Vaccine Skeptics in U.S. Find Unexpected Allies in Conservative Republicans

Vaccination politics erupted into the national spotlight when three Republican presidential contenders seemed to side with parents who oppose vaccinating their children.

Nicholas Riccardi
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A measles vaccine is seen at Venice Family Clinic in Los Angeles, California February 5, 2015. Credit: Reuters
Nicholas Riccardi

AP - Vaccine skeptics in the United States are finding unexpected allies in conservative Republicans in their effort to fight laws that would force more parents to inoculate their children.

Though the stereotype of an American vaccine skeptic is a coastal, back-to-the-land type, it's generally been Democratic-controlled states that have tightened vaccination laws. This week, Democrats in two of those states — California, where a measles outbreak was traced to Disneyland, and Washington state — proposed eliminating laws that allow parents to opt out of vaccination for personal reasons.

Meanwhile, in Maine, Republicans are objecting to a similar effort. In Minnesota, only Democrats have signed on to sponsor a bill to make it harder to avoid vaccinating children. And last year in Colorado, it was largely Republicans who squashed an effort to force parents to get a physician's approval if they chose not to inoculate their kids.

"This boils down to, does the government force everyone to conform or do we empower everyone to make decisions on their own?" said Colorado state Sen. Kevin Lundberg, a Republican who did not fully vaccinate his children and led the fight against last year's bill.

This year, Colorado Republicans introduced a bill stating that parents have the right to make all medical decisions for their children, legislation that was cheered by vaccination opponents Thursday at a hearing.

Vaccination politics erupted into the national spotlight this week when three Republican presidential contenders — New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and former Hewlett-Packer CEO Carly Fiorina — seemed to side with parents who oppose vaccinating their children.

Several other prominent Republicans including House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner spoke out in support of vaccinations, and conservatives noted that Hillary Clinton told an anti-vaccine group in 2008 that she wanted more research into the discredited theory that inoculations cause autism.

American skepticism toward vaccinations dates back at least to the Revolutionary War, when George Washington was initially reluctant to inoculate his troops against smallpox.

"There is a long history to the fight against vaccination, and it does seem to break down along liberal versus conservative lines," said Kent Schwirian, a sociology professor at Ohio State University. He surveyed people during a 2009 swine flu scare, asking whether they would get vaccinated, and found that conservatives who distrusted government were less likely to support inoculation.

Modern-day vaccine skeptics are hard to pigeonhole politically.

"We're the bridge between the granola moms and the stiletto moms," said Dotty Hagmier, a nurse whose group Moms In Charge includes vaccine skeptics.

A Pew poll found that Republicans are slightly more likely than Democrats to oppose vaccine mandates. In legislatures, the issue has not been purely partisan, with some Democrats joining Republicans to fight vaccine requirements and some Republicans pushing to increase vaccinations.

The administration of Michigan Republican Gov. Rick Snyder last year required parents to go to the state health department before they could skip vaccinations for their children. In Vermont, Democrats and Republicans alike scaled down a bill in 2012 that would have limited parents' options. Still, people on both sides see a divide forming.

Diane Peterson of the Immunization Action Coalition, which tracks vaccination legislation nationwide, said she has had difficulty getting Republicans to sign onto a bill to expand vaccinations in her home state of Minnesota.

"I don't feel this should be a partisan issue in any way, and it's disturbing that it is," Peterson said.

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