Tension increases as vaccine bill passes another hurdle

Opponents raise and flutter their hands to silently show alliance with witnesses testifying on House Bill 3063, which would end nonmedical exemptions to vaccines. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)

It doesn’t raise taxes, regulate industry or control guns, but in some ways a proposal to remove nonmedical exemptions for vaccines is the most controversial piece of legislation in the 2019 session.

House Bill 3063 has reliably turned up throngs of opposition in a way no others have. The $100,000 the bill would cost to implement is its least controversial aspect. It’s created tense moments between constituents and lawmakers. In every public hearing since the bill was introduced, mothers opposing the bill have broken into tears. The bill passed out of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means on Friday with a 13-7 vote. It was nearly party-line, with Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, joining the Republicans and Sen. Chuck Thomsen, D-Hood River, joining the Democrats. It now goes to the House floor.

If passed, HB 3063 would require children in public and private school to be fully vaccinated. Parents who don’t want to vaccinate their child could homeschool them or enroll them in an online school.

On Tuesday, April 23, the controversial bill pulled between 1,000 and 2,000 people, depending on who you ask, to a rally on the Capitol steps.

“I have not seen that at this Capitol,” said three-term Rep. Cedrick Hayden, R-Roseburg. “I have seen groups that are of one party affiliation, but the melting pot of the people there, politically, I haven’t seen.”

The bill is oddly bipartisan. There are bipartisan sponsors, and lawmakers from both parties have testified against it.

Last week, Thomsen spoke on the Senate floor on consecutive days in support of the legislation. In an interview, Thomsen said his wife and daughter are passionately in favor of HB 3063. He is a sponsor of the bill.

Thomsen said “anti-vaxxers” pay advertising firms thousands of dollars to flood his and others’ email inboxes. Opponents show up at the Capitol demanding to be heard.

He has spoken out on the Senate floor to keep the issue on peoples’ minds and let other lawmakers know there are two sides to this debate.

‘Established science’

For decades, Americans put faith in vaccines as they eradicated horrific diseases like polio and smallpox. But a 1998 study in the medical journal The Lancet, claimed to link childhood vaccinations with a host of maladies, including autism. Even though that study fueled the rise of vaccination skepticism, a January 2011 article in the British Medical Journal called the 1998 study “an elaborate fraud.” The Lancet retracted the article after British medical officials accused the authors of unethical behavior.

In today’s political climate, rife with government distrust and flush with conspiracy theories, vaccines have become a target of vigorous dissent and grassroots anger. State Sen. Rob Wagner, D-Tualatin, said issues dealing with constitutional interpretation or perceived government overreach are always controversial, but aside from some gun-control legislation, he hasn’t seen an issue stir this much public emotion and fervor this session. He called the debate “exceedingly emotionally charged.”

“It’s established science,” Wagner said. “The medical provider community is solidly behind it and I do think that I am very proud to be a sponsor of the legislation.”

On Wednesday, April 24, the Joint Ways and Means Subcommittee on Health and Human Services passed HB 3063 out of committee on a party line vote.

The hearing room was packed. Witnesses spilled into the hallways and overflow rooms. They again talked about how important it is to pass or not pass the bill. After repeatedly being told to not clap or cheer in past hearings, the crowd this time expressed agreement with testifiers by raising and fluttering their hand.

A school district administrator said the bill was “asinine.” A mother told the committee her child isn’t a “guinea pig” for them to inject with “toxic” chemicals.

Doctors testified about the rise infant patients they care for because they have contracted vaccine-preventable diseases due to the declining rate of vaccinations in Oregon, limiting the effectiveness of herd immunity where enough people are vaccinated that it protects immunocompromised people from vaccine-preventable diseases.

On Friday in the full Ways and Means committee, Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, said he would vote to move the bill out of committee, but will be a no vote in the Senate.

“This issue has been one of the most emotional issues I have seen in all my years at the Legislature,” Beyer said. Beyer said he personally believes in vaccinations, but thinks in mandating vaccines, the government would be overreaching.

Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, said it’s “extremely ironic” that pro-choice people are now advocating for a mandate while pro-life people are advocating for choice. Smith said he needs to sit down with his wife before deciding how to vote in the House.

“It’s a hard issue for me,” Smith said. “I think people would be crazy, but for a medical issue, not to immunize their child.”

Heated debates

Witnesses testifying in a handful of hearings during the past couple of months have said they felt this is an example of a tyrannical government and that lawmakers were being bought off by pharmaceutical companies. They have talked about injuries they believe their children have sustained from vaccines, and that the government would “forcibly inject” their children with “toxic chemicals.”

Doctors and public health officials have countered that, though in far lesser numbers, by saying vaccines are rigorously tested and the science behind them is strong.

Hours of debate, rallies and frequent uncomfortable confrontations between lawmakers and constituents doesn’t appear to have moved the conversation.

Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, is flooded with support after a heart-felt speech regarding his disdain for House Bill 3063. Heard said it’s an example of government trampling individual freedoms. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)

Before Wednesday’s vote, Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, said this bill is being driven by corrupt pharmaceutical executives and shows the lack of respect government has for its citizens.

“This is probably the toughest bill I’ve had to speak on in terms of keeping my emotions under control,” he said before voting against it.

After the gavel hit, signaling another hurdle cleared for the controversial bill, those in attendance started to lash out. Some sat and cried, others yelled at committee members. One group circled around Heard to tell them how appreciative they were, while others taunted lawmakers as they walked out, singing “election year” and “lawsuit.”

Reporter Aubrey Wieber: [email protected] or 503-575-1251. Wieber is a reporter for Salem Reporter who works for the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, the Pamplin Media Group, and Salem Reporter.

TRY A FREE SAMPLE – You can see for yourself the kind of local news reporting brought to you by the team of professional reporters at Salem Reporter. You can read us for free for 30 days. Signing up is easy and gives you 24/7 access to our reports. Sign up HERE.