An outbreak of more than 100 cases of measles in the United States has opened up a contentious political debate over vaccinations.
Two potential Republican candidates for the White House attracted criticism on Monday after they said it should be up to parents as to whether or not to vaccinate their children.
The comments from New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand PaulRandal (Rand) Howard PaulRand Paul praises removal of Neil Young songs from Spotify: 'Seeya' YouTube permanently bans Dan Bongino Conservative pundit says YouTube blocked interview with Rand Paul MORE followed a Sunday interview by President Obama in which he in no uncertain terms urged parents to vaccinate their children.
“The state doesn’t own your children,” Paul said in a heated interview on CNBC. “Parents own the children, and it is an issue of freedom and public health.”
Christie initially said parents should have a “measure of choice” on vaccinations before he released a second statement that clarified there is “no question kids should be vaccinated.”
Democrats in both cases seized political advantage and cast Republicans as out of step with medicine and science.
“Why is this so hard? When given the opportunity to show leadership in calling for Americans to vaccinate their children to protect our nation from the spread of disease, shouldn’t this be a no-brainer?” the Democratic National Committee said in a statement. “Instead, Republican after Republican is bowing to the rhetoric of the anti-vaccination movement instead of standing up for the science supported by almost all doctors and scientists on protecting our kids and keeping our nation safe.”
Christie’s initial remarks in particular suggested a caution with saying something on vaccinations that might irritate the religious right or the libertarian wing of the Republican Party, both of which could have an outsized role in picking the GOP’s 2016 standard-bearer.
Yet several GOP strategists argued the comments could hurt the party, and Christie’s quick clarification suggested his team was worried about a self-inflicted wound.
“This is not an argument about government,” said veteran GOP political strategist Rick Wilson. “If medical science has produced one indisputable breakthrough, it’s vaccinations. Vaccinations save lives and have produced an indisputable social good.”
“Vaccines are not a freedom issue. They are a public health issue. It’s not a hard concept,” tweeted Matt Mackowiak, another GOP strategist.
There were discordant notes from other Republicans as well.
"Although I strongly believe in individual rights and the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit, I also recognize that public health and public safety are extremely important in our society," said possible 2016 contender Ben Carson, a former neurosurgeon, in a statement.
"Certain communicable diseases have been largely eradicated by immunization policies in this country and we should not allow those diseases to return by foregoing safe immunization programs, for philosophical, religious or other reasons when we have the means to eradicate them," he added.
Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, announced a Tuesday hearing to look at how to improve vaccination rates.
He said too many children are not getting a safe vaccine to prevent measles, and attributed a rise in measles cases to falling rates of childhood vaccinations.
Rep. Michael BurgessMichael Clifton BurgessHouse clears bill to raise debt limit Democrats livid over GOP's COVID-19 attacks on Biden Maintaining the doctor-patient relationship is the cornerstone of the U.S. health care system MORE (R-Texas), a longtime obstetrician, stopped short of criticizing Christie but defended vaccinations.
“The elimination of preventable diseases has been one of biggest success stories over the past five years. We shouldn’t discount it, because it has made a significant impact on public health,” he said.
He added that he had never seen a case of the measles in 26 years of practicing medicine because vaccinations had made the disease so rare.
Yet last year, there were more than 500 cases of measles in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the nation is on pace to have even more cases this year.
One reason, according to the Obama administration and public health groups, is opposition among some people to vaccinating their children.
Some in the GOP say the question of whether the government can require children to be vaccinated is central to their long-held belief in individual liberty — one that holds weight in early voting presidential states.
“It’s not a litmus test, but it’s a signal about what you think the role of government should be in people’s lives,” said influential Iowa conservative radio host Steve Deace. “I know people who fully vaccinate their children but still think the government has no business telling you that you have to do so.”
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry was criticized in the 2012 GOP primaries for a 2007 executive order that all preteen girls in Texas be vaccinated against human papillomavirus, commonly referred to as HPV.
At the same time, opponents of vaccinations do not fall neatly into one political description. They include conservatives but also liberals who fear vaccines could be linked to autism in children — a belief triggered by research that was retracted in 2011.
“It’s never been a small government thing,” said Steven Salzberg, a biology professor at Johns Hopkins University who has followed the anti-vaccination movement closely.
“[Anti-vaccine enthusiasts] tend to be people ... who shop at Whole Foods and believe in the health benefits of organics and natural stuff,” he said. “This notion appeals to them because they think the idea of injecting something foreign into a child must bad. It’s not true, it’s just based on this touchy-feely notion that natural is better.”
Much of the anti-vaccination movement is associated with the Hollywood left. Oprah Winfrey, for instance, has been criticized for giving a platform to actress Jenny McCarthy, who is among the most high-profile of the activists promoting the vaccine-autism link.
Then-candidate Obama in 2008 said he was “suspicious” about a possible link between vaccinations and autism.
And Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Armageddon elections to come Poll: Trump leads 2024 Republican field with DeSantis in distant second The politics of 'mind control' MORE, the Democratic front-runner for president in 2016 if she mounts a bid, told an anti-vaccine group during her 2008 campaign, “I am committed to make investments to find the causes of autism, including possible environmental causes like vaccines.”
A number of GOP candidates on Monday seemed to avoid the issue despite the Christie and Paul comments.
The Hill reached out to officials for eight of the top GOP contenders asking them to explain their stance on vaccinations, and none responded.
Sarah Ferris contributed.