Anti-Vaxxers Score a Legislative Victory in California

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In a Spot: A bill to remove 'personal belief exemptions' from vaccine requirements has stalled in the state legislature. REUTERS/Brian Snyder

California anti-vaxxers, while relatively few in number, continue to wield outsize influence in the state. Over the winter, California suffered an outbreak of measles after an unvaccinated person visited Disneyland, prompting lawmakers to draft legislation designed to increase the state's vaccination rates.  

But on Wednesday, state legislators could not answer a key question raised by the bill—should unvaccinated children be denied access to public schools?—after hundreds of parents opposed to mandatory vaccines for school children, according to the San Jose Mercury News, appeared before the Senate Education Committee to protest the bill, SB 277.

The bill would have done away with California's controversial 'personal belief exemptions,' which allow parents to choose not to vaccinate their children on the basis of their own personal beliefs. California is one of 20 states that allow such exemptions. More than a quarter of California schools have measles vaccination rates lower than those recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, according to The New York Times.

The bill's author, State Senator Dr. Richard Pan, a pediatrician, was forced to delay a vote in the Senate Education Committee after some of his fellow lawmakers said they would not vote for a bill that excluded unvaccinated children from public schools. Proponents of the bill spoke for about seven minutes, according to The Sacramento Bee, while opposed parents spent more than two hours arguing against it. “I think maybe some of the senators were taken aback by the ferocity of passion that they saw there, and that might have been impactful,” State Senator Ben Allen, a co-author of SB277, told the Bee.

The issue of mandatory vaccinations is contentious in California, where, according to the Contra Costa Times, more than 13,000 kindergartners are unvaccinated for personal or religious reasons. Perhaps hoping to sway public opinion, Pan and Allen penned an op-ed in The Fresno Bee titled "SB 277 protects children from horrific diseases."

Meanwhile, Pan is speaking with various stakeholders to try to find a path forward for the legislation. If he is unable to craft a compromise in one week's time, his bill will likely die in committee—a fate similar bills in Oregon and Washington suffered after facing similar opposition.