Update: The State Senate just signed off on the latest version of the bill, which now heads to the Governor's desk (see below).
For anti-vaxxers, the end is nigh.
After much fanfare, protest and debate on vaccinations (or at least a lot of boring speeches), the California State Assembly passed SB 277, which would eliminate the “personal belief exemption” for the parents of children attending public schools.
Should the Senate pass it and Gov. Jerry Brown sign it (both likely), California students would be prohibited from attending public school without getting vaccinated.
Under current law, children are supposed to be vaccinated in order to attend public school. But parents are allowed to obtain a personal-belief exemption from doctors. Pockets of communities, many on L.A.'s tony Westside, have large percentages of parents opting out of vaccinations, many operating under the debunked belief that vaccinations can cause autism.
That's led to outbreaks of measles and whooping cough throughout Southern California.
Under the new law, the only children allowed to attend public school without all of their vaccinations would be those with medical exemptions (though parents could choose home schooling).
The vote to approve the bill was fairly close, 42 to 30, and was somewhat along party lines. Democrats largely supported the bill, and Republicans largely opposed it. Some did so for religious reasons, others for get-government-out-of-my-life reasons, and still others did so simply to oppose a bill that was written by two Democratic state senators.
Two Republicans crossed lines to vote yes, while five Democrats – three who represent districts in Los Angeles – voted no: Mike Gatto, Autumn Burke, Ken Cooley, Cheryl Brown and Patty Lopez.
Three Democrats (Henry Parea, Kansen Chu and Das Williams) abstained from voting.
Gatto, who represents Silver Lake, Los Feliz, Burbank, Glendale, La Crescenta and half of Hollywood, said the bill was unconstitutional, and that it represented a “slippery slope.”
“Could the state metaphorically invade our bedrooms and mandate that everybody have protected sex so that an STD outbreak does not spread?” he asked rhetorically. “I don’t think so.”
“The core question here,” he added, “is whether the state can tell parents what medicines to put in a child’s body.”
Ken Cooley, who represents eastern Sacramento County, claimed he'd agonized over his vote against the bill.
“This is a balancing act between a health care issue, the power of government, and access to education,” he said. “We’re taking a group of kids who are not yet symptomatic and saying you’re not going to get access to education. I think that’s a wrong balancing.”
Cheryl Brown, who represents parts of the Inland Empire, worried about the “unintended consequences” the bill might have on doctor's offices and school districts, who stand to lose money if more children are pulled out of public schools.
And then there was Patty Lopez, the newly elected assembly member from the east San Fernando Valley. An outsider herself, she'd raised eyebrows by meeting with some of the so-called anti-vaxxers, parents parading around the Capitol in red shirts heaping scorn (and perhaps worse) upon the bill and its defenders.
“I look at both sides, I hear both sides,” Lopez said. “We cannot have the kids home-schooling. I do not see the planning there. I don’t agree with this bill because of a lack of plan for those students outside truancy violations, to ensure every child gets an education, vaccination or not.”
The bill now goes back to the Senate, which must vote to re-approve the bill as amended. It then goes to the governor, who probably will sign the bill.
“The governor believes that vaccinations are profoundly important and a major public health benefit, and any bill that reaches his desk will be closely considered,” Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said in a statement.
Even if Gov. Brown signs the bill into law, its opponents, who have no lack of passion, still have a few options. They can challenge its constitutionality, or they can start a ballot measure to repeal the bill, although they'd have less than 90 days to gather enough signatures in order to make it onto the November ballot.
Update: On Monday, the State Senate passed the amended version of SB 277 by a vote of 24-14. It now heads to Gov. Brown's desk for his signature – or veto.