little green footballs

Vox Misrepresents Obama's 2008 Vaccination Stance

Mon, Feb 2, 2015 at 12:08:24 pm

Today we find "explanatory journalism" site Vox digging up a quote by Barack Obama from 2008 and using it to argue that Obama Supports Vaccines Now -- but Pandered to Anti-Vaxxers in 2008.

Chris Christie has come under fire for remarks suggesting that parents should have a choice in which vaccines their children do and don't receive. Those remarks got fierce pushback from public health officials, but it turns out Christie isn't the only one who has questioned the validity of vaccines. Both President Obama and Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) did so during their presidential runs in 2008. Brendan Nyhan at Dartmouth noted their remarks at the time:

"We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it."

--Barack Obama, Pennsylvania Rally, April 21, 2008.

"It's indisputable that (autism) is on the rise among children, the question is what's causing it. And we go back and forth and there's strong evidence that indicates it's got to do with a preservative in vaccines."

--John McCain, Texas town hall meeting, February 29, 2008.

This is the exact right moment to note: the science that disproves a link between autism and vaccines (particularly the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine) is not inconclusive. It wasn't back in 2008 when McCain and Obama made these remarks -- and it has become even more solid in the eight years since then.

Is this quote accurate? Yes -- but it's not the end of the story at all. In fact, it's a misrepresentation of Obama's views. Because when asked directly about his opinion on vaccination, here's what Obama said:

Well, here's a rare bit of good news in the endless tedium that has become the U.S. election. It appears that Barack Obama has ticked off the antivaccine contingent. I know, I know, I said I would try to lay off this topic for a few days, but this is just too amusing. Apparently, he's gone a long way towards redeeming himself for his previous gaffe when it came to vaccines and autism, and the antivaccine zealots over at Age of Autism are all in a tizzy over it:

Last Friday evening, September 5, 2008, I had the opportunity to ask Senator Barack Obama about childhood vaccine safety/choice. His response, "I am not for selective vaccination, I believe that it will bring back deadly diseases, like polio."

He went onto say in so many words that he is for more science and the funding of more science if it's needed. (His science response is fuzzy, as his first response stunned me for a second). I previously gave his staffer a folder of information on vaccines. The Senator promised me that he would take a look at it.

And that's not the only misrepresentation in this Vox article. From the book "Vaccine: The Debate in Modern America:"

Two months after McCain's statement, the Washington Post reported that then-Senator Barack Obama made a similar claim as he campaigned for the Democratic nomination for president. Speaking at a rally in Pennsyvania, Obama said, "We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it."

A later analysis demonstrated that when Obama said, "this person included," he was referring to the person who had asked a question, not himself, and that Obama believed that vaccinations were necessary to the health of the nation.

Bottom line: the author of that Vox article did some very sloppy research; found a quote and jumped to conclusions about it, without looking any further.

UPDATE at 2/2/15 1:08:17 pm by Charles Johnson

Here's video of Obama's complete statement, and it's much more pro-vaccine than is being reported. (h/t: Gus.)

YouTube

"We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Nobody knows exactly why. There are some people who are suspicious that it's connected to vaccines and triggers, but (pointing to his right) this person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it. Part of the reason I think it's very important to research it is those vaccines are also preventing huge numbers of deaths among children and preventing debilitating illnesses like Polio. And so we can't afford to junk our vaccine system. We've got to figure out why is it that this is happening so that we are starting to see a more normal, what was a normal, rate of autism. Because if we keep on seeing increases at the rate we're seeing we're never going to have enough money to provide all the special needs, special education funding that's going to be necessary."

DATE: April 21, 2008
LOCATION: Blue Bell, PA

Please note that when Obama said, "the science right now is inconclusive," he was referring to research into the causes of autism -- not to a vaccine-autism link.

UPDATE at 2/2/15 1:19:50 pm by Charles Johnson

And now this misrepresentation of Obama's position is being repeated by Politico: In 2008, President Obama Was 'Suspicious' of Vaccines.

UPDATE at 2/2/15 5:56:19 pm by Charles Johnson

Thanks to LA Times columnist Michael Hiltzik for picking up on this story: No, Obama Didn't 'Pander to Anti-Vaxxers' in 2008.

A viewing of the video from that appearance shows that interpretation is dead wrong. He contradicted the anti-vaccination viewpoint, and spoke out forthrightly and squarely in favor of childhood immunization and pretty much dismissed the autism link. Kudos to Charles Johnson of Little Green Footballs for setting the record straight.