Those people clad in white keeping silent vigil in front of the California state Capitol have a message for Democratic legislators: The thousands who opposed the stricter vaccination mandates signed into law Tuesday aren’t backing down.
As it turns out, however, neither are those Democratic legislators.
In spite of the outcry over Senate Bill 277, which eliminates the personal belief exemption for childhood vaccines, the Democrat-controlled Legislature followed up this week by advancing two more bills expanding immunization requirements, including one aimed at child care workers.
The result is that the battle over state-mandated vaccines is erupting into an all-out political war. A recall effort has begun against state Sen. Richard Pan, a Democrat and pediatrician who sponsored S.B. 277, along with a referendum campaign to repeal the bill.
“They have awoken a sleeping giant that is not going away and is only going to get bigger,” said Christina Hildebrand, a Bay Area resident who founded A Voice for Choice to fight mandatory vaccinations.
“That’s the one thing I would say is the silver lining of all this: They don’t know what they’ve just done,” she said. “The people have woken up.”
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More than 100 bills were introduced in 36 state legislatures after a January measles outbreak at Disneyland. Nearly all of them fizzled — except in California.
Despite rallies and hearings packed with opponents of mandatory vaccination, Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed S.B. 277 shortly after it hit his desk Tuesday.
Later that day, the Assembly Health Committee approved a bill, S.B. 792, to require day care and preschool workers to be vaccinated against a number of diseases, including the flu, as a condition of employment. A day later, Assembly Bill 1117, which gives incentives to doctors to vaccinate Medi-Cal patients, sailed through the Senate Health Committee on a 6-1 vote.
The passage of those bills, coupled with S.B. 277, would give California the toughest vaccination requirements in the nation.
“One child’s death is one too many, especially when it may be preventable,” state Sen. Tony Mendoza, a Democrat who introduced S.B. 792, said in a statement. “With the recent deadly outbreaks of measles and influenza, we must do everything in our power to protect California’s children who spend time in day care.”
The Democrats have plenty of support behind their vaccine push, including from the California Medical Association, public health groups, school districts and labor unions. Proponents argue that use of the personal belief exemption has put at risk “herd immunity” in some areas where vaccines are unpopular.
“Years of anti-science, anti-vaccine misinformation have taken its toll on immunization rates to the point that the public is now [in] danger,” Mr. Pan said in a recent statement.
He pointed to a Public Policy Institute of California poll released last month that showed 67 percent said children should be vaccinated before attending public school. The poll didn’t ask about private school, although S.B. 277 also requires vaccines for children entering private schools.
Supporters of the vaccination bills have tried to dismiss foes as anti-government conservatives, but the loosely organized coalition is nothing if not politically diverse. Along with Republicans leery of government overreach are Santa Monica and Marin County liberals who view skeptically the pharmaceutical industry and the chemicals used in some vaccines, such as mercury and aluminum.
Then there’s the Hollywood wing. Actor Jim Carrey drew headlines and criticism this week with a Twitter photo of a boy with autism and the message, “A trillion dollars buys a lot of expert opinions. Will it buy you? Toxin free vaccines, a reasonable request!” the last sentence bellowed out in all capital letters.
Terry Roark, an East Bay volunteer with the National Vaccine Information Center, said Democrats have alienated a segment of the voting base by pushing mandatory vaccines while calling for individual choice on other health issues, starting with abortion.
“The California Democratic Party had their convention in Anaheim a month or so ago and passed a resolution that said that the party would support all vaccine-mandate bills,” Ms. Roark said. “People are leaving the party in droves.
“Some people say, ‘Hey, you have to stay in the party and work within the party to change the party,’ and other people say, ‘Nah, screw ‘em,’ ” she said. “They’ll give me a choice if I want to carry a baby or abort, but once that baby is born, the woman no longer has any rights to choose what gets injected into the kid? Come on, now. Something’s wrong with that picture.”
Among the legislation’s foes are those who have no problem with vaccines but resent the government intrusion. Former Assembly member Tim Donnelly on Wednesday launched the referendum on S.B. 277 over the issue of government mandates on health care.
“This referendum is not about vaccinations; it is about defending the fundamental freedom of a parent to make an informed decision for their children without being unduly penalized by a government that believes it knows best,” said Mr. Donnelly, a talk show host on Radio Free California.
Mr. Donnelly, who placed third in the state’s 2014 open gubernatorial primary, said Mr. Brown “signed away a parent’s right to choose what’s best for their children.”
“This is a victory for leftists bent on absolute control. No more choice, no informed consent, only compliance or else,” he said on Facebook. “So, if you are [a] Democrat upset over this, A) are you going to leave your party over this & B) what party are you going to join, if any?”
Even the American Civil Liberties Union of California has expressed reservations about S.B. 277, which gives parents the option of home-schooling their children or enrolling them in an “independent study program” with no classroom interaction.
Kevin Baker, legislative director for the ACLU of California, said the problem is that the state Constitution lists a public school education as a fundamental right. The ACLU was neutral on the bill.
“Safe schools are important, and immunization is a valuable protection against outbreaks of infectious diseases,” Mr. Baker said in an April statement. “At the same time, we need to proceed with great caution on any proposed law that deprives kids of their fundamental right to education by banning them from classrooms.”
So far, no lawsuit has been filed against S.B. 277, mainly because it doesn’t take effect until July 1, 2016. The opposition’s best argument may be whether people can be required “to give up the human right to informed consent to medical risk-taking in order to exercise a civil right to an education,” said Barbara Loe Fisher, head of the National Vaccine Information Center.
“This is a very dangerous precedent to set, and I think people aren’t looking at the bigger picture,” Ms. Fisher said. “And I think it’s important to look at the bigger picture. This is not a good precedent to set, because it’s a slippery slope. Freedoms are taken away incrementally.”
Opponents of vaccine legislation aren’t terribly well-organized — there are at least a half-dozen such groups in California, all working on different aspects of the fight. Although they were able to hire lobbyists, it’s unclear whether they have the funding to hang in there for the long term.
By their own admission, they don’t constitute a majority, at least not yet. What they do have is intensity, the kind not seen since perhaps the anti-war rallies of the 1970s, said Ms. Roark, who remembers those days.
“I think [Democrats] were surprised by the amount of opposition,” Ms. Roark said. “But this is not just a California issue. This is an American issue. And the whole world is watching.”