The bill to strengthen New Jersey's immunization policy was introduced after an outbreak of whooping cough this year.
The hearing was held the same day that a study was released by doctors at Emory University in Atlanta that found that nonmedical exemptions increased more rapidly in states with what it called "easy exemption policies" than in states with more stringent policies. Rates of exemptions for nonmedical reasons, the study found, were 2.31 times as high in states with less stringent rules.
Critics of the bill, who attended the hearing on Thursday wearing buttons that said "No on 1759," called it a violation of their religious and parental freedoms and questioned the safety and efficacy of vaccinations.
Proponents say the bill, sponsored by Majority Leader Loretta Weinberg (D., Bergen) and Sen. Joseph Vitale (D., Middlesex), would codify the exemption process, limiting the ability of parents to claim general philosophical or safety concerns as religious objections, and should lead to an increase in the percentage of students who are immunized. They say there has been a marked increase in the number of students who have claimed religious exemptions over the last five years.
"The intent of this bill is to spell out the very specific guidelines that a student or parent would have to go through to be exempted from mandatory student vaccination," Vitale said. "While we want to respect people's religious beliefs and legitimate medical concerns, we cannot allow widespread exemption from immunization based on fear and false science. Not only does it put the student at risk, but it creates a risk to the general public health and well-being."
Under the Senate bill, a student or a student's parents would be required to present a written statement from a physician "indicating that the vaccine is medically contraindicated for a specific period of time" and why, according to the bill's statement.
For a religious exemption, the student or parent would need to explain how the vaccine conflicts with "the bona fide religious tenets or practices of the student, or the parent or guardian." The bill says that "a general philosophical or moral objection to the vaccination is not sufficient for an exemption on religious grounds; and an exemption on religious grounds may be suspended by the commissioner of Health and Senior Services during the existence of an emergency as determined by the commissioner."
Opponents of the legislation said it infringed on their religious freedoms. They said meeting the new requirements would be both time-consuming and expensive and would put the government in the position of ruling on what constitutes legitimate religious belief.
"The legislation legitimizes a witch hunt," said Louise Kuo Habakus, director of the Center for Personal Rights, an anti-vaccination group. "The burdens placed on religious parents are too high."
Victoria Jakelsky, who also testified against the bill, echoed many of the concerns raised by Habakus. Jakelsky, who is state coordinator for parentalrights.org but was not speaking on behalf of the organization, said the bill raises constitutional questions.
"This bill, if passed, clearly is an overreach of power," she said. "If parents have objections to immunization, they should have the right to opt out."
Howard Britt, a pediatrician, testified in favor of the bill, saying that states have the authority to enact compulsory immunization laws and that there is "plenty of proof that vaccines work."
"The state has an overriding interest in protecting the health of the community," he said.
Drew Harris, chairman of the New Jersey Public Health Institute, said there had been a threefold increase in exemptions over the last four years, since the state streamlined the exemption process and allowed a simple statement to be submitted. The exemption has been used to mask other issues, he said.
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