PHOENIX - A bill allowing Arizonans to become foster parents even if their own children haven't been immunized was headed to Gov. Jan Brewer's desk Tuesday after passing the House without an emergency clause that would have put it into effect immediately upon her signature.
The 33-24 House vote fell mainly along party lines after consecutive days of heated debate that pitted majority Republicans supporting the bill against Democrats.
Democrats argued the measure was driven by philosophical opposition to vaccination requirements, and said foster children could become ill by being placed with children without all their shots.
"We are putting these kids at incredible risk," said Rep. Eric Meyer, D-Paradise Valley. Meyer, a physician, noted the state pediatricians' association opposed the measure.
"When we say we're not going to vaccinate the biological kids who live in the home and then we put foster kids in there, we put them at risk."
Republicans argued the bill was about allowing children stuck in foster care to be taken into loving homes.
"If you're more concerned with a child that may get sick, I can tell you that child is probably, probably, much more concerned with wanting somebody to love them," said Rep. Rick Gray, R-Sun City.
Rep. Debbie Lesko, R-Peoria, told the House that one of her constituents can't vaccinate her children because the oldest had a severe reaction. Yet she still wants to be a foster parent.
"Currently, a whole group of parents are being blocked from being licensed to be foster parents just because their biological children aren't vaccinated," Lesko said during Tuesday's debate.
Brewer, a Republican, has not indicated whether she would sign the measure. If approved, it would take effect later this year.
Children taken into the foster care system by the Department of Economic Security often aren't fully immunized, and there's concern they would be in greater danger of contracting diseases such as measles or whooping cough if they're placed in a home with unvaccinated children.
Arizona has more than 14,000 children are under state supervision, either in foster care, living with relatives or in group homes. The bill targets the 1,344 who are in group homes waiting for foster home placement.
The Department of Economic Security checks immunization records and makes sure those children with incomplete shots are brought up to date, Lesko said. That doesn't always fully protect them, though, since they might be too young to have a full series of vaccinations and some vaccinations aren't effective.
But for the Republicans, what they called a small risk to the children was well worth it.
"There are parents out there that are waiting and wanting to love them, to give them a home, to help their bruised hearts, help them adjust to live, help them to know what love is," Gray said.