SACRAMENTO (AP) — A California vaccination bill that has generated intense debates pitting personal rights against public health stalled in the state Senate Wednesday, with lawmakers saying it could deprive unvaccinated children of an adequate education by barring them from schools.
The measure would prevent parents from seeking vaccine exemptions that allow students to attend classes because of religious or personal beliefs, joining California with only Mississippi and West Virginia in such strict requirements.
Medical waivers would only be available for children with health problems, and other unvaccinated children would have to be homeschooled.
After more than three hours of testimony, supporters postponed a vote until next week so authors could work on revisions to address concerns raised in the Senate Education Committee.
The proposal’s lead author, Sen. Richard Pan, a Democratic pediatrician from Sacramento, said he is confident he can clarify his bill so lawmakers are comfortable in supporting it.
“Every child deserves an opportunity at education,” Pan said, “and every child deserves an opportunity to be safe at school.”
The proposal was among several drafted across the U.S. in the wake of a measles outbreak that started at Disneyland in December, sickening more than 100 people.
Such legislation has failed elsewhere, and it’s generated such a bitter fight that Pan has received added security over threatening messages and been compared online to Adolf Hitler.
Hundreds of people lined the Capitol halls ahead of the Legislature’s second hearing, with about 600 opponents testifying and about 100 others voicing support. The bill has the backing of the Senate’s leading lawmaker as well as broad support from doctors, hospitals, teachers, public health officials, local governments and unions.
Parents have been on both sides of the issue, with some calling the vaccination plan an unconstitutional government overreach and others saying it was necessary to save lives.
Carl Krawitt, of Corte Madre near San Francisco, told lawmakers Wednesday that he feared for his 6-year-old son’s life during the measles outbreak because the boy, Rhett, couldn’t be vaccinated while he was treated for leukemia.
“We’re here for the community,” Krawitt said. He added, “You have a duty to legislate from solid evidence, not from fear, and keep our schools safe.”
Opposing parents have told lawmakers that since vaccines come with risks, they shouldn’t be mandated. Many said they would rather homeschool their children than expose them to potentially tainted shots or drugs linked to autism and other developmental diseases, even as the medical community says such connections have been disproved.
Lisa Bakshi, of Roseville near Sacramento, said the bill would trample her rights as a parent. “It’s discriminatory,” she said. “It’s a violation of my children’s medical and educational rights.”
Pan, however, noted that pockets of low-immunization rates have prompted communities across California to spend large amounts of resources to contain outbreaks.
“Recent events such as the measles outbreak that began in Disneyland last December has proved that our community immunity is weighing to dangerously low levels due to an over decade of increasing use of the personal belief exemption in too many schools,” he said.
Republican Minority Leader Bob Huff countered, saying he’s concerned that unvaccinated children would be forced into homeschooling, which could deprive them of specialized and advanced classes and socialization available in schools.
He said recent outbreaks have not constituted a crisis.
“If we were talking about an Ebola outbreak,” Huff said, “and we had an inoculation against that, I would probably have a different outcome.”