Opinion: Robert Kennedy Jr., not your garden-variety anti-vaxxer

Robert Kennedy jr. speaks out against a vaccination bill at a Sacramento rally.
(Rich Pedroncell)

I don’t quite understand Robert Kennedy Jr., smart and dedicated environmental lawyer, scion of a revered political family—and opponent of required vaccinations.

Look, there are plenty of anti-vaxxers—though Kennedy doesn’t quite fit in that category, having had his own kids vaccinated—but I can understand their reasoning, even if it isn’t grounded in science.

Kennedy is another matter. You’d never know it from the show he put on in Sacramento—a movie and rousing speech about what he views as potential dangers of vaccination, which he credits with stopping a vaccination bill in Oregon--but his reasons for deriding vaccinations are quite different.

As he put it in materials sent to me, his concern is about thimerosal, the preservative that used to be contained in children’s vaccines. Even in trace amounts, he said, and despite the consensus of science, thimerosal is not safe and journalists have bought too much into the establishment argument that has downplayed or denied these risks.


But that’s not the point. If Kennedy’s big quarrel is with thimerosal, and it hasn’t been in children’s vaccines for years, what’s his beef with SB 277 by state Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), which would require the vaccinations among all children except those with a valid medical reason for not getting them? (The preservative is still found in trace amounts in some flu shots, but those aren’t part of the required schedule of vaccines, and in any case, it’s easy for parents to find flu shots without thimerosal.)

His response: “I want to make it clear that my primary interest is not in defeating senator Pan’s bill.” Go figure. It sure seemed like his primary objective at his presentation, and at an appearance in the Capitol when he flat-out asked legislators not to pass the bill in its current form and to preserve the ability of parents to choose whether to vaccinate.

His presentation, as described in the Sacramento Bee, skirted the thimerosal question and whether current childhood vaccines are very safe and extremely effective—they are both, and it certainly sounds as though Kennedy understands this—to raise the specter of how manufacturers could conceivably put other ingredients in their products in the future. I have no idea why they would want to. They have a product that works right now. And right now is when people are being sickened by measles because vaccination rates are dipping too low.

Kennedy is going in logical circles on the question of childhood vaccines. He’s making great shows, but so far he’s not making great sense.


Not all children can be vaccinated. Some are too frail physically, and these are the children especially at risk of serious side effects from catching childhood diseases. In some children, the vaccine simply doesn’t take. These children’s health depends on vaccination of those around them. The Senate Health Committee is considering SB 277 this afternoon, and its provisions to eliminate the personal belief and religious exemptions that have allowed so many parents to skirt a law meant to safeguard public health. Protect kids, senators, and pass the bill.

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