Two California lawmakers aim to limit ‘personal belief’ vaccine exemption

California Sen. Richard Pan, shown with his son William in 2010, says: "As a pediatrician, I have personally witnessed children suffering lifelong injury and death from vaccine-preventable infection."
(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)
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Alarmed by the spread of disease as some parents decline to vaccinate their children, two state lawmakers plan legislation aimed at increasing the number of youngsters who have been immunized when they start school in California.

They will propose restricting parents’ ability to obtain a “personal belief” exemption from immunization shots required in California, said people knowledgeable about the plan but unauthorized to speak publicly.

In addition, they would require parents to be notified of vaccination rates at their children’s schools.


Nearly 100 cases of measles have been reported in California, most of them linked to visitors or employees at Disneyland or people who came in contact with them during the holidays.

Forty-six states allow exemptions from vaccinations based on religious beliefs, said Catherine Flores-Martin, director of the California Immunization Coalition. California permits parents and guardians to seek exemptions for children if they state that the requirements are contrary to their beliefs, including religious beliefs.



Feb. 4, 10:22 a.m.: An earlier version of this article stated that 30 states allow exemptions based on religious beliefs. In fact, that exemption is available in 46 states.


Two states, Mississippi and West Virginia, allow exemptions based only on medical issues.

The proposals in Sacramento would probably still allow religious exemptions, said those familiar with the planned legislation. The two lawmakers who will offer it declined comment until they hold a news conference Wednesday.

“As a pediatrician, I have personally witnessed children suffering lifelong injury and death from vaccine-preventable infection,” one of the lawmakers, state Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), said in a statement last week.


The other lawmaker is Democratic state Sen. Ben Allen, a Santa Monica educator.

Flores-Martin supports elimination of the “personal belief” exemption, saying that the only reason a child should not be immunized is if a medical problem would result.

“We’ve been hearing from parents who want to ... tighten up the process,” Flores-Martin said. “They are irritated that some parents can opt out because they don’t believe in it. It puts other children at risk.”

About 13,500 exemptions were granted last year in California based on personal beliefs, including about 2,700 based on religious beliefs, she said.

On the flip side, an attorney with clients seeking exemptions says removal of the personal belief exemption would be “absolutely insane.” The lawyer, Alan Phillips of North Carolina, said many parents are concerned about reports that vaccines can negatively affect children’s health, and they want more scientific proof of their safety.

“I have a concern that anybody would not have a right to make that decision for themselves and their children,” said Phillips, who has clients in California.

Pan last week cited a state study indicating that in some California communities more than 10% of parents are using the personal belief exemption.


Kris Calvin, chief executive of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said she would support a requirement that parents be told the vaccination rates at their children’s schools.

“As a parent, I would want to know, if only to be reassured,” Calvin said in an interview Tuesday.

She cited a survey by the University of Michigan in November that found that 74% of parents would remove a child from a preschool program if they learned that some participants were not vaccinated.

Twitter: @mcgreevy99

Times staff writer Chris Megerian contributed to this report.