Did Obama Actually Link Vaccines to Autism?

It didn’t take long after New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s remarks on vaccines yesterday for the Google hive to dredge up a comment from then-candidate Barack Obama appearing to entertain the possible link between vaccines and autism. The quote just as quickly made its ceremonious appearance in comments sections everywhere, under the time-honored internet tradition of “Oh yeah? The other side does it, too!”

“We’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate,” Obama said at a Pennsylvania town-hall style campaign stop in April 2008. “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.”

That was spotted at the time by political scientist Brendan Nyhan, who’s written plenty of good stuff on vaccines, and who faulted the president for remarks.

The first problem: on paper that looks as though Obama is including himself in that group. But video of the remarks, as Mediaite pointed out yesterday, shows he was pointing at someone in the crowd when he said that line:

(Nyhan has since updated his blog to reflect this, but not altered his overall judgment of the comments.)

But that still leaves Obama claiming the research on the vaccine-autism link was “inconclusive,” though it had been thoroughly debunked by 2004.

Or did he? Los Angeles Times’ Michael Hiltzik thinks Obama was referring to the “skyrocketing autism rate” when he said “the science right now is inconclusive,” which would make Obama’s comment a “you didn’t build that”-style situation in which the substance of the quote pivots on a syntactical ambiguity.

Here’s the full quote, via Little Green Footballs’ Charles Johnson, which places Obama in a much more pro-vaccine light:

“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.”

As Johnson points out, a few months later Obama unequivocally endorsed vaccines, stating, “I am not for selective vaccination, I believe that it will bring back deadly diseases, like polio,” a comment that angered anti-vaxxers at the time.

None of this (unlike the research debunking the autism-vaccine link) is conclusive:

It should be noted that Obama’s disputed comment was seen by some as “pandering” to the anti-vaccination community at the time, suggesting the current dustup is not solely the product of partisan hindsight. That having been said, it seems odd that a candidate otherwise so pro-vaccine would, for the space of a clause, consider a fringe theory about them. Nyhan, for his part, still thinks primary-era Obama was being intentionally squishy with his wording, a compelling reading.

In short, there’s enough there to salvage the “Oh yeah? The other side does it, too!” rhetorical move, if that’s your thing, though any serious attempt to argue an Obama-vaccine-autism link is pretty thin gruel. Or we could all content ourselves with Obama’s statement on the subject yesterday: “You should get your kids vaccinated.” No syntactical ambiguity there.

[Image via screengrab]

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