AUGUSTA, Maine — In Augusta, passionate arguments were made for hours on Wednesday, as the Legislature’s Education Committee began work on a highly controversial bill to change Maine’s vaccination law. At the core of the bill and the debate is the requirement that students be immunized in order to attend public or private schools.

Under the proposal, the current religious and philosophical exemptions for immunization would be eliminated, and only medical exemptions to the vaccine law would be allowed. Critics say those medical exemptions are presently hard to get.

Supporters of the bill say Maine has a growing number of parents who don’t want to have their children immunized, which poses a health risk in the schools.

"I really want people to understand there is no single preventive health information more safe and effective than immunization," said Dr. Laura Blaisdell, a pediatrician from Yarmouth. "We know this unequivocally through fact and experience from the scientific community to our living community that remembers what it was like before vaccines."

But opponents argue there can be dangers from vaccines, with a number of speakers talking about how their own children or relatives were injured by vaccines. They also said the government should not have the right to dictate  what shots are given to their children.

"I’m here because I want to be the voice for all the children who have been vaccine injured," said Bethany Allgrove, a mother from Lincolnville. "I don’t think this process is giving them a voice at all. I’m concerned because the injuries are real -- they’re just not getting the attention they should."  

Opponents of the bill argued it would keep their children out of public or private school if they choose not to be immunized, and could even force some people to leave the state as a result. But supporters say the health of the majority of students and families should not be put at risk because of a small number who don’t want to immunize.

Wednesday’s public hearing was packed, with more than 120 people signed up to testify in front of the Education Committee. There were so many who wanted to listen to the arguments that five overflow rooms had to be set aside.

The Maine CDC says about 95 percent of Maine school children are immunized.    

Despite that number, doctors say that in Maine cases of pertussis (whooping cough) are on the rise. At Falmouth High School, according to school officials, there were four reported cases of the disease, prompting the CDC to classify it as an outbreak.