Now that the state Senate has generally ignored the loud, repeated and unscientific outcries of anti-vaccination crusaders, it’s likely the Assembly will fall into line this summer and pass a law eliminating religious belief as an excuse for not getting children inoculated before they enroll in public schools.
But will Gov. Jerry Brown sign this strong new bill in the face of claims by anti-vaxxers that it interferes with their freedom to make medical decisions for their children?
This question rises naturally from the message Brown appended to his signature in 2012, the last time a strong vaccination measure reached his desk. That law requires parents not vaccinating their kids to produce evidence they have been briefed on the possible consequences by a medical professional before making their decision.
It aims to reduce the numbers of children not protected against onetime scourges like measles, mumps, rubella, polio, smallpox, pertussis and other potentially deadly or debilitating diseases that until a few years ago had been virtually eradicated from the civilized world by vaccinations.
But Brown – fully aware that no organized religion, not even Christian Science, has taken a stance against vaccinations – nevertheless wrote this after his signature: “I will direct the Department (of Public Health) to allow for a separate religious exemption on the form…in this way, people whose religious beliefs preclude vaccinations will not be required to seek a health practitioner’s signature.”
So Brown, known for decades for occasional inconsistencies, signed a bill requiring contact with health personnel before parents could enroll any unvaccinated child in school, but then gave them an easy way around the requirement. Talk about a meaningless signature.
His aides tried to explain this away, saying Brown’s order “does not countermand the law” and that he “believes that vaccinations are profoundly important and a major public health benefit…we’ve taken into account fundamental First Amendment religious freedoms through an extremely narrow exemption.”
Actually, the exemption – in the form of a box on a school enrollment form that any parent can check off without having to prove either religious involvement or belief – is wide enough to drive a truck through.
It is one possible reason for the whooping cough outbreak of 2014 and the measles upsurge of last February, although no one has tracked down the original patients who spread those diseases, so no one can be absolutely certain.
But the simple reality is this: Parents who claim individual freedom to make decisions for their children are simultaneously trampling on the rights of many thousands of children whose medical conditions preclude them from getting vaccinated. What about their freedom from unnecessary dangers?
“We’ve examined the religious freedom issue,” says Democratic state Sen. Richard Pan of Sacramento, a pediatrician and the Legislature’s only medical doctor, the new bill’s co-author. “The courts say vaccines are not a First Amendment issue and are within the authority of states to impose. We do provide options, too. We demand that parents who refuse to vaccinate take responsibility. They are free to home school their kids. But they are not free to endanger others. There is a compelling state interest in public health.”
The question is whether Brown will agree, or whether he will listen to anti-vaccination parents who repeatedly cite a late-1990s British study purporting to show vaccinations are linked to autism. Not only was the research methodology shown to be invalid, but that so-called study’s author later recanted.
This doesn’t stop anti-vaxxers, who turned out in large, loud numbers for state Senate hearings and likely will for upcoming discussions in the Assembly. Their appeals for personal freedom at the expense of the freedom of many more others won over almost all state Senate Republicans, only three GOPers voting for the vaccination bill. One was Sen. Jeff Stone of Temecula, a longtime pharmacist well versed in the benefits of vaccines.
With a Republican co-sponsor in the Assembly, Pan hopes this won’t devolve into a mostly partisan quarrel there, as it did in the Senate. Regardless, odds for Assembly passage appear good.
Which means Brown looms as the largest potential obstacle to this much needed public health measure. If he doesn’t reverse his earlier miscue, he can expect a full share of the blame each time there’s a disease outbreak that could have been prevented by vaccinations.