The Legislature's Education Committee has endorsed a bill that would eliminate all non-medical exemptions for vaccinations required to attend Maine schools. The Committee voted 8-5 along party lines to approve the bill, which has emerged as a political flashpoint during an otherwise low-key legislative session.
The bill would require that starting in 2021, children in Maine would have to be immunized in order to attend school or daycare unless a physician determines that a vaccine poses a specific health risk.
Maine is currently among 17 states that allows school children to opt-out of school-required vaccinations for religious and philosophical reasons, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
While more than 30 states prohibit philosophical exemptions, only three also ban religious exemptions. Maine would become the fourth, a distinction that troubled Republican state Sen. Matt Pouliot, of Augusta, during a work session on the bill held Wednesday.
"For us to say to whole group of students, we just don't want you anymore, it flies in the face of what we all espouse to believe in on this committee every single day," he said. "I just don't understand how anybody could support legislation that's going to segregate a group of students in the state of Maine."
Supporters of the bill, including an a number of physicians who testified at the heavily attended hearing last month, argue that eliminating the exemptions are necessary to protect all schoolchildren.
Health experts also note the return of once eradicated diseases in pockets of the United States, including most recently Brooklyn, New York where city officials moved just yesterday to require mandatory vaccinations to counter an outbreak of measles in some ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities.
Just last week the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention announced that immunization opt-out rates among school-aged children increased to more than 5.5 percent – an all-time high at a time when the state is reporting a rate of pertussis eight times the national average.
During Wednesday’s work session, Pouliot said he supports vaccinations and the goal of the bill, but worries that it’s an overreaction to what he describes as inconsistent state data.
"I can't, in good conscience, support legislation that doesn't even have with it the assurance that it will solve the problem that we believe exists in this state," he said.
But Democrats on the Committee countered that the data are compelling enough to act. And they reject GOP assertions that the bill is an attack on civil liberties.
"Getting our children vaccinated is about protecting our children. All of them," said Sen. Brownie Carson, a Democrat from Harpswell.
Carson, a member of the Education Committee, said that the science behind vaccinations is clear. He acknowledged that his perspective is partially shaped by the fact that his granddaughter was once immunocompromised when she was diagnosed with leukemia at age five.
He said that those who object to vaccinations for philosophical or religious reasons risk harming the well-being of others.
"In my view, they're making a choice to potentially put other kids at risk, who are immunocompromised as my granddaughter was," he said. "We have to make decisions in 2019 that are for the greater good. And this is one of those."
The rights of the individual versus the common good were central to Wednesday's Committee discussion.
"With all due respect to the sponsor and the medical professionals, I consider this bill to be an egregious constitutional attack," he said.
Republican Rep. Justin Fecteau, of Augusta, voiced the individual rights side of a debate that will likely mushroom when it reaches the full legislature. He also foreshadowed a possible legal fight should the bill become law.
Democrats appear prepared for that legal challenge.
Before the Committee vote, lawmakers were briefed on the potential legal and constitutional ramifications of the bill. A legislative analyst told lawmakers that the three states who ban religious vaccine exemptions — Mississippi, West Virginia and California – had all been challenged in court, but the laws were upheld.