The issue of mandatory vaccinations roiled a legislative hearing in Sacramento on Tuesday for the third time this month, and for the third time, state Senate committee members approved the proposed state law that would restrict exemptions to required school vaccinations.
Senate Bill 277, which would remove the “personal belief exemption” that allows parents to opt out of school vaccination laws, passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a vote of 5-1 on Tuesday and moves to the Senate Appropriations Committee. The bill previously passed the Senate Health and the Senate Education committees.
About 2.5 percent of California kindergartners held personal belief exemptions to vaccinations in fall 2014. (Check the EdSource Today Vaccination App to look up vaccination rates at your school.) The bill would excuse children from vaccination requirements only if they have a medical exemption.
A three-hour hearing at the Senate Judiciary Committee brought forth hundreds of parents who traveled to Sacramento to testify against the measure, some with young children in tow. Many of the opponents said that passage of the bill would force them to homeschool their unvaccinated children or, if that were not feasible for the family, would deny their children a right to a public education.
“Society based on the rule that each one is a law unto himself would soon be confronted with disorder and anarchy,” wrote the U.S. Supreme Court in 1905 in upholding the right of Cambridge, Massachusetts to require residents to be vaccinated against smallpox.
Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, worked to contain Tuesday’s hearing to a discussion of the legal issues surrounding public health, public education and the provisions of the bill, which was co-authored by state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, and state Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica.
Jackson acknowledged the concerns of parents about how they would educate their unvaccinated children, as well as their “understandable” distrust of pharmaceutical companies.
But she added, “We are very interested in dealing with fact and not fear.”
Mary Holland, director of the Graduate Lawyering Program at New York University, drew a reprimand from Jackson when Holland said the bill would coerce parents into vaccinating their children without free and informed consent, and likened that lack of consent to rape.
“To analogize this to rape is a little bit off,” Jackson said. She asked Holland if any of the legal cases she cited about informed consent involved vaccination. Holland said they did not.
Allen began the hearing by quickly sketching the legal precedent establishing the right of the state to require children to be vaccinated. “The courts, over and over again, have stated that this is an appropriate place for the state to be involved,” he said.
Among the cases Allen mentioned were these key decisions:
- 1905 The U.S. Supreme Court in Jacobson v. Massachusetts affirmed the right of the Cambridge, Massachusetts Board of Health to require residents, including the adult plaintiff Henning Jacobson, to be vaccinated against smallpox.
- 1944 The U.S. Supreme Court in Prince v. Massachusetts said that a guardian’s right to practice religion – in this case, the right of Sarah Prince, aunt of 9-year-old Betty Prince – does not nullify the state’s authority and does not include “liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.”
- 2011 The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of a 2011 ruling from the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in the 4th Circuit in Workman v. Mingo County Board of Education. The court let stand a ruling that the mandatory vaccination law in West Virginia does not unconstitutionally infringe on the right to freedom of religion for the plaintiff, Jennifer Workman.
Allen noted that the bill would eliminate personal belief exemptions only for students newly entering kindergarten, new to a school district, or entering 7th grade. Current kindergartners, for example, would not be affected.
The bill was introduced after a measles outbreak began in Disneyland in Anaheim last December and infected 134 people in the state, including 57 unvaccinated individuals. On April 17, the California Department of Public Health declared the measles outbreak over because two 21-day incubation periods (42 days) had passed without a new outbreak-related infection.
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