SALEM — The Oregon House voted Monday to tighten the state’s mandatory vaccine laws and limit parents’ 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 opt out of vaccination requirements for their children for philosophical, personal and religious reasons.
House Bill 3063 passed on a 35-25 vote Monday. It would substantially limit exemptions, only allowing families to opt out for medical reasons. The bill now goes to the Senate.
The bill’s House vote came a week after public health officials declared a measles outbreak in the Pacific Northwest over.
Parents opposing the bill sat in the House chamber’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.
The debate was opened by Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, one of the chief co-sponsors of the bill. She laid out reasons to pass the bill.
“It is against this public health crisis that the Oregon Legislature must take thoughtful and decisive action to stop the spread of measles — and to stop the spread of other contagious diseases,” Helt said.
Helt said the significant numbers of parents who have opted their children out of immunizations due to nonmedical reasons have created the specter of a return of diseases that immunizations have largely defeated.
“Dangerous diseases can and will return without a common commitment to vaccinations … and public policies to protect the common good of public health,” Helt said. “It’s already happening. The World Health Organization has declared vaccine hesitancy as one of its top 10 threats to global health.”
While acknowledging the many opponents of the bill who have come to the Capitol for each hearing and vote, Helt said the bill was the best step for the state to take for all children.
“We must lead — for our common good and shared public health … to save lives … to protect children and communities,” she said.
While many lawmakers struggled to toe the line between individual freedom and public health, that wasn’t an issue for Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland.
“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.”
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 nonmedical kindergarten exemption rate in the country at 7.6%.
Under HB 3063, unvaccinated children would still be able to attend online and home-school, but they could not go to in-person school or school-related activities. Lawmakers amended the bill to make it easier for parents to seek medical exemptions.
Oregon’s Democratic supermajority in the House 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 or stall similar legislation in Colorado, Maine, Arizona, and New York.
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.
“This bill is a hammer blow to the social fabric of our state,” said Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, who has been a vocal opponent to the measure on social media.
Rep. Jack Zika, R-Redmond, spoke against the bill.
“This bill puts government in between doctor and parent,” Zika said. “The parent will no longer be able to make the right decision for their child.”
Zika recalled his son’s negative reaction to the chicken pox vaccine.
“He was up all night screaming and crying,” Zika said.
Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles and Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, whose districts include part of Deschutes County, voted “no” on the bill. Besides Helt, only Republican Rep. Kim Wallan, of Medford, voted for the bill. Five Democrats voted “no.”
The bill will be assigned to a Senate committee later this week. Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R-Hood River, is one of the chief co-sponsors. Like Helt, he is a rare Republican supporter of the bill.
HB 3063 would need 16 votes to pass in the Senate. Democrats hold an 18-12 supermajority in the chamber. Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, has come out against the bill, even speaking at a rally against the bill at the Capitol on April 23.
“I support parents and believe they, along with their doctor, are in the best position to know the health of a child,” Knopp told the crowd.
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.
After the vote, Helt said she was pleased that despite the often intense debate on and off the House floor, the bill was given a thoughtful final debate and will move on to its next step.
“When we look to our political environment, we don’t often see debates with this much passion and this much respect,” Helt said.