Jessica Biel steps into vaccine debate as other celebrities fear the ‘anti-vax’ label
Jessica Biel may have thought she could quietly slip into California’s Capitol this week to lobby against a bill to tighten vaccine requirements without damage to her brand or reputation. But the massive online response to her visit demonstrated how public opinion has shifted since celebrities last waded into the vaccination debate.
Biel, who is married to Justin Timberlake, posed for selfies with lawmakers in their offices Tuesday and greeted others on the red-carpeted Senate floor, where an electronic message board welcomed her. But the moment her Capitol companion — anti-vaccine advocate Robert F. Kennedy Jr. — posted pictures online of the actress’ lobbying efforts, a public that overwhelmingly supports mandatory vaccinations unleashed an avalanche of criticism.
That kind of lashing may be one reason that celebrities active in opposing state immunization legislation in 2015 — Jenny McCarthy, Jim Carrey, Alicia Silverstone and Jenna Elfman among them — have hesitated to join Biel in publicly lobbying against this year’s legislation.
“She can’t help but get this kind of backlash,” said UC Riverside medical sociologist Richard Carpiano, who studies vaccine hesitancy. “She did kind of show up late to the party, at a very bad time to be doing it.”
A decade ago, celebrities played a key role in stoking vaccine suspicions, and experts say those seeds of doubt contributed to a decline in childhood immunization rates.
Actress Amanda Peet, in an interview Thursday, said the atmosphere felt different when she began championing vaccines in 2008. Peet said people sent her hate mail and she even lost friends in Hollywood and elsewhere by being out-front with her support of immunizations. Celebrities in particular tend to have an anti-corporate mentality, she said, that makes them suspicious of pharmaceutical companies — and anyone with pro-vaccine views.
That sentiment has shifted. Experts say an anti-vaccine stance has become particularly unpopular this year as the nation grapples with a major measles outbreak that has infected more than 1,000 Americans. The result is that vaccine advocates such as Peet haven’t felt the need to speak out as much as they have in the past.
“I felt like the tides were turning and scientists and medical professionals were starting to be heard,” Peet said Thursday. “I don’t meet that many people who are afraid of vaccines now.”
Still, a bill this year in the state Legislature has prompted vaccine-wary parents to show up by the hundreds to protest and attend hearings, reminiscent of past vaccine debates. The bill passed the Senate last month and now faces an uncertain future in the Assembly.
SB 276 by Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) would make it more difficult for doctors to exempt children from shots required to attend school. The bill would allow the state Department of Public Health to decide whether the underlying condition cited by a doctor warrants a medical exemption from all or some vaccinations. Pan, a medical doctor, contends that some unscrupulous physicians are profiting off granting unneeded exemptions.
“I think it’s unfortunate that celebrities who have a platform, not because of their expertise in health or medicine or public health, weigh in on issues that will actually endanger children and endanger our safety. I think that’s irresponsible,” Pan said Thursday. “Clearly they have sway. That’s why advertisers pay them for endorsements and other things.”
Celebrities have a long history of trying to sway California legislation, particularly on social matters. Often their visits to the Capitol result in photo ops but little real controversy, such as when Kim Kardashian showed up Sacramento this year to advocate for criminal justice reform.
Vaccines are a different story.
After Biel’s lobbying trended Wednesday on Twitter, she was pressured to clarify her unclear position on the legislation. She posted on Instagram on Thursday that she supports children getting vaccines but opposes the bill because of her views on the parent-doctor relationship.
“That’s why I spoke to legislators and argued against this bill,” she added. “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.”
The post had more than 12,000 comments as of Thursday evening, more than any of her other recent ones. Though Biel may have gained new followers because of it, many criticized her.
Comedian Jen Kirkman went after Biel in a harsh tweet Thursday morning, one that has since been removed: “People are dying due to anti-vaxxers and your ignorance will contribute to that death toll,” she wrote.
The shift toward a more pro-vaccine stance has been a long time coming, experts say. A measles outbreak at Disneyland in 2015 probably clarified the importance of vaccines for Californians, said UC Hastings law professor Dorit Reiss, who studies vaccine legislation.
Reiss also linked the shift to a major blow to the anti-vaccine movement in 2010.
Many parents’ reluctance to vaccinate their children was sparked by a 1998 paper by British scientist Andrew Wakefield that connected vaccines and autism. But in 2010, the Lancet journal, which had published the Wakefield paper, retracted the study, officially debunking the myth.
“People naturally asked, ‘What else are we being lied to about by the anti-vaccine movement?’” said Reiss.
In the United States, lawmakers had the most success in passing anti-vaccine legislation in the first five years after the 1998 study came out, according to a 2014 paper that tracked the success of pro- and anti-vaccine legislation. But the scientists identified 2011, the year following the Lancet retraction, as a turning point, when bills tightening vaccine laws began to succeed in legislatures, marking a victory for pro-vaccine forces.
Reiss recalled that the first major pushback to a celebrity espousing anti-vaccine beliefs was in 2013, when Katie Couric interviewed a mother who said her daughter died from the HPV vaccine. Many newspapers, including The Times, published pieces criticizing Couric.
“It was a strong, concentrated backlash — that was a big change, because before that we had seen a lot of celebrities, Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy, talking about vaccines, and there was little to no pushback,” Reiss said.
A Public Policy Institute of California poll released this month found that 73% of Californians believe parents should have to vaccinate their children against diseases like measles. The survey found that 62% of Californians believe vaccines are very safe, compared with 57% in 2015.
Elisa Sobo, anthropology chair at San Diego State who has studied the social aspects of vaccine decisions, said Biel seems to be aware that questioning the importance of vaccines is an unpopular stance and is trying to steer clear of the anti-vaccine label.
“So if we’re going to call these anti-vax people crazy, and I still want to hold my position, I just relabel myself,” Sobo said. “I’m not an extremist, I’m a reasonable person, you should talk to me ... so they don’t bring her into the bin with all the other tinfoil-hat people.”
Those who oppose the bill say pushback is their major challenge. Some Sacramento insiders say they are hesitant to raise any concerns about the bill because they fear being labeled an anti-vaxxer. Gov. Gavin Newsom found himself defending his record supporting vaccines — and explaining that his own children are vaccinated — after he questioned whether the bill interfered in the doctor-patient relationship.
“I’m a parent; I don’t want someone that the governor of California appointed to make a decision for my family,” Newsom said this month.
Opponents of the bill latched onto his comments, particularly Kennedy, who posted a picture of himself with the governor and thanked him for “his wise and sober opposition to a draconian proposal.” Newsom has not publicly stated his position on the bill.
The fact that Kennedy could set up a meeting with Newsom irked Leah Russin of Vaccinate California, which supports the bill. Although the photo was taken in January before the vaccine bill was introduced, Russin said it shows the power of celebrities in being able to set up meetings with key political figures who would otherwise delegate the task to staff.
“The people whose opinions matter should be the doctors and the doctors overwhelmingly support this bill,” Russin said. “When celebrities want to engage on a matter, they should hand their microphone to the experts.”
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