As the Senate debated a blasé bill concerning disease registries, Sens. Campbell, Kevin Mullin (R-Rutland) and Dick Sears (D-Bennington) introduced an amendment to do away with the state’s so-called philosophical exemption. That, like the state’s religious exemption, allows parents to send their children to school even if they opt out of vaccinating them.
A similar measure passed the Senate in 2012 by a vote of 24 to 4, but the House watered it down and the exemption remained in place. Efforts to repeal it found renewed support in February following a measles outbreak in California.
“We were one plane ride away from measles hitting Vermont,” Mullin reminded his colleagues last week.
The Rutland Republican found support from those, such as Sears and Sen. Jeanette White (D-Windham), who vividly recall acquaintances suffering disability or death by polio.
But not everyone was convinced.
Sen. Norm McAllister (R-Franklin) argued that eliminating the philosophical exemption would restrict parental rights, while Sen. David Zuckerman (P/D-Chittenden) questioned the science of vaccinations. He said that while conducting his own research on the matter, he came to believe that the pharmaceutical industry is foisting vaccinations on the public to make money, not fight disease.
“For me, as long as there’s the extreme financial conflicts of interest out there that are driving much of this debate and discussion, I have to maintain the individual right for someone to do their own research as well and make that decision,” Zuckerman said.
Though a majority seemed inclined to ditch the exemption, several supportive senators said they would not do so on the fly — without the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare taking testimony and making a recommendation. Sen. Dick McCormack (D-Windsor) argued that circumventing the committee process would give vaccination skeptics just cause to say the Senate “railroaded it” through.
As often happens in the Senate, the formal debate devolved into a recess, during which senators huddled on the floor and hashed it out in heated whispers. At the center of the scrum was Health and Welfare chair Claire Ayer (D-Addison), who said her committee was too busy this late in the session to take testimony on the matter.
In the end, the amendment’s supporters prevailed on her to take it up this Wednesday for two hours, immediately after which the Senate will resume its debate.
“Fine,” she said. “But I’m only taking testimony from experts — not parents of kids who have a rash.”