SALEM — The Capitol swelled with a sea of red Thursday as hundreds came to Salem to testify on legislation that would remove parents’ ability to decide whether to vaccinate their child and keep them in public or private school.
The proposal, House Bill 3063, would remove religious and philosophical exemptions for Oregon’s required vaccines, leaving in place only a medical reason for a child to avoid vaccinations. The House Committee on Health Care held the first hearing on the bill Feb. 28, which was introduced last Friday.
Safety and harassment was at issue as much as public policy. Many witnesses favoring the change noted the threats they and others have received from vaccine skeptics. Opponents who want autonomy on whether to vaccinate, most wearing red shirts to signal opposition, pushed back on being called “anti-vaxxers” or crazy.
Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, in support, said she was nervous to testify because of death threats some have received. “The tenor of this debate has gotten unhealthy, and frankly, dangerous,” she said.
Hours before the hearing, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, told reporters of how heated the issue has become, and that some people feel they can’t safely testify. She said some have received threats at their workplace. “If you want to testify and someone shows up at your workplace, that’s harassment,” Kotek said. “That’s not a free speech issue, that’s harassment.”
State Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, chair of the committee, opened the hearing warning against disruptive behavior. About 75 people testified while another 180 were left waiting to do so despite the hearing going three hours. Hundreds more were there to listen.
If the bill becomes law, parents who receive a medical exemption could still keep their children in school. Those unable to get a medical exemption and who still didn’t want to vaccinate their children would have to home school them.
The vaccine debate is always heated and provokes accusations of government overreach and sometimes conspiracy theories about ill will on behalf of public health officials. But with the backdrop of the largest measles outbreak in the region in decades — 66 confirmed cases, all but one being in southwest Washington — the debate has become especially charged.
A line to sign up to testify stretching half the building formed, many holding small children and wearing a sticker identifying them as opposed to the legislation.
Capitol employees had to open two overflow rooms, including one in the basement that holds around 100 people. That room was closed as staff told the still-growing crowd that it could listen to the hearing from speakers in the Capitol’s concourse.
Legislators from both parties have lined up in favor and against the bill. State Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland, testified against the bill only to be reminded by the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, that only half the children in a school in Golden’s district have been vaccinated. He wondered what would happen if there was an outbreak at that school.
Golden declined to engage, saying Greenlick is the public health expert, but said he thinks this the proposed legislation is an overreaction. Greenlick disagreed, and said the measles outbreak should prompt lawmakers to act where they have failed in the past. “It turns out no, it’s not a theoretical discussion,” he said. “It’s a very practical discussion.”
Language in testimony often turned dramatic. State Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, said the bill would take medical decisions from parents and give them to Oregon Health Authority officials.
“Our children are not lab rats,” she said, garnering a loud applause.
Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, said the proposal was the “Russian roulette” of public policy.
Several public health officials and medical doctors testified that diseases like polio have been essentially eradicated through vaccines. They talked about children with immune deficiencies scared to go to school because of low vaccination rates.
But other doctors and nurses spoke out against vaccines. Michelle Cameron, a naturopathic doctor, said her son died after being vaccinated. It makes her scared to vaccinate her daughter.
Fred King, an analyst for the Oregon Health Authority, said he believes his son was injured by vaccines, and he wants to be more careful with his daughter. “I oppose it because it is based on the idea that vaccines are risk-free,” he said. King was speaking for himself.
The Oregon Health Authority broke general protocol to support the legislation. Public health officials have long warned of relying on anecdotal evidence, saying just because two things happen around the same time does not mean one caused the other.
Others in opposition pointed to payouts from the federal government for vaccine injury. The federal Health Resources and Services Administration has paid out $4 billion to 6,358 people since 1988, according to the agency’s website.
But others passed over statistics for dramatic analogies. Some discounted the idea of herd immunity, saying the government was treating children like cattle. One woman compared the bill to the Holocaust, saying if lawmakers pass it, they would be just as guilty as Adolf Hitler. The line prompted loud cheering and clapping in one of the overflow rooms.
The last hour was almost entirely taken by opponents, who often gave emotional testimony recounting personal tragedy, bringing tears to those in attendance. They repeatedly drove home their desire for choice in the matter and skepticism over the science saying vaccines are safe and an effective public health tool.
“I believe that this is up in the air with tobacco science, and we are going to find out the truth,” one witness said. “It’s just a matter of time.”
— Reporter Aubrey Wieber: email@example.com or 503-375-1251. He is with the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of the Pamplin Media Group, EO Media Group, and Salem Reporter.