When photos of Jessica Biel posing with opponents of vaccination legislation at the state Capitol appeared on Twitter this week, it ignited a social media storm over whether the actress, wife of Justin Timberlake, had joined a lobbying campaign against the legislation amid a nationwide measles outbreak.
In an Instagram post Thursday, Biel argued that she was not an “anti-vaxxer” but was opposing legislation to tighten up California immunization laws.
“I am not against vaccinations — I support children getting vaccinations and I also support families having the right to make educated medical decisions for their children alongside their physicians,” wrote Biel, known for her role in the TV series “7th Heaven.”
“My dearest friends have a child with a medical condition that warrants an exemption from vaccinations, and should this bill pass, it would greatly affect their family’s ability to care for their child in this state.”
The vaccination legislation, Senate Bill 276, seeks to make it more difficult for doctors to grant exemptions to the state’s immunization requirements, giving the state more control over such decisions. The bill’s author, Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), has claimed that unscrupulous doctors are granting exemptions for profit and under pressure from influential individuals.
Vaccination proponents have lambasted Biel for appearing with foes of childhood immunizations, and some of the heat is coming from fellow celebrities. Comedian Jen Kirkman harshly criticized Biel in a tweet Thursday morning that has since been removed. “People are dying due to anti-vaxxers and your ignorance will contribute to that death toll,” she wrote.
The bill has passed the state Senate but now faces a more organized opposition effort, which includes Robert F. Kennedy Jr., a well-known critic of vaccinations. Biel quietly appeared with Kennedy at the Capitol on Tuesday, one week after Kennedy had lauded Gov. Gavin Newsom for critical remarks about the legislation. Newsom has stated he is not opposing the bill, but his remarks appear to have emboldened its critics.
Kennedy, son of the late Sen. and Atty. Gen. Robert F. Kennedy and Ethel Kennedy, is an environmental activist who has claimed that vaccinations cause autism, an assertion refuted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and various medical groups. He apparently assisted in bringing Biel to the Capitol, where she was photographed meeting with Sen. Brian Jones (R-Santee) and Assemblywoman Autumn Burke (D-Marina del Rey).
“She’s upset about this issue because of its particular cruelty,” Kennedy told the Daily Beast, referring to Biel. “She has friends who have been vaccine-injured who would be forced to leave the state.”
Pan’s legislation comes amid a measles outbreak nationwide. There have been at least 981 cases of measles so far in 2019, which the CDC says is the largest number since 1992. Across California, there have been at least 51 confirmed measles cases so far this year, including 33 associated with outbreaks.
California has some of the strictest childhood vaccination laws in the country, requiring immunizations to attend public or private schools. A doctor can excuse a child from some or all vaccinations if there is a medical reason to do so, but questions have been raised about whether some doctors are improperly approving these exemptions.
Under Pan’s bill, the California Department of Public Health would decide whether the underlying condition cited by a doctor in a medical exemption meets criteria set by the CDC.
The vaccination proposal has already triggered heated and emotional debates in the state Capitol and is now in the Assembly for consideration.
In her Instagram post Thursday, Biel sought to distance herself from the anti-vaxxer label that has dogged other celebrities who have fought vaccination legislation. She said her stance was based on support for parental choice.
“That’s why I spoke to legislators and argued against this bill,” she said. “Not because I don’t believe in vaccinations, but because I believe in giving doctors and the families they treat the ability to decide what’s best for their patients and the ability to provide that treatment.”
In 2015, reports circulated that Biel and Timberlake did not plan to vaccinate their kids. But until now, Biel hasn’t taken a position on California immunization laws or legislation to tighten them.
“It is our duty to protect Californians from threats to their safety,” Pan, a pediatrician, said in May. “The facts are clear — vaccines keep us safe and our children safe by preventing serious infections.”