California judge rules schoolchildren must have vaccines
Vaccinations | Ruling denies parents’ request for a delay to a controversial law
by Kiley Crossland
Posted 8/31/16, 12:27 pm
A federal judge in San Diego denied a request last Friday that would have allowed unvaccinated children to attend California schools while a legal battle over that state’s mandatory immunization law plays out in court.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw declined a request to pause enforcement of Senate Bill 277, which took effect July 1. The law eliminates religious and personal-belief exemptions for vaccination requirements, compelling all kindergartners and seventh graders attending public or private schools to prove they are fully inoculated against 10 major diseases. The only exception is children who have a medical exemption signed by a physician.
The decision comes as California parents are sending their kids back to school, forcing parents of unvaccinated children going into a “checkpoint” grade to weigh their options: homeschool, leave the state, or vaccinate.
“You’re going to deny my child an education because she has not had a chickenpox vaccine? Seriously?” asked California mother Nina Jensen. Jensen told San Jose’s The Mercury News she is moving her family to Oregon this month. Another mom said she plans to use an “underground network” of doctors to try to get a medical exemption for her son.
The lawsuit, filed by 17 families and two foundations, argues the law denies children their constitutional “right to education,” and infringes on parents’ freedom of conscience. Parents’ reasons for not vaccinating their children include worries about side effects and pro-life objections to vaccines created with cells from aborted babies, among other concerns.
California joins just two other states, Mississippi and West Virginia, that do not have personal-belief exemptions for immunizations.
But the judge said the right to an education is no more sacred than the right for a state to protect “the health and safety of its citizens, and particularly, schoolchildren.” He did not see any reason why the lawsuit would prevail. “Even outside the context of vaccination laws, the Supreme Court has reiterated the fundamental rights under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution do not overcome the state’s interest in protecting a child’s health,” Sabraw wrote.
Proponents say Sabraw’s decision and the enforcement of SB 277 is a victory for public health. One of the law’s sponsors, Democratic Sen. Richard Pan, a practicing pediatrician, noted the percent of California kindergartners who had exemptions jumped from 0.77 percent in 2002 to 3.15 percent in the 2013-2014 school year. A measles outbreak that started at Disneyland in 2014 eventually affected 157 people and reportedly triggered the legislation.
The overall vaccination rate in California is around 90 percent, dangerously close to the level required to maintain so-called “herd immunization,” according to advocates. However, since passing SB 277, vaccination rates of kindergartners are already on the rise in 49 out of 58 California counties, according to state health officials.
“It’s clear that, unless parents are required to vaccinate their kids, many of them won’t,” Catherine Martin, director of the California Immunization Coalition, told The San Diego Union-Tribune. “It’s not about what people feel about immunization, and it’s not necessarily about individual rights. In this case, it’s about what’s best for the community.”
A survey published Monday by the American Academy of Pediatrics found more and more parents are refusing vaccines for their children. From 2006 to 2013, the percent of pediatricians who encountered parents who refused a vaccine jumped from 75 to 87 percent.
Two other lawsuits are pending against SB 277, both filed by Los Angeles parents. One case filed a request for an injunction in early August.