After a prolonged debate over legislation that would make it harder for parents to exempt their children from the state's mandatory immunization law, the Vermont House voted 85 to 57 Tuesday evening to remove the philosophical exemption to the law.
Update 9:58 p.m. It was a debate that lasted more than four hours, and was one in which dozens of House members wanted to express their opinion on this emotional issue.
Jericho Rep. George Till strongly supported the elimination of the exemption. He argued that parents still had other options if they didn't want to vaccinate their children, including the religious exemption.
"Nothing in this amendment forces a parent to vaccinate their child,” Till said. “I vote to protect children and adults in our schools who are especially vulnerable to these dangerous vaccine preventable diseases."
And Barre Representative Paul Poirier said it was critical for the Legislature to protect those children who can't be immunized because they have a compromised immune system.
"And I would argue … that the right of a parent sometimes is trumped by what is in the best interests of society as a whole, and what is in the best interests of a smaller minority group,” Poirier said.
Most of the debate focused on an amendment offered by Northfield Rep. Anne Donahue that would have retained the philosophical exemption but would have required parents to consult with a health care provider and review education materials on the benefits of vaccines in order to receive the exemption.
That amendment was narrowly defeated by a vote of 73 to 71. The House then moved on to the larger issue of the philosophical exemption.
Bradford Rep. Sarah Copeland-Hanzas said the plan would do little to boost Vermont's immunization rates.
"Isolating fearful parents into home schooling or using the religious exemption does nothing to protect an unvaccinated person,” she said.
And Montpelier Rep. Warren Kitzmiller also opposed the elimination of the philosophical exemption.
"There is something deep in the core of my being, though, and it simply will not allow me to vote to remove a parent's right to make this serious decision on what is in the best interest of their child."
The Senate has already approved a measure that drops philosophical exemption, but this bill will be sent back to the Senate for its review because there are some minor differences between the approach taken by the House and the Senate.
From original post 7:02 p.m. For the past month, lawmakers have been subjected to an intense lobbying effort by both supporters and opponents of a plan to remove the philosophical exemption.
Vermont currently has three exemptions: for medical conditions, for religious beliefs, and for philosophical reasons. Roughly 6 percent of the parents of all public and private school kindergarten students claim an exemption for at least one of the five mandatory vaccines, and the vast majority are philosophical.
The House spent all afternoon debating a compromise amendment proposed by Northfield Rep. Anne Donahue. Her plan, which failed in a 71-73 vote, would have left the philosophical exemption in place but required parents to consult with a health care provider and review educational materials before being granted the exemption.
Donahue argued that her plan would do a better job of raising Vermont's immunization rate.
"I believe that my proposal in fact has better opportunities, greater opportunities to see an increase in our immunization rate while still protecting that choice for a tiny minority of parents who need to make those choices for their children,” Donahue says.
Burlington Rep. Kurt Wright urged his colleagues to support the amendment.
"I think those two efforts together potentially could solve this problem and still speak to the parents who have a legitimate safety concerns for their children,” Wright says. “I don't think we should ignore either side in this debate."
Jericho Rep. George Till strongly supports eliminating the philosophical exemption. He said the Donahue amendment would achieve very little.
"This amendment does not accommodate both sides. It's not a middle ground," Till said. "This is clearly on the side of the anti-vaccination people who want to preserve the philosophical exemption."
Burlington Rep. Chris Pearson compared people who don't believe the scientific benefits of vaccines to individuals who deny that climate change exists. Pearson opposed the amendment because it didn't go nearly far enough.
"It is not about an individual's choice or an individual's right. It is about trusting scientific process that has brought us this development and whether or not we trust that process,” Pearson says.
The vaccine debate is part of an underlying bill that expands the state's disease data reporting system.