Contentious Oregon vaccine bill passes House, heads to Senate

More than 100 people gathered in the Capitol rotunda Monday morning before a House floor hearing to vote on a bill that would get rid of exemptions to vaccinations. The group, as it had in the past, sang patriotic songs. (Aubrey Wieber/Salem Reporter)

Oregon would end nonmedical exemptions to vaccinations required for children under legislation that passed the Oregon House 35-25 on Monday.

House Bill 3063 now goes to the Senate. Gov. Kate Brown supports the bill, and is expected to sign it into law if it passes both chambers. While it would not require all children to be fully vaccinated, the bill would force parents to home school or enroll their children in an online school if they refuse to inoculate their children with required vaccines.

The debate on vaccines has become a constant presence at the 2019 Legislature, whether it’s hearings bringing out hundreds to testify, confrontations between lawmakers and the opposition, or women lining the Capitol halls with tape over their mounts to signal they have been silenced.

The bill has spurred polemical debate since being introduced. Each hearing has brought hundreds of people in opposition, giving heartfelt testimony about how the change is being pushed by pharmaceutical companies stuffing donations into lawmakers’ campaign coffers.

The passion and devotion to return to the Capitol week after week in impressive numbers left an impact on several lawmakers.

House Republican Leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, said he’s never seen such fervor in his six terms.

Like the public, lawmakers also gave impassioned speeches on the House floor Monday before the vote.

Lawmakers didn’t focus on whether the science on vaccines is settled, the main argument made by members of the public who’ve testified. Lawmakers opposing the bill mostly expressed concerns about government overreach.

“I fear a government that says, come on, you have to take your medicine now,” Wilson said.

Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Roseburg, had legislative attorneys analyze the bill and they concluded that children removed from school because they weren’t vaccinated wouldn’t get free or reduced meals through the National School Lunch Program. They wouldn’t be able to play school sports or attend day care. They also might not receive the same level of education.

A legislative attorney found that Oregon’s high school graduation rate was 79 percent while the rate for one online school was 65 percent and another’s was 26 percent.

Because of 10 measles cases in Oregon in 2019, Hayden said, “We are willing to take away food, we are willing to take away education.”

But as of April 22, the Oregon Health Authority found 14 cases of measles, four being connected to an outbreak in Vancouver, Wash., where there have been 71 cases this year. Nationwide, there have been 764 cases. Measles have also become a worldwide issue. The World Health Organization has listed vaccine hesitancy as one of the top10 threats to global health.

That’s in part because skepticism over vaccines is on the rise.

Last week, Oregonians for Medical Freedom, a group opposing mandated vaccinations, sent a cease and desist letter to the Oregon Nurses Association over messaging the group claimed is potentially libelous.

Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, got loud jeers when he said opponents have been targeted by disinformation campaigns, including one by Russian trolls. The remark got a louder and more sustained response from the gallery anything else during the floor debate.

A study published in the American Journal of Public Health found Russian bots and internet trolls engaged Americans on social media, disseminating false information about vaccines to widen ideological divisions.

Rep. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro, was one of five Democrats to vote against the bill, though she said she believes vaccines are safe and effective. Her issue was that this bill would push children out of schools. Rather than exclude those hesitant to vaccines, we should “inundate” them with education, she said.

The line got support opponents in the gallery, though Sollman appeared to be ideologically removed from their beliefs.

Democrats gave speeches with as much passion and personal touch as their colleagues to the right. Witt recalled a childhood friend who had polio. He recalled waiting outside in line on a cold day with excitement, because he and his schoolmates were going to get vaccinated.

Rep. Marty Wilde, D-Eugene, said the Constitution does not give individuals the right to infect others with preventable disease.  

“The constitution is not a suicide pact,” he said.

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.

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