Opponents of state bill SB277 came out Tuesday night to testify before the Berkeley City Council. Photo: Emilie Raguso
Opponents of Senate Bill 277 came out Tuesday night to testify before the Berkeley City Council. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Dozens of people opposing state legislation focused on making it tougher for people to opt out of vaccinations testified Tuesday night before the Berkeley City Council, which ultimately voted 7-1 to support the new bill.

Opponents of SB277, a state bill that would require vaccinations for more Californian schoolchildren, told council they should be allowed to make personal medical decisions with their doctors, and that too many vaccines are recommended on the current schedule. Many said they do not trust the pharmaceutical industry, and that it is unknown how many vaccines might be added to the schedule in the future.

“It is abhorrent for any government to force any medical procedure on children,” Leslie Hewitt, a Danville-based chiropractor, told city officials. Most of the people who testified — many of whom said they live in Berkeley or nearby Albany — agreed with her position, and urged council to do more research before voting to support the new law.

But a small group of medical students from UCSF told council they should support the bill. And one school nurse said the new proposed requirements are critical in the interest of public health: “It has to be done because a lot of our parents are not doing what’s right.”

The San Jose Mercury News on Wednesday described the fight over Senate Bill 277 as “what has become Sacramento’s most contentious issue this year.” Under the proposal, which is still making its way through the legislative process, children who have not been immunized for diseases such as measles and whooping cough could not attend school in California. Medical exemptions would still be allowed, but the “personal belief exemptions” that currently exist would end. Schools would be required to notify parents of immunization rates.

Many speakers Tuesday said they did not trust the pharmaceutical industry. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Tuesday night, the Berkeley council was set to decide whether to send a letter to support the new legislation in concept.

Councilman Kriss Worthington, who ultimately was the lone “no” vote on that proposal, said more work needed to be done before council could take a position: “We don’t have before us this evening the kind of information we need to make a serious recommendation on this proposal.” Worthington pointed out that numerous amendments to the bill are still in the works.

But the rest of the Berkeley City Council had no qualms about sending the letter, and pointed out that families who decide to homeschool their children would still have a way to opt out of vaccines under the current version of SB277 under consideration. (Councilman Darryl Moore was absent.)

Councilwoman Linda Maio said she had researched the issue and become concerned about the possibility that the existing blanket exemption related to personal beliefs “could be abused.”

Many speakers Tuesday night said they should be allowed to make personal medical decisions with their doctors. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Some council members shared personal stories to explain their position to the disgruntled crowd.

Councilman Max Anderson, a retired nurse, described his experience of caring for a man who ultimately died from pulmonary congestion after measles attacked his lungs.

“I had to care for him and there was nothing I could do for him,” said Anderson. “There is a difference between individual health decisions and public health. We have stop signs, that’s not a choice you have.”

He said also that too many people would be put at risk if California loses its community immunity as a result of the personal belief exemption.

Councilwoman Susan Wengraf, who initially brought the item forward as a proposal, said she had come to California in the 1960s to help care for children whose mothers had contracted rubella while pregnant, which resulted in serious birth defects.

“They were so disabled that they didn’t have teachers who were trained to teach them. It was a crisis situation,” she said. Wengraf’s mother almost died from diphtheria, she added, and her aunt had suffered throughout her life from polio.

“We need to continue to vaccinate to make sure that those diseases don’t come back,” she said. “I would do anything to vaccinate children against those diseases.”

Council on community benefits, sewer fee increase, vaccines, parking permit expansion (04.07.15)
Update: Measles exposure at Berkeley library is ruled out (03.06.15)
Berkeley reports possible case of measles exposure (02.26.15)
If measles breaks out in Berkeley, unvaccinated children may be quarantined for 21 days (01.30.15)
UC Berkeley student has measles, high state numbers (04.07.14)

Do you rely on Berkeleyside for local news? Support independent journalism by becoming a Berkeleyside member for $5 a month or even less, or by making a one-time donation.

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...