Pennsylvania lawmakers are trying to increase low vaccination rates by reducing the number of exemption options for parents who want to opt out of immunizations for their children.
A bill introduced in Harrisburg this month would do away with a legal provision allowing parents to request an exemption based on a “strong moral or ethical conviction similar to a religious belief.”
Medical and religious exemptions would remain if this “philosophical” exemption were stricken.
“To be honest with you, if it were up to me, I would get rid of the religious exemption too,” said state Senator Daylin Leach, D-Montgomery, the bill’s sponsor. “I’m just trying to do what I think is politically possible to at least make a dent in the problem.”
Pennsylvania law requires schoolchildren to be immunized against 10 diseases, according to Leach.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 85 percent of Pennsylvania kindergartners were vaccinated against measles, mumps and rubella last year, the second-lowest rate in the country.
About 3,400 schoolchildren statewide claimed the “philosophical” exemption that year, according to state health department records, more than the roughly 3,000 who claimed the religious exemption. About 1,500 received medical exemptions.
Currently, parents who want to opt out of required vaccines for their children fill out a line on a certificate of immunization claiming a philosophical or religious exemption. Parents who choose a religious exemption are not required to name their religion, state officials say.
School officials decide whether an exemption is granted or not.
Twenty states, including Pennsylvania, allow immunization exemptions on “philosophical” grounds.
Anti-vaccine advocates, including Louise Francis, co-leader of the Pennsylvania chapter of Vaccine Liberation, oppose Leach’s bill.
“What we need is to keep a provision that allows parents with a strong moral stance, a strong moral conviction, to be able to make the choice for their child,” Francis said.
Francis argues the medical and religious exemptions that would remain if the bill passes do not cover parents who believe their children are medically fragile but cannot obtain a medical exemption from a physician.
They also do not cover those with strong objections to vaccination who do not identify with a particular religion.
The bill has been referred to committee.