Earlier this week, Marianne Williamson, one of too many 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, told a crowd of her supporters in New Hampshire that mandatory vaccination is “draconian” and “Orwellian,” and she co-opted pro-choice rhetoric to describe her position. “The U.S. government doesn’t tell any citizen, in my book, what they have to do with their body or their child,” Williamson said.
The next day, Williamson walked back the comparison via tweeted screenshot, saying that she misspoke and that she was sorry to have made comments that “sounded as though [she] questioned the validity of lifesaving vaccines.” Still, her statement echoed her previous comments’ legitimization of so-called “vaccine skepticism,” a stance the actress Jessica Biel also took in recent days. In explaining her position, Biel wrote on Instagram that she “believe[s] in giving doctors and the families they treat the ability to decide what’s best for their patients.”
It seems that those opposed to mandatory vaccination, as Biel and Williamson both seem to be, have caught on that “anti-vaxx” is an undesirable categorization. It may also be an incomplete one: Though the number of people who are ideologically opposed to vaccination is vanishingly small (1 to 2 percent, according to research), significantly more state that they have “serious concerns” about vaccination — it’s this group that most worries public-health experts.
Although 25 to 30 percent of parents have “serious concerns” about vaccines, most of these still vaccinate their children, says Daniel Salmon, a professor in the Department of International Health at Johns Hopkins University and director of the Institute for Vaccine Safety. Salmon worries, however, that evolving anti-vaccine rhetoric could further mislead and frighten that group. Activists now “say they’re for safe vaccines or informed decision-making because that’s something everybody’s for,” says Salmon. “People that have concerns can easily be swayed not to vaccinate, and I’m concerned that the next time there’s a vaccine-safety scare, these parents may start not vaccinating.”
Paul Offit, a pediatrician at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia who specializes in infectious diseases and vaccines, tells me he supports parents’ genuine skepticism regarding what goes into their children’s bodies. If a child is healthy, then gets a vaccine, then gets sick, he says, it’s only natural to wonder if the vaccine may be responsible. And Eula Biss, the author of On Immunity, has argued that vaccine skepticism often aligns with skepticism of the for-profit pharmaceutical industry, a distrust that many consider justified and rational. But there are those who are underinformed, and then there are those like Biel and Williamson, whose remarks are complicit in spreading misinformation.
There are many areas of medicine in which questions remain, but the question of a link between the MMR vaccine and autism has been answered — and conclusively debunked. “Eighteen studies done in seven different countries in three different continents involving millions have answered the question,” says Offit. “You are no more likely to get autism if you get that vaccine.” In positioning themselves as vaccine “skeptics,” people like Williamson and Biel lend support to the false belief that such questions are still unresolved.
“When people look at those data and say they don’t believe them, they’re not vaccine skeptics anymore; they’re vaccine cynics,” says Offit. “I would argue they’re vaccine conspiracy theorists.”