Texas allows parents to have their kids opt out of vaccinations for measles, mumps and other diseases. Two years ago, California stopped allowing those exemptions; a similar Texas effort fell short. This session in Austin, the sponsor of that bill isn't trying to end the "conscientious" exemption. His allies are using a different strategy.
Last week, in Part One of this story, we looked at the growing group of Texas parents opting out of vaccinations. In Part Two, we dig into the legislative battle.
State Rep. Jason Villalba has two kids in Dallas public schools. They’re both vaccinated against highly contagious diseases like mumps and measles. A few years ago he learned that not all their classmates were.
“My wife came home from school after registration and she mentioned to me that under Texas law a student could opt out of the protocols for immunization merely by saying they don’t want to take immunizations,” he says. “That was surprising to me.”
The Republican learned that the state Legislature added in this exemption, often called a “conscientious” or “philosophical” exemption, in 2013.
“Sure enough it coincided with this paper by Andrew Wakefield that was later discredited that said that immunizations could cause autism,” Villalba says. “Of course that study was widely discredited, his license was removed to practice medicine in the UK and now he lives in Austin.”
Villalba wrote a bill in 2015 that would have eliminated the conscientious objection clause; he would have kept the medical and religious exemptions available.
He knew touching a hot topic like vaccines would be contentious, but he had no idea a grassroots group would try and oust him in the next election.
After Villalba proposed his bill to narrow vaccination exemptions a grassroots organization called Texans for Vaccine Choice organized to prevent him from winning re-election.
“It got ugly at times, heated at times,” he says.
Jackie Schlegel, who started Texans for Vaccine Choice, hadn't been involved in politics before.
“We got heavily involved at the Capitol, in his primary race. We knocked on over 10,000 doors for his challenger,” she says.
Texans for Vaccine Choice is now a political action committee — more than 10,000 people have liked its Facebook page.
“We are not here to tell parents to or to not vaccinate. We are simply here to defend the rights of parents to make those decisions,” Schlegel says.
And although Villalba won re-election last fall, he gave up on his legislation.
The Current Proposals
There are a handful of bills proposed for the 2017 legislative session that would make it harder to get philosophical exemptions to vaccines. None would eliminate such exemptions — like the law that passed in California in 2015, or the bill Villalba proposed. Still, Villalba supports a plan by his Republican colleague in Houston, Sarah Davis. She wants to require an online course for parents who want to opt out of immunizations.
“I think she does have a chance. I know she has support of MDs in the house,” Villalba says.
Another bill authored by Representative Donna Howard, an Austin Democrat and nurse, would require parents to consult with a doctor about the dangers of not immunizing a child.
Members of Texans for Vaccine Choice, like Jackie Schlegel, are opposed to both proposals.
“Our stance is that these are personal and private decisions that are best left that way,” Schlegel says. “Texas has a long history of supporting parental rights and vaccine choice. We are here to maintain that."
The decisions made in Texas could spread. Dr. Peter Hotez is Dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
“You know the U.S. is very good at exporting culture. We export Hollywood movies. We can export anti-vaccine sentiments,” he says. “You can imagine when vaccines start going down in places like India or Nigeria or Brazil we could have catastrophic measles epidemics and other epidemics globally.”
For now, the debate remains in the state house, where legislators have to balance parental choice and public safety in an interconnected world.
Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly named State Rep. Sarah Davis of Houston as Susan Davis. The story has been updated to reflect that change.