Politics

2016 Presidential Race Begins With Vaccination Debate

| by Will Hagle

Due to the recent measles outbreak as well as the outspokenness of some anti-vaccine doctors, immunization has become a strangely political issue. It’s also factoring into the early stages of the 2016 presidential race, with potential candidates voicing their varying opinions regarding the issue. While most presidential hopefuls have claimed they support vaccination in their private, family lives, some members of the GOP have emphasized the limited role government should play in parents' decisions.  

The current President has expressed his support for measles immunization amidst the ongoing outbreak. “I understand there are families that in some cases are concerned about the effect of vaccinations. The science is, you know, pretty indisputable. We’ve looked at this again and again. There is every reason to get vaccinated, but there aren’t reasons to not,” President Obama said to TODAY. “You should get your kids vaccinated. It’s good for them, but we should be able to get back to the point where measles effectively is not existing in this country.”

Obama's latest budget proposal would also cut $50 million in funding for the federal immunization program beginning in 2016. The President has justified those cuts by claiming alternative methods of funding are available for citizens through the Affordable Care Act. The current federal vaccine budget is $611 million for 2015. Obama’s comments regarding the measles outbreak and his budget proposal represent his support for vaccinations, but also emphasize the fact that parents ultimately have the choice whether or not to administer the vaccinations to their children. Obama recommends that all children be vaccinated, but still acknowledges that not all parents agree with his views. 

Sen. Rand Paul, a potential 2016 presidential candidate, offered a somewhat similar yet more cautious view than President Obama. “I’ve heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines,” Paul said. He then amended his statement to explain that he personally views vaccination in a positive light. “I’m not arguing vaccines are a bad idea. I think they’re a good thing. But I think the parents should have some input,” he said. This cautious statement — an acknowledgement of the anti-vaccination movement’s legitimacy despite personally disagreeing with it — is another demonstration of Paul’s libertarian form of conservatism. He personally supports vaccination, but he doesn’t think the government should play a role in that decision. Prior to joining the Senate, Paul worked as an opthamologist. 

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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, another likely 2016 candidate, took a similar position to Paul. He emphasized that parents should be given the freedom of choice when it comes to vaccinations. Like Paul and Obama, Christie also claimed that his personal view is that vaccinations are effective. He described the choice to vaccinate his own children as “the best expression I can give you of my opinion.” That statement, too, was amended. “But,” Christie said, “I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well. So that’s the balance that the government has to decide.”

Dr. Ben Carson has been the GOP’s most level-headed voice on the issue of immunization, striking a balance between individual freedom and public health and safety. “Although I strongly believe in individual rights and the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit, I also recognize that public health and public safety are extremely important in our society. Certain communicable diseases have been largely eradicated by immunization policies in this country, and we should not allow those diseases to return by foregoing safe immunization programs, for philosophical, religious or other reasons, when we have the means to eradicate them,” said Carson, who worked as a neurosurgeon prior to his political career. 

On the opposite end of the political spectrum, Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton fought back against her GOP rivals. In one simple tweet, she pointed out the fallacies of the anti-vaccine movement. “The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let’s protect all our kids. #GrandmothersKnowBest,” the tweet read. 

Vaccinations are a political issue because every state currently has laws requiring certain vaccinations for children prior to enrolling in school. Twenty of those states have provisions allowing parents to submit waivers in order to opt-out for medical or religious reasons, but the general consensus is that the government recommends all children obtain the necessary immunizations. It’s a public health issue, as failing to vaccinate a child could put other children at an unnecessarily increased risk. As Obama has said, “the science is, you know, pretty indisputable.”

But pretty indisputable isn’t enough, and many parents will continue to object to vaccinations for the philosophical and moral reasons Carson mentioned. Whether those reasons should be considered valid despite scientific and medical research indicating otherwise has become an unlikely centerpiece in the early stages of the 2016 presidential debates. The debate is unlikely to continue as the campaign progresses, as it’s only being discussed right now due to the recent measles outbreak. But the fact that politicians are weighing in with their varying viewpoints on a controversial political issue indicates that the 2016 race is already well underway.