Pressures from anti-vaccination groups killed Oklahoma Senate Bill 83 Thursday.
If passed into law, it would have required parents to view materials about the dangers of refusing vaccinations for their children before school enrollment.
Under a 2011 law, Oklahoma parents may exempt their own children from vaccinations, also called immunizations.
“I’m shocked that my Senate colleagues could vote against such a bill,” Senator Ervin Yen, R-Oklahoma City. He talked to Free Press soon after the vote. Yen is a physician.
He said he had “no idea” why the bill failed to pass on the floor. “I’ve been a Senator for about two years and sometimes I still don’t know the way things work around here,” said Yen.
Commonly called “anti-vaxxers” for the last decade, those against government mandated vaccinations have been organized into several groups, some formal and others ad hoc.
The most famous anti-vaxxer on a national stage is actress Jenny McCarthy, whose son has autism.
The group Oklahomans for Vaccine and Health Choice has been the most prominent and well-organized group opposing such measures in the state Yen said.
The group warns of what they believe to be medical dangers, but also advocate for giving parents the option of withholding immunizations from their children.
In an unsigned blog post on their website from Feb. 27, the anonymous author(s) identified their central objection to the bill:
“Even with the amendments, we believe that this bill is an infringement on parental rights.”
Early in the debate Yen says he was the target of smear campaigns that used multicolored leaflets depicting him alongside some of the most famous dictators in history who forced immunizations. (See the full gallery at the end.)
One such hand-out depicted Yen as a Mao-type Communist dictator.
One Sunday, leaflets criticizing Yen were placed on windshields of the cars of those attending worship across his district in north Oklahoma City.
Other leaflets had photos of Yen’s entire family, including his children. Yen says that he interpreted that action as a thinly-veiled threat on the safety of his children.
In the Feb. 27 blog post, Oklahomans for Vaccine and Health Choice disavowed the leaflets revealing Yen’s children and the leaflets associating him with past dictators.
However, the same post did claim the Sunday worshiper leaflets distributed to “25 churches” in Yen’s district.
Attempts to reach the group for comment Thursday through a form on their website were unsuccessful. No phone number is listed.
The original version of the bill would have amended a 2011 law that gives parents the power to simply exempt their own child from vaccinations while enrolling them in school.
Under the same law parents can also provide a certificate from a licensed physician “that immunization would endanger the life or health of the child.” All versions of SB 83 maintained that provision.
Once the bill made it out of the Health and Human Services committee, which Yen chairs, it had new provisions.
It still allowed parents to exempt their own children from vaccinations, but only after viewing a video and other materials on a website about the dangers of not vaccinating their child. Parents could request printed versions of the material.
“All parents have to do is show up and watch a video,” said Yen. “How hard is that?”
Among other provisions, the version passed out of committee called for parents who wanted to exempt their children to provide a notarized form attesting that they had viewed the information.
The committee sent a “Do Pass” report to the full Senate on a 7-4 vote.
Then, Thursday afternoon after passionate debate on both sides of the issue, the measure failed in a 16-26 vote. Efforts to revive the bill under Senate rules also failed.
Yen estimated “about 30 to 40” people against the measure who were working the hallways, and then sat in the gallery during the vote.
Pushing the bill through the Senate seemed like a “no-brainer” to Yen, but not necessarily for those who distrust immunizations.
Some believe that immunizations cause autism and other permanent damage to a portion of children who receive them.
Yen said flatly, “there is zero evidence that vaccinations cause autism.”
Senate Majority Whip Nathan Dahm, R-Broken Arrow, has been opposed to SB 83.
He and other senators introduced bills intended to counter Yen’s.
Dahm’s SB 177 would require school districts to provide information about the exemptions they have available.
When Free Press interviewed Dahm late February his concerns centered on parents’ rights.
“Some school districts are sending out letters saying that you have to do these mandatory vaccinations, but they are not also giving the information that says about how you can opt out,” said Dahm.
And so, he said his measure would provide “essentially informed consent.”
He said, “My goal is to just make sure that the people are fully informed on it so that they can make informed decisions.”
Yen said what’s next is to keep trying to educate the public about the community need for vaccinations.
“I’ll try again next year,” said Yen.