Texas moved closer Friday to restricting emergency immunizations given to children removed from troubled homes, worrying doctors and handing a political victory for vaccination opponents in a state where the number of families forgoing shots is soaring.
Vaccination critics are trying to build a foothold in Texas, and the state's Republican-controlled House has now signed off on prohibiting doctors from administering any immediate immunizations — other than for tetanus — for children newly taken into state custody.
Doctors argue there are real implications.
During a pertussis outbreak last year in North Texas, Dr. Anu Partap of Dallas said she didn't hesitate to give vaccinations to new foster children who were removed from homes for abuse or neglect. But she said that couldn't happen again under a bill that is now likely to head soon to Republican Gov. Greg Abbott's desk.
"If I had a 6-month old in my clinic, delaying a shot has more risk than spending time looking for vaccine records," said Partap, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, who also serves as director of the Rees-Jones Center for Foster Care Excellence at Children's Health.
More than 44,000 parents in Texas filed personal-belief exemptions last school year to shield their children from vaccinations, a nearly twentyfold jump from 2003. That was still less than 1 percent of students enrolled but the rising number still troubles doctors.
Anti-vaccination efforts have moved from the fringes in Texas to the floor of the Statehouse behind increased political organization, including a political action committee called Texans for Vaccine Choice, and elected allies with libertarian streaks.
"All you got to decide for yourself, is it the parent's decision to decide or the state?" Republican state Rep. Bill Zedler said on the House floor earlier this month during a debate over a similar provision. "And vaccines are not in any case emergency in nature."
Texas and 17 other states allow philosophical exemptions to vaccines. California used to let students forgo vaccinations for similar reasons — only to approve some of the country's strictest vaccine requirements last year, eliminating religious and personal beliefs as reasons for opting out of mandatory immunizations.
TEXTING WHILE DRIVING BAN
Texas rolled toward passing a statewide ban on texting while driving on Friday, as the state Senate approved a measure that has been defeated several times over the last decade.
Forty-six states have laws banning texting while driving that typically also ban sending or reading email, using apps or engaging in other use of the internet. Dozens of Texas cities also prohibit texting while driving.
Both chambers of the Texas Legislature have passed versions of a ban that has gained momentum since a March church bus crash that killed 13 people. Federal investigators have said the driver of the pickup truck that hit the bus said he was checking for a text when the crash happened, and had been taking prescription drugs. Video taken before the accident showed the truck weaving on the road and crossing the center line.
The measure approved Friday would create a statewide ban that pre-empts local ordinances regarding texting only. It would prohibit the use of hand-held phones to "read, write or send an electronic message" while driving, assessing a fine of up to $99 for first-time offenders and $200 for repeat offenses.
Advocates say the ban would be a life-saving measure and would deter people from using their phones in a way that can have deadly results.
"If this saves the life of one teenager who decides 'I'll wait' ... then we've accomplished what we set out to accomplish," said Sen. Joan Huffman, a Houston Republican.
Some lawmakers worry the ban would be difficult and too confusing to enforce and would give police new powers to pull over people who might be doing something legal if they mistake the presence of a phone or mobile device for texting. Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, noted that other potentially dangerous distractions would not be banned.
"We have a real problem with people being pulled over for things that are perfectly legal under this law," Taylor said. "I could read the newspaper (while driving) and under this law it's perfectly legal."
Texas' Republican-controlled Legislature is advancing tough new limits on abortion, striking back after the U.S. Supreme Court gutted many tough restrictions on the procedure it passed previously.
The Texas House was voting Friday to ban a commonly used second-trimester abortion procedure known as dilation and evacuation. That's despite similar laws being blocked by courts in Alabama, Oklahoma, Kansas and Louisiana.
That contentious provision was added to a bill requiring burying or cremating fetal remains from abortions, even though a federal judge has already blocked an existing Texas state rule mandating the same thing.
The bill also bars the sale or donation of fetal tissue.
Final approval should come Saturday, despite Democratic objections. The bill already cleared the state Senate, but would return there because the House is expanding its scope.
Both chambers were working late Friday as the May 29 end of session looms. The House is scheduled to meet Saturday and Sunday.
The Senate plans also to meet Sunday, where it may consider a sweeping House school finance bill that was modified in committee to include school vouchers for some special-needs students, as well as a "religious refusal" bill previously approved in the House that allows adoption and foster care agencies that get state funding to refuse to work with would-be parents because they are gay, non-Christian or unmarried.
QUOTE OF THE DAY
"Why don't we just stop passing unconstitutional laws for a change?" — Rep. Chris Turner, D-Grand Prairie, while debating the abortion bill in the House on Friday, a reference to the state's past abortion laws that have been voided in federal court.