The Vermont Senate gave its first nod to a controversial immunization bill on Thursday. The legislation would remove a philosophical exemption for parents who choose not to have their children vaccinated before they enter kindergarten or enroll in an approved child care facility.
In a 25 to 4 vote, the Senate approved the bill for third reading Friday.
The vaccination bill has become one of the hot-button issues of this legislative session. Parents who claim vaccines have injured their children have visited the Statehouse, given testimony and pushed politicians to retain the exemption. The death of a 7-year-old Barton girl days after receiving a flu vaccine has galvanized opponents of the bill.
Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, who sponsored the legislation, said he proposed the bill because he was alarmed by a study that indicated the state’s immunization rate was falling.
He acknowledged, however, that the legislation puts public health concerns ahead of parents’ right to choose what is best for their children.
“On the one hand you have protecting individual liberties and parents’ right to make a decision,” Mullin said. “On the other hand, we in government have an obligation to protect the public health.”
For Mullin and the majority of the Senate, the benefit of vaccinating children for diseases like polio, measles and varicella (chicken pox) outweigh the risks for children receiving the vaccines.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, all 50 states have legislation requiring specified vaccines for students. All states grant exemptions for medical reasons, and most grant religious exemptions. Vermont is one of 20 states that allow a philosophical exemption.
During the floor debate several senators recalled growing up with children who had contracted contagious diseases, like polio, and as a result were paralyzed and relied on an iron lung to breathe.
Sens. Dick McCormack, D-Windsor, and Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, expressed sympathy for the parents who do not think the government should intrude on their privacy, but nonetheless voted for the bill.
Benning said he was initially skeptical of the state intruding somewhere it shouldn’t. But unvaccinated children could pose a danger to others, he said, and even though he thinks of himself as a libertarian, that outweighed his concerns for parental rights.
Sen. Phillip Baruth, D-Chittenden, one of the four to vote against the bill, said he was concerned that the legislation would keep the religious exemption intact while doing away with the philosophical exemption.
“We’re taking rights away from people who have deeply held convictions but do not worship this or that higher being,” Baruth said.
Baruth said the current duality between religious and philosophical convictions is appropriate.
Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, also voted against the amendment. He asked if there was a definition of what constitutes a “religious belief” and questioned whether there was a distinction between a religious and philosophical belief.
Sen. Anthony Pollina, D/P-Washington, opposed the bill in the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare and on the floor but was noticeably silent during the debate.
Cynthia Johnson, a parent from East Calais who has followed the issue through the Senate, said the bill is not fair to parents.
“This means a parent who even opts out of one vaccine unless there’s a medical exemption won’t be able to send their kid to public day care or kindergarten,” she said.
Johnson says her daughter still suffers petit mal seizures because of a hepatitis B vaccine she received at birth.
“This law is discriminating against the unvaccinated child,” she said. “It promotes the myth that these unvaccinated children will spread diseases among the vaccinated ones.”