Now that SB 276, which tightened the law to prevent children from avoiding vaccinations, has passed the question is: What Will Gavin Do? Gov. Newsom seems to have been moved by arguments made by opponents of the bill, twice raising objections that would need to be alleviated, even though he indicated he would sign the bill after earlier changes were made. 

Yet, the governor also occupies that space in which he must decide the government’s responsibility to head off catastrophic situations or government overreach that interferes with individual rights.

The debate over the dangers, benefits and side effects of immunizations is an age-old one. Perhaps the first battle over inoculations on this continent was fought out in Boston nearly 200 years ago, yet here we are again. More on that later. 

Given that the governor the night before the final Senate vote relayed concerns about the bill that passed the Assembly, it seems likely he would withhold his signature unless he gets amendments to the law. Those changes would need to come in the form of another bill with less than 10 days left in the legislative session. 

At issue is concern over medical exemptions handed out by doctors that allow children to avoid the vaccinations required to attend school. A doctor can excuse a child from immunization if there is a medical reason to do so. Backers of SB 276, led by the bill’s author, Sen. Richard Pan, a pediatrician, say there are too many unnecessary exemptions given out. 

The bill would order the California Department of Public Health to review exemptions written by doctors who issue more than five exemptions a year. In addition, the Department would inspect the medical exemptions of children attending a school or daycare where the immunization rate is less than 95%. The bill also requires doctors to certify under penalty of perjury that the exemptions they sign are justified. 

Tuesday night, Newsom’s office said technical changes had to be made to the bill but no changes occurred before the final Senate vote.

Newsom will try to get his changes done in the next few days or he will have to decide if he will sign SB 276 as a stand-alone bill with the promises of amendments to come. 

There has been strong support for the measure, especially since a measles outbreak hit California, and equally strong opposition driven by parents who want the final say over their children’s welfare. 

Republican Senate leader Shannon Grove summed up opponent’s perspective in explaining her No vote on the measure. “SB 276 is a dangerous intrusion on the doctor-patient relationship,” she said in a release.

The modern day debate over immunization concerns mirrors a debate over smallpox inoculations in early America.

The Reverend Cotton Mather, reviled through history as a supporter of the infamous Salem Witch Trials of 1692, was a strong advocate of inoculations to prevent the spread of smallpox. 

Mather learned the idea of giving citizens a mild case of the pox as a preventative from a native of West Africa and a slave named Onesimus

In 1721, a smallpox epidemic struck Boston. With a population of 11,000, more than half the citizens reported a case of smallpox and 850 died.

Convincing one of the local doctors to use Onesimus’ inoculation method and keeping data, Cotton Mather observed that only 2% of those inoculated died, while 15% who contracted the disease without inoculation perished. 

There was passionate opposition to the inoculation technique in Massachusetts Bay 200 years ago. A short synopsis of the Boston crisis and the success of the inoculation program were released by Harvard University. You can find it here

Maybe Gov. Newsom should consult history in making up his mind on what to do.