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Democratic State Senator Richard Pan of California, a Sacramento pediatrician who introduced the strict new vaccine legislation that Jessica Biel lobbied against at the state capitol on June 11, derided her participation in the policy discussion as “misinformed” and a hazard to public health. The actress told her 7.6 million Instagram followers she’d become an issue advocate out of concern for close friends whose child “warrants an exemption from vaccinations, and should this bill pass, it would greatly affect their family’s ability to care for their child in this state.” (Her post elicited an outpouring of supportive comments from the likes of actress Hannah Simone and longtime Dancing With the Stars performer Peta Murgatroyd.)
“This starts to be about privilege,” Pan tells The Hollywood Reporter. “The only reason that [individuals like Biel] are able to do this is that they are counting on others to vaccinate their own kids for them. How many people have to be hospitalized before people think, ‘This isn’t right.’ I wish the 1 percent would stop spreading disease to the 99 percent.”
Pan, along with Senate Bill 276’s co-sponsors, believes Biel is either confused or else deliberately mischaracterizing the legislation, which seeks to close a loophole exploited by parents who wish to avoid vaccinating their children and pediatricians who service these families. “We’re trying to crack down on fraud,” says Anthony York, a spokesman at the California Medical Association, an advocacy group for physicians.
“If [Biel’s] friend’s kid is truly immune-compromised, that child will benefit from this bill,” explains Leah Russin, executive director of Vaccinate California, a pro-immunization parents organization. “That child will be protected from exposure to a vaccine-preventable disease.” Adds Democratic Assemblywoman (and bill co-sponsor) Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego: “This bill is aimed at medical exemptions that are not supported by scientific or medical research. Truly compromised children who can’t get vaccines in fact are those who need a well-vaccinated community with sufficient herd immunity the most.”
Biel, who has a 4-year-old son with husband Justin Timberlake, became the latest Hollywood face of the anti-vaccine movement when she surfaced in California’s capitol to lobby against the bill, which the State Senate approved last month. It is currently being considered by the State Assembly and would ultimately require the signature of California Governor Gavin Newsom to become law. SB-276 would limit medical exemptions for immunizations without approval from a public health officer.
Biel was making the rounds in Sacramento with controversial activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the founder of Children’s Health Defense, which has claimed that vaccines are perilous and unnecessary. Other high-profile Hollywood names who have expressed anti-vaccination opinions include Robert De Niro, Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy.
When news first broke about her Sacramento trip, the actress seemed to backtrack, saying in her Instagram post that she is not against vaccinations but that her “concern” with the bill “is solely regarding medical exemptions.” However, a story posted on the website Jezebel Thursday morning challenged that characterization. The article, quoting an anonymous legislative staffer who claims to have been present for at least one of the meetings, says that Biel and Kennedy each shared their belief that vaccines are “both dangerous and ineffective.”
Two more co-sponsors of the bill weighed in. “If doctors with a non-medical agenda are distributing exemptions irresponsibly, they put every vulnerable person at risk,” says Democratic Assemblywoman Cecilia Aguiar-Curry of Winters. Democratic Senator Scott Wiener of San Francisco dismissed Biel’s campaign entirely. “Everyone has a right to weigh in, but I don’t think it’s going to have much impact given the facts,” he argues. “Ms. Biel can express whatever opinions she wants — she has that right — but the facts are against her. They have prevailed over the completely baseless opposition to vaccinating children. This is not even a close call.”
The U.S. is currently in the midst of the worst major measles outbreak in a quarter-century, with more than a thousand cases nationwide as of June 6. California has been mostly spared, and experts believe the state’s vaccination enforcement legislation, passed in 2015 after previous outbreaks, has helped.
At last month’s California Democratic Party convention in San Francisco, Newsom responded to a question about the bill: “I’m a parent, I don’t want someone that the governor of California appointed to make a decision for my family.” Some interpreted that as possible opposition to the bill. Wiener wasn’t so sure: “I didn’t interpret that quote from the convention as a veto threat. I think he was expressing a thought, and I’m optimistic that when the governor sees the facts and the science he will sign the bill.” Calls to the governor’s spokesperson were not immediately returned.
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