Vaccine bill clears key hurdle in state senate

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A controversial bill that aims to eliminate parents' ability to opt out of vaccinating their kids due to personal or religious beliefs has cleared a key hurdle in the California state senate.

The Senate Education Committee voted 7-2 Wednesday morning to approve the bill, SB 277. It would change the law so that a medical exemption would be the only way parents could enroll an unvaccinated child in a California public or private school. It now moves on to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The committee was supposed to consider the bill last week, but chairwoman Carol Liu (D-La Canada Flintridge) delayed the vote until Wednesday. Last week, she and other committee members raised concerns that the bill would limit unvaccinated students’ rights to get an adequate education, after some of the measure's opponents said they would pull their kids out of school if it becomes law.

In response to his colleagues' concerns, SB 277 co-author Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) amended the bill.

Pan changed the measure so that families who choose not to immunize their children could participate in a multiple-family, private home school. It also would allow such families to home school their kids using a public school independent study program, which is administered by local education agencies.

While voting to pass the bill on to the Judiciary Committee, Liu said she is still not satisfied that it goes far enough to protect "parents' rights," arguing, "this bill does have a long way to go."

Sen. Marty Block (D-San Diego), who also voted in favor of the bill, echoed Liu's remarks, saying he hopes that as the bill moves through the legislature Pan will further amend it so there will be an "even greater expansion of educational opportunities" for parents who opt out of vaccinating their children.

Pan's changes were not sufficient for Sen. Connie Leyva (D-Chino), who voted against the measure.

"I just still have a concern that this will not go far enough to help a two-income family, who can not home school their child, or a single working parent," Leyva said.

Sen. Bill Monning (D-Carmel) was unequivocal in his support for SB 277. Arguments about how the bill would limit parental choice are outweighed by the need to protect public health, he maintained.

"If that choice can effect the health of somebody else’s child, then it goes beyond the purview of personal choice and becomes a personal choice with community consequences," asserted Monning.

Pan introduced the bill in the midst of the measles outbreak that began at the Disney theme parks in December. Experts say low vaccination rates in some communities allowed the disease to spread, eventually sickening 131 Californians.

But the proposal has proved hugely controversial. While supporters see mandatory vaccination as a public health imperative, opponents say it would deprive parents of the choice of vaccinating their children.

Thirty-one states have no personal belief exemption. Attempts to eliminate the personal belief exemption in Washington and Oregon failed earlier this year. Only two other states - Mississippi and West Virginia - do not allow for a religious exemption. 

This story was updated.