SACRAMENTO (CN) - Before an agitated crowd, California lawmakers pushed legislation Wednesday to remove "personal belief exemptions" for parents who do not want to vaccinate their children, citing an abundance of scientific evidence that vaccinations are safe.
After more than three hours of testimony and several outbursts and ejections from the crowd, the Senate Health Committee agreed that while parents' rights issues are at stake, public health concerns stemming from a recent measles outbreak must be taken seriously.
The committee voted 6-2 in favor of State Bill 277, which will be heard several more times before a Senate floor vote.
The bill would allow parents to obtain a medical exemption from vaccinations, and forces school districts to improve reporting on immunization rates.
Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, who co-authored SB277 , testified that personal belief exemptions endanger children in public schools and that vaccines have been proven safe by health organizations across the world. Supporters of the bill include the World Health Organization and The American Medical Association.
"Vaccinations have prevented more than 21 million hospitalizations and 732,000 deaths among children born in the last 20 years," Pan, a pediatrician, said. "Vaccines are safe and efficacious."
Pan and supporters of SB 277 scoffed at the notion that vaccines are linked to autism and other autoimmune disorders in children.
Countless studies and clinical trials have proven the safety of vaccines and there is no dispute among doctors, Dr. Dean Blumberg of the UC Davis Children's Hospital testified.
"Let me be clear: There is no scientific controversy about vaccine safety and vaccine effectiveness. The science is clear on this. This is a fact. It's not open to dispute among mainstream doctors and scientists," Blumberg told the committee.
Opponents of the bill crowded the room and held a rally outside the Capitol before the hearing. Clad in matching red shirts, the groups of parents, children and even a few doctors waited hours to address the committee.
Dr. Lynne Mielke told the committee that studies have shown vaccines can cause harm to children, particularly those with developmental disorders.
"SB 277 could increase the number of vaccine-injured children, and will eviscerate the doctor-patient relationship and medical informed consent," Mielke said.
After the measles outbreak in December, which spread across multiple states and infected 178 people, state health officials said that of the 134 Californians who contracted measles, 57 were not vaccinated.
Still, the anti-SB 277 crowd testified that their personal freedoms are at stake and that the danger of vaccines is understated, citing $3 billion paid to vaccine injury victims.
"For anyone to stand up and say that vaccines are completely safe, how dare they? It is not true," said Brian Stenzler, president of the California Chiropractor Association.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has become the face of a movement linking autism to vaccinations that contain the chemical thimerosal. He showed his documentary "Trace Amounts" Tuesday evening in Sacramento. Kennedy invited lawmakers to the screening, but the rows he reserved for them sat mostly empty.
"They get the shot, that night they have a fever of 103, they go to sleep and three months later their brain is gone," Kennedy told the crowd. "This is a holocaust, what this is doing to our country."
Despite the passionate testimony of anti-vaxxers and celebrity documentaries, the majority of the Senate committee sided with science.
"Our individual rights aren't limitless," said Sen. Lois Wolk, D-Davis. "There is no such thing as an absolute individual right for anything that I can think of, and in this particular case, your insistence on your right really could harm my children or my grandchildren."
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