the war on science

Jill Stein Needs to Shut the Anti-Vaxxers Down

Jill Stein.
Jill Stein. Photo: Getty Images

Now that Bernie Sanders is out of the race, some of his supporters have turned to the Green Party’s candidate for president, Dr. Jill Stein, as a third-party savior. But Stein is proving to be problematic on one very specific topic: vaccines.

In fact, Stein’s on-record vaccine positions are so unclear that there is now a Snopes article trying to get to the bottom of them. And in an election in which Hillary Clinton has to bluntly state “I believe in science,” these things matter. So why the confusion?

First off, it’s worth mentioning that Stein is a medical doctor, who practiced internal medicine for over 25 years. She was educated at Harvard University and Harvard Medical School, so she’s highly trained and well educated. She definitely knows that vaccines have saved million of lives and largely eradicated several horrible diseases in the process.

And she also must know that, in recent years, a small but growing community of people, commonly called “anti-vaxxers,” have decided, based on no real evidence, that young children in particular can go without vaccines. Some anti-vaxxers distrust the medical establishment; some distrust the government; some are just afraid of putting non-“natural” substances into our bodies. Many of them cite a single study linking vaccines to autism — one that has been debunked roughly a million times. Choosing not to vaccinate your child is a dangerous and ill-advised medical choice, one that, though legal (if you want to either home-school or file for the increasingly hard-to-come-by religious exemption), endangers everyone.

But late last week, during a Reddit AMA, Stein revealed some troubling thoughts:

I think there’s no question that vaccines have been absolutely critical in ridding us of the scourge of many diseases — smallpox, polio, etc. So vaccines are an invaluable medication. Like any medication, they also should be — what shall we say? — approved by a regulatory board that people can trust. And I think right now, that is the problem. That people do not trust a Food and Drug Administration, or even the CDC for that matter, where corporate influence and the pharmaceutical industry has a lot of influence.

She also went on record to say:

As a medical doctor, there was a time where I looked very closely at those issues, and not all those issues were completely resolved. There were concerns among physicians about what the vaccination schedule meant, the toxic substances like mercury which used to be rampant in vaccines. There were real questions that needed to be addressed. I think some of them at least have been addressed. I don’t know if all of them have been addressed.

Both of these comments suggest that Dr. Stein is either ill-informed or willfully disingenuous. The small amount of mercury in vaccines was rarely problematic and not toxic. And while it’s true that some people don’t trust the CDC or the FDA, they haven’t been given strong reasons not to: Their mistrust seems to be almost wholly based on a secondary reaction to a mistrust of vaccines, not the other way around.

The problem here is not that Dr. Stein believes vaccines are harmful or that they don’t work. The problem is that she seems to be trying to please anti-vaxxers by giving voice to their concerns and — as a well-respected medical doctor running for president — legitimizing them.

Evidence that Dr. Stein knows what she is doing mounted over the weekend, when she responded to a tweet asking for clarification about her stance. Initially, Stein tweeted, “There is no evidence that autism is caused by vaccines.”

Soon, though, her definitive statement was deleted and replaced with: “I’m not aware of evidence linking autism with vaccines.”

The nitty-gritty details of the statements really matter. The first tweet was pretty straightforward: Sorry, there’s no evidence to support that unscientific opinion about autism and vaccines. The second is a lot more vague, almost as if Stein were worried about alienating anti-vaxxers. Stein keeps tweeting the Snopes article to prove she isn’t opposed to vaccines, but she stops short of telling her supporters that there aren’t any legitimate concerns about their safety at this point. There’s no way to know if she’s intentionally muddying these already very dirty waters — but she’s certainly not doing what she could to clarify them.

We expect politicians to hedge a bit, even when they’re members of the Green Party. But doctors should know better than to play with wording so as not to offend a lunatic fringe. The fact that Dr. Stein is doing this makes her unfit to be president.