Ore. House OKs tough vaccine rules over vocal opposition
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — A week after public health officials declared a measles outbreak in the Pacific Northwest over, the Oregon House approved tightening the state’s vaccine laws and limiting a parent’s ability to-opt out of school vaccine requirements.
Oregon currently has one of the nation’s most relaxed vaccination laws and is one of 17 states to allow parents to exempt their children from vaccinations for philosophical, personal and religious reasons. Lawmakers voted 35-25 Monday to limit those substantially limit exemptions, only allowing families to opt-out for medical reasons.
Parents sat in the Capitol’s upper gallery during the floor vote wearing black to “kill the bill,” and the crowd would give a collective thumbs down to legislators who spoke in favor of tougher vaccine requirements.
Upon learning the final vote count, parents loudly hissed and then quickly exited the building, many in tears.
While many lawmakers struggled to toe the line between individual freedom and public health, that wasn’t an issue for Rep. Mitch Greenlick, the Democrat from Portland behind the bill.
“This debate is not about the role of government,” he said. “It’s about whether children live or die. If we don’t believe that we just need to look back at the historical experience of these kind of preventable diseases.”
This year has been the worst for U.S. measles count in over two decades. At least 77 people in as part of an outbreak in Washington and Oregon. Although public health officials declared that outbreak to be over last week, other outbreaks have been popping up across the country including in New York City. Nearly all of those infected so far were unvaccinated.
More and more parents are choosing to opt out of vaccinations, citing worries over vaccine safety that health professionals say are unfounded. Oregon now has the highest non-medical kindergarten exemption rate in the country at 7.6%.
Families could only claim medical exemptions to vaccines under the Oregon proposal. Unvaccinated children would still be able to attend online and home school, but they could not go to in-person school-related activities. Lawmakers amended the bill to make it easier for parents to seek medical exemptions.
Oregon’s democratic supermajority was able to hold off a small but vocal minority that has wielded considerable power in other state legislatures. Anti-vaccination activists were able to kill similar legislation in Colorado, Maine and Arizona. They were also able to stall efforts in the New York state assembly.
Opposing lawmakers said the bill is a broad governmental overreach that interferes in an individual’s personal medical decisions. They add that it also limits parental choice and goes against a person’s constitutional right to freedom of religion.
“We are amending the constitution without amending the constitution,” said Rep. Bill Post, one of the House’s most conservative members who has been vocal opponent to the measure on social media.
The measure now goes to the Senate, and Gov. Kate Brown previously said she’d sign the bill. If passed, Oregon would join California, Mississippi and West Virginia in only allowing medical exemptions.
Washington state considered removing philosophical exemptions for all school-age vaccines, but ultimately passed a version that only removed the philosophical exemption for the measles, mumps rubella vaccine. Medical and religious exemptions in Washington state remain in place for all vaccines.
Follow Sarah Zimmerman on Twitter at @sarahzimm95 .