Local community members fight for right to exempt children from vaccinations

Yinan Su/Staff

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As a bill to mandate vaccination in public schools nears passage in the state Legislature, community members held a press conference Monday to question the constitutionality of the bill and to call for the parental right to choose whether to vaccinate their children.

At the press conference at Berkeley’s Old City Hall, people said state Senate Bill 277, which aims to end many personal belief exemptions to public school vaccination requirements, would violate parents’ right to make decisions for their children, violate unvaccinated children’s right to a public education and violate patients’ right to informed consent to medical procedures.

The state Senate passed the bill May 14 in the wake of a measles outbreak at Disneyland at the beginning of the year, which affected 147 people in the United States. Many who fell ill were unvaccinated, either because of personal choice or because they were too young to receive the vaccination. The bill now awaits passage in the state Assembly.

Adam Winkler, a constitutional law expert and professor at UCLA, said the bill is legal at the federal level because of a Supreme Court precedent for allowing the government to mandate vaccination. He also said that because the bill prohibits students who do not receive the required 10 vaccinations from enrolling in public schools, unless they have a medical exemption, it can be argued that the bill violates a California constitutional protection of the right to public education.

But according to Stephen Sugarman, a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Law, the bill is constitutional at the state level because the government has “sweeping powers” where public health is concerned and is therefore able to control the conditions under which children attend school.

Robert Sears — a pediatrician in Laguna Hills, California, who is known for having unorthodox views on vaccination — does not believe that the threat of disease is sufficient justification for mandating vaccination as a prerequisite for enrollment in public schools.

“If you are going to deny that constitutional right, there would have to be an enormous health risk to our society by not vaccinating the school,” he said.

Vaccine-preventable diseases still threaten children in the United States, and the past few years have seen resurgences of measles and whooping cough, according to the U.S. Department of Health. The department estimates that since 2010, there were between 10,000 and 50,000 cases of whooping cough in the United states each year and that the disease annually killed 10 to 20 babies, many of whom were too young to be vaccinated.

Julie Schiffman, president of Marin Homeschoolers and a member of the HomeSchool Association of California’s Board of Directors, attended the press conference and is concerned that the bill could potentially force parents to homeschool their children.

“We see families being brought to review board meetings on truancy charges, we see families being pursued by (Child Protective Services), we see families who falter and are unable to find the support they need financially,” she said.

James Dillon, a former lawyer and a doctoral student in jurisprudence and social policy at UC Berkeley, said California’s personal belief exemption is one of the broadest in the country. Rising rates of vaccine refusal in California have been linked with a number of preventable disease outbreaks, including outbreaks of measles and whooping cough, according to Dillon.

“I understand (that the Disneyland outbreak) provided the political impetus for SB 277, though in my view, this reform was long overdue, even before Disneyland,” Dillon said.

Contact Rimon Hossain and Sally Littlefield at [email protected].