The rash of tough pro-vaccine bills that infected state legislatures after the Disneyland measles outbreak has largely faded, and based on the uproar in California, it’s not hard to see why.
The state capitol has been flooded off and on for months with parental-choice advocates drawing thousands for protests against Senate Bill 277, which would eliminate personal belief or religious exemptions and require all children without a medical exemption to be vaccinated before entering public school.
And the outcry has only grown louder as the bill nears passage, spreading beyond the issue of vaccination safety and morphing into a full-blown revolt against government intrusion into civil liberties.
At a rally Tuesday in Sacramento that drew a crowd of more than 1,000, Republican assembly member Shannon Grove told the sign-waving crowd that California state legislators “have forgotten who they work for.”
“There is no public health crisis here that warrants this law. These politicians don’t want you to think for yourself,” said Ms. Grove to enthusiastic cheers. “They think they are better parents than you are and they are annoyed that you are clogging up their hallways. They are annoyed that you are demanding to be left alone. They are annoyed that you are not compliant.”
Even so, Democrats on the Assembly Health Committee approved the measure Tuesday on a 12-6 party-line vote, placing the measure on a glide path to the Democrat-controlled Assembly and the desk of Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.
“I’m someone who has a strong civil liberties streak in me, but I do think at end of the day government has a role to play when one’s actions, even founded upon sincerely felt beliefs, start to impact other people,” said Democratic state Sen. Ben Allen, one of the bill’s sponsors, in testimony before the committee.
He tried to reach out to the opposition by saying, “It’s obviously been a difficult conversation for everybody,” adding that he would support an amendment to expand the medical exemption.
“I continue to have profound respect for the folks who participate in this debate and with a great deal of sincere care and love for their children,” Mr. Allen said. “At end of the day, it’s our role as legislators to look out broadly for the public-health needs of the state.”
Those who packed the hearing room and spilled into the hall were warned against cheering or booing, but some opponents hissed. One woman was removed from the room during the hearing after she began shouting about her son “on the floor, seizing,” the Sacramento Bee reported.
Under the bill, California would join Mississippi and West Virginia as the only states without a personal-belief or religious exemption for childhood vaccines.
Republican assembly member Jim Patterson said in a statement after the committee vote that he has no problem with vaccinations, but he does have a problem with big government.
“While I am not personally or religiously opposed to vaccinations, I am opposed to the unnecessary and punitive dictates of government,” Mr. Patterson said. “After doing my own research, I’m confident that this bill is an example of a government overreach and in light of high and ever-growing volunteer vaccination rates in California, is simply not needed.”
“Forcing parents to choose between their personal or religious beliefs and sending their child to school is excessive,” he said. “These kids are not dangerous and don’t deserve to be isolated and segregated by S.B. 277. There are better solutions.”
Democratic state Sen. Richard Pan, a pediatrician and the bill’s other sponsor, argued that most Californians are behind the bill, citing a Public Policy Institute of California poll showing that two-thirds of those surveyed support requiring children to be fully vaccinated before entering school.
“This majority will not be silent,” Mr. Pan told the Assembly committee. “When more people are hospitalized or die or preventable contagious diseases, they will hold us accountable for denying the science of vaccinations if we refuse to act.”
The bill’s foes counter that only 2.5 percent of children who enrolled in kindergarten in 2014 did so under the state’s personal-belief exemption. Many of those children had already had some vaccines and planned to receive the rest under a modified schedule.
“This bill is not about measles or pertussis,” said Barbara Loe Fisher, co-founder and president of the National Vaccine Information Center, in her testimony. “It is about taking power away from mothers and fathers to make medical risk decisions for their minor children and handing it over to doctors to implement a one-size-fits-all policy with no personal accountability for the children who become casualties of that policy.”
“It punishes parents with good reason to conclude their children are already vaccine injured or vulnerable to vaccine harm but cannot find a doctor to acknowledge that and write a medical vaccine exemption,” Ms. Fisher said.
Dr. Dean Blumberg, a pediatrician testifying on behalf of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the California Medical Association, said that even though the statewide opt-out rate is relatively low, the problem is that parents who exempt their children from vaccinations do so in population clusters.
The result is that in some areas of California, often the most liberal regions, the number of children entering public schools without vaccines is as high as 50 percent.
“This leaves pockets of children susceptible to preventable diseases and resulting disease exposure leads to sustained transmission,” Dr. Blumberg said. “The consequences are disease among those who choose not to be vaccinated but also those who are vaccinated because remember, vaccines don’t work 100 percent of the time.”
He compared S.B. 277 to laws requiring seat belts and car seats for children.
“Parental rights are important but not all rights are equal,” Dr. Blumberg said. “The right to individual and public health afforded by requiring vaccines for school attendance trumps a parent’s right to make a choice that is not backed by scientific evidence.”
In her neighborhood in Napa, California, Hannah Henry of Vaccinate California said that the vaccination rate at her local elementary school has dropped from 71 percent in 2007 to 49 percent in 2015.
Those who still refuse to vaccinate fully their children before kindergarten would have the option to home-school.
“People have a right to ignore science,” Ms. Henry said, “but that choice has consequences.”
Most state legislatures considering tougher vaccination bills, including Oregon and Washington, ended up seeing those measures die. Last month, Vermont removed the philosophical exemption from its vaccine law but kept its medical and religious exemptions.
The Centers for Disease Control reported 173 cases of measles as of May 29, 125 of those from the Disneyland outbreak in December. None of those who contracted the disease died, but Mr. Allen said that 400 people die each day worldwide from measles.
Mr. Brown has said he will “strongly consider” the S.B. 277 if it reaches his desk, and Jack Pitney, government professor at Claremont McKenna College, said it’s unlikely the opposition will sway him.
“The opponents of the bill are vocal but they probably won’t have much impact on the governor,” Mr. Pitney said. “Many of the opponents come from the right side of the spectrum. But California is a deep-blue state where conservatives have little practical influence.”
“In his long career, he has seen every kind of protest over every kind of issue,” Mr. Pitney said. “The opponents of this bill have no leverage over him.”