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Board of Supervisors Weighs In on Vaccine Exemptions, Physician-Assisted Suicide

Members of the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors found themselves admittedly out of their legislative depth on Tuesday as they struggled to come to a consensus on mandatory vaccinations and physician-assisted suicide, both of which are the subject of new bills being discussed in the state Legislature.

The supervisors were asked to vote whether to support, watch or disagree with Senate Bill 277, which would eliminate a personal belief exemption for those who choose not to vaccinate their children, and Senate Bill 128, which would allow terminally ill people who meet certain conditions to obtain medication to end their lives.

Both bills were co-authored by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, but officials from the county Public Health Department had encouraged a stance on the vaccine issue, and private citizens had brought forward the end-of-life bill.

The supervisors are periodically asked to weigh in on legislation at the state level by county lobbyists, who represent the county's interests in Sacramento. That discussion sometimes leads to talk about topics that the board has no control over, however, as Supervisor Steve Lavagnino lamented before abstaining from voting on the issues.

With little fanfare, the board easily endorsed AB 226, which would allow fishermen's markets to be permitted similarly to farmer's markets, so that fish could be caught, cleaned and sold directly to the public by those who fish. That item passed 4-0, with Lavagnino abstaining.

The real meat of the meeting came when the board stepped up to the vaccination issue, which has been a hot topic in Santa Barbara County. The item ultimately did not pass, but supervisors Salud Carbajal and Janet Wolf sent their own letter of support on the issue.

The county has seen a high number of pertussis cases, and even reported its first infant death in January when a child died after coming into contact with an unvaccinated adult.

Public Health Officer Dr. Charity Dean said the law would eliminate the personal-belief exemption, as well as those exemptions for religious reasons. Only children with medical reasons, such as a child who has been on chemotherapy for leukemia, would be exempt from vaccinations.  

Though the number of personal exemptions decreased last year, they are still a concern for health officials. Dean said one public school locally has a 21-percent exemption rate in kindergartners, well below the 95 percent needed for herd immunity.

"[The law] protects vulnerable children, those children who don't have a choice," she said.

About a dozen speakers came to the podium, all of them mothers, many with children in tow.

Supervisor Peter Adam asked county counsel how people with legitimate religious reasons could be forced to immunize their children, and county attorney Michael Ghizzoni responded that he had not researched how defensible that approach would be in California.

Adam said he felt that people with legitimate religious reasons were different than those who choose not to immunize and "leaning on it for reasons of fear and confusion."

"Vaccinations do, in fact, cause injury and death," said Gail Marshall, a former county supervisor, who noted that $2 billion in damages have been awarded to families of children who have been injured or killed by vaccines.

Candace Estav said her child received multiple vaccines in the first year of his life and regressed into autism.

"Our children get 49 shots before they are 6 years old," she said, adding that even the Nuremberg Code on forced medical procedures should be "revisited."

Several speakers expressed concern that the bill would not exempt children being home-schooled because California law requires homeschooling parents to establish a private school in their home and abide by private school guidelines.

Almost every speaker brought handouts to submit to the board, some bringing vaccination records of their own children.

Joy Hoover expressed concern that the bill "leaves the door open to any recommended vaccinations" to come, she said, and not just the 10 shots that are listed by the bill.

After public comment, Dean responded, stating that before vaccines, hundreds of thousands of children had died of diseases such as measles, mumps, polio and others diseases against which SB 277 requires immunization.

"Vaccination is the best tool we have to prevent these diseases," she said.

The most libertarian voice by far was that of Adam, who said that while his own children are vaccinated, the ability to make medical choices by a person for their children "are foundational rights of being an American."

"I don't even want them to tell me to get a building permit," he said. "Having them inject something into my body without agreement, that's something as a society we should be reluctant to do. … It's just Orwellian."

Wolf said she disagreed with Lavagnino's decision to abstain, and said "this discussion absolutely affects our county."

Wolf said she didn't agree with the public speakers who opposed the vaccinations.

"I don't think you're irrational. … I just happen to believe in the many decades of science and the importance of immunizations," she said.

Carbajal said he felt the issue represented "the interest of a few for the interest of the majority," he said, adding he supported vaccination. "I am swayed by the interests of the overall public health of our society and community."

Supervisor Doreen Farr said that while she supports vaccination, she was concerned about the removal of a religious-belief exemption "as a person of faith" herself, and whether more vaccinations would be added to the list in the future.

Wolf responded that she, too, was a person of faith but that "public health trumps religious belief."

That comment prompted Adam to respond.

"With all due respect, the First Amendment trumps public health," he said.

The supervisors also voted 3-1-1 with Carbajal, Farr and Wolf approving support of Senate Bill 128, known as the End of Life Option Act, which is similar to a law passed in Oregon, which allows terminally ill patients that are expected to die in six months to self-administer drugs that would end their lives.

After a half-dozen speakers on both sides of the issue spoke, Carbajal said he lost both parents to cancer and that it "was important that this choice be available" to terminally ill people in the state.

"When we come back from lunch we're probably going to be tackling gay marriage and abortion," Lavagnino joked. "CSAC has taken no position and I'll be in the same boat."

Adam said his father died of leukemia last fall, but that he would not be supporting it because of the potential for abuse.

Farr said she, too, had been touched by terminal illness and is watching her sister endure end-stage terminal cancer. 

"I am in support of this bill," she said.

Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.

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