personal-belief exemptions.
"This bill is good for public health. It's good for individual health," Blumberg told the panel.