Sen. Ben Hansen of Blair said the state and federal response to the coronavirus pandemic illustrated how quickly the government can upend the lives of citizens.
The state lawmaker told the Legislature's Health and Human Services Committee on Thursday he believed future protections need to be put in place should the government enact a mandatory vaccine directive to battle future public health emergencies.
Hansen's bill (LB643) was “in no way against vaccines or the COVID-19 vaccines,” he told the committee, but was written to given individuals, parents and businesses the choice to decline a vaccine without penalty during a state of emergency or any time after.
“This is more saying the state does not have a right to inject anything into our bodies,” Hansen said. “One of the things we’re trying to accomplish is (to) give the people of Nebraska a kind of platform to stand on if that ever happens.”
That prompted questions from Sen. Matt Williams of Gothenburg, who asked Hansen if his bill could be interpreted to allow Nebraskans to decline vaccinations “any time after for any reason whatsoever.”
“It could possibly be interpreted that way,” Hansen replied.
“Would that be your intent to have it interpreted that way?” Williams asked.
Hansen said that was “not necessarily” the intent of the bill, adding he believed the language of the bill could be asserted if the state was attempting to continue to mandate a vaccine even after the public health crisis was over.
Dozens of people testified in support of the bill in person Thursday, nearly all of them waiting together in close proximity in a line outside the committee room. Masks are not required at the Capitol; only a few who stood in line to speak in support wore one.
Supporting testimony ranged from personal stories about immunizations and the choice made by parents to not vaccinate their children, explanations of faith-based opposition to vaccines, assertions of individual sovereignty and constitutional rights, as well as a range of conspiracy theories and debunked claims.
“It is unconstitutional and against the inalienable rights of the citizens of this country to be forced, coerced or tricked into vaccination,” Allie French said.
French added the government “has no right” to force an individual to get a shot if it was against their religion or philosophical beliefs.
Several registered nurses and other health care workers also spoke in support of Hansen’s bill, saying they believed a mandatory vaccination program would remove a patient’s ability to give consent to a medical procedure.
“I beg you to give me my right to refuse,” said Colleen Fogarty, a retired pediatric nurse.
Living with an autoimmune disorder, Tyler Hackbart, a chiropractor from Seward, said he has never received a vaccine. He asked the senators to "use the best evidence you have and then make a faith decision" in advancing the bill from committee.
"I'm for the freedom to choose for myself and my family, and I hope you guys are, too," Hackbart said.
Others said they believed vaccines were the underlying cause of autism — a widely spread claim debunked by researchers — as well as other diseases, or offered discredited conspiracy theories about vaccines being used to assert control over the population.
Only one person testified in opposition Thursday.
Dr. Michelle Walsh, a Lincoln pediatrician and the president of the Nebraska Medical Association, said declining immunization rates in Nebraska and elsewhere have resulted in increased instances of measles, mumps and whooping cough.
She also reiterated Williams’ concern from the beginning of the hearing, saying the NMA also interpreted the bill’s language to apply “in perpetuity,” and said it wasn’t clear how Hansen’s bill would reconcile with school immunization requirements currently in state law.
To attend public or private school in Nebraska, children must be immunized against polio, chicken pox, measles, mumps and rubella, among other diseases largely stamped out due to vaccines.
“We have serious concerns that LB643 would be contradictory to these existing policies and allow parents to opt out with no sincere reasons,” Walsh said. “This would, in effect, raise the rates of future types of preventable disease outbreaks which have been under control for decades.”
The committee took no action on the bill Thursday.
At the end of the hearing, Hansen said LB643 “struck a chord” with many, adding the Legislature is considering several bills where the pandemic exposed a need for action, including expanding SNAP benefits, implementing protections for tenants, and providing aid to businesses.
“Where are we going to be at during the next emergency?” he asked. “That’s why it’s important to look at this now.”
MEET THE CURRENT NEBRASKA STATE SENATORS