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Michael Hiltzik

No, it's untrue that Obama 'pandered to anti-vaxxers' in 2008

Video shows that Obama contradicted the autism-vaccine link in 2008, not endorsed it

Participating in the extended game of "Telephone" that is the Internet, the news site Vox has unearthed a report of a public appearance by then-Sen. Barack Obama to suggest that he "pandered" to anti-vaccination groups by acknowledging a vaccine-autism link in 2008, when he was launching his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

A viewing of the video from that appearance shows that interpretation is incorrect. He dismissed the anti-vaccination viewpoint, spoke out forthrightly and squarely in favor of childhood immunization and did not endorse the autism link. Kudos to Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs for setting the record straight.

Here's the back story. Vox pegged its item to Obama's strong endorsement of childhood immunization during an interview aired Monday on NBC's "Today" show. He said: "You should get your kids vaccinated.... The science is, you know, pretty indisputable. We’ve looked at this again and again. There is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren’t reasons to not."

Vox reported that at a Pennsylvania town hall meeting in April 2008, Obama said this about the autism-vaccine link: "We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it."

The headline on Vox's post is: "Obama supports vaccines now--but pandered to anti-vaxxers in 2008." Vox drew its implication from an earlier report on the rally by Dartmouth government professor Brendan Nyhan, who first characterized Obama's remark as "pandering" and juxtaposed it with a statement by then-GOP presidential hopeful John McCain, stating, "There's strong evidence that indicates [the rise in autism has] got to do with a preservative in vaccines."

Footnote: There is NO EVIDENCE linking autism to vaccines. The only study that purported to show a link has been shown to be fraudulent, and its author drummed out of the medical profession. We reported here on the whole sorry history. 

Vox implies that when Obama said "this person included," he meant himself. (Nyhan quotes the phrase, but doesn't parse it.) They both imply that the science he said was "inconclusive" and warranting research was that of the link between autism and vaccines. A viewing of the video undermines that conclusion.

When Obama says "this person included," he's clearly shown pointing off to his right at the person who asked him about the autism-vaccine link, and not referring to himself. The full transcript of his remarks also suggests that the science he says is "inconclusive" is the science of what causes autism -- not the purported link to any vaccine.

"We’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate," he says. "Nobody knows exactly why.... We’ve got to figure out why is it that this is happening so that we are starting to see a more normal, what was a normal, rate of autism."

View the one-minute video here

UPDATE: Brandon Wall of the Chicago Sun-Times went to the full 55-minute video of Obama's Pennsylvania appearance, from which the above one-minute snippet was extracted. Bottom line: the evidence that Obama was referring to an autism-vaccine link, as opposed to the science of autism's causes, when he said the science was "inconclusive" is even weaker than it looked at first. The full video is here; the discussion at issue begins at the 39-minute mark. 

Blogger Orac of Science Blogs turned up an example of how candidate Obama ticked off the anti-vaccination movement later in 2008 by stating that he was "not for selective vaccination, I believe that it will bring back deadly diseases, like polio."

The danger of getting the story wrong is that it will push the vaccine debate deeper into partisan, ideological politics, which is all we need. Suggesting that Obama has flip-flopped on vaccination is just another way to undermine the solid science and public health policy in favor of childhood immunization. 

Already, Republican politicians such as New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky are pandering to anti-vaccine parents by trying to portray childhood immunization as an issue of parental choice. They're implying that vaccinating or not vaccinating are positions with equal standing in society and under the law. They're not.

Every state requires childhood immunizations as a condition for attending school, though some are rather more lenient than others about allowing exemptions. The current measles outbreak may lead to sticter enforcement across the board. Parents who don't vaccinate their children are a danger to themselves, their kids and their communities. 

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

3:37 p.m., Feb. 3: This post has been updated with a reference to the full video of Obama's Pennsylvania appearance.

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