Thanks to a thoughtless equivocation by an American governor visiting Britain, the measles vaccine has become the first important controversy of the 2016 Republican presidential primary.
As with other long-settled issues that unexpectedly pop up to bite national political candidates in their behinds (birth control, anyone?), so it is with mandatory immunizations, which protect the public against pestilence, and whose efficacy rests on "herd immunity," the idea that we all stick together so no one gets picked off by microbial predators.
For this turn of events, we can thank New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who responded Monday to a question about measles vaccines in the wake of our current outbreak of the disease by saying they are a "choice" for parents. (His office later clarified that he thinks all children should be vaccinated against measles.) Christie's poorly thought out response set off a chain reaction among fellow potential Republican White House seekers.
In an interview on CNBC, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul spoke ambivalently about requiring vaccines. He said immunizations are "a good thing" but that parents "should have input" about them. The government, he implied, has no business requiring that children be immunized.
"The state doesn't own your children," Paul said. "Parents own the children, and it is an issue of freedom and public health."
Leaving aside the problematic idea that anyone "owns" anyone else, the issue of whether mandatory immunizations are an onslaught against the freedom of American parents and their pint-size possessions was settled more than 100 years ago by the Supreme Court, which upheld the right of states to require immunizations.
All 50 states have laws requiring children to be immunized before they can start school. (States first required vaccinations against smallpox, and don't we all have the scars to prove it? If you were in elementary school in the 1960s, as I was, you probably remember lining up at the nurse's office for your sugar cube's worth of the polio vaccine.) Many states passed mandatory vaccination laws after measles outbreaks in the '60s and '70s. By 2000, measles was declared eradicated in the U.S., yet here we are again.
Paul, a physician who presumably knows that the plural of anecdote is not data, also made a regrettably irresponsible remark during his CNBC appearance: "I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines."
This recalls the comment that helped hasten the end of the 2012 presidential campaign of U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann, who won the first important GOP contest of that cycle when she swept the Ames Straw Poll in Iowa in the summer of 2011. She proceeded to embarrass herself on national television, proclaiming that she'd met a woman whose daughter suffered "mental retardation" after receiving the vaccine for HPV, human papilloma virus, a sexually transmitted disease. Bachmann never recovered from that inane statement, and was soon forced out of the race.
Other potential GOP 2016 candidates, perhaps sensing a need to inoculate themselves against a controversy that Democrats are trying to exploit, were quick to enter the fray:
"Children should of course be vaccinated," said Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
On Tuesday, I got a good chuckle at a tweet by Steve Deace, the conservative Christian radio host whose support for Mike Huckabee in 2008 helped the former Arkansas governor win the Iowa GOP caucuses. "Congrats liberal media trolls," wrote Deace. "Took a fringe issue whose origins are on the Left and split the Right with it. Give the devil his due."
It may be true that the resurgence of measles is partly the fault of overeducated parents who have either fallen for the long-discredited link between vaccinations and autism, or who have decided to "empower" themselves by putting the brakes on the traditional vaccination schedule.
But calling partisans out on this issue is murky. Republicans like Christie and Paul seem to want to appeal to people who don't like any kind of government health mandate (thus the "freedom" argument advanced by Paul, and the use of the word "choice" by Christie).
Still, one gets the feeling that Democrats have been enjoying seeing Republicans squirm a little. Christie, according to Reuters, canceled two scheduled Q&As with reporters and a media appearance he'd planned to make after meeting with Britain's finance minister. His spokeswoman explained, "We just decided we're not going to have availability today." This does not bode well for Christie's ability to take the heat generated by an intense presidential campaign.