Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina was asked Thursday during a campaign stop in Iowa about her stance on vaccines. “Parents should have a choice,” she told a mother who didn’t want to vaccinate her child. Later, in a conversation with reporters afterwards, she explained her stance on the issue. “When you have highly communicable diseases where you have a vaccine that’s proven, like measles or mumps, then I think a parent can make that choice,” she said.
Based off those two remarks, media outlets went nuts, especially liberal ones. “Carly Fiorina Comes Out in Favor of Kids Getting Measles,” wrote Slate. “Carly Fiorina Against Vaccine Mandates,” wrote Talking Points Memo. “Oh Look, Carly Fiorina Is a Vaccine Truther,” wrote BlueNationReview.
But all of the above headlines were wrong or misleading. In the full quote, Fiorina makes it clear that she does support mandatory vaccination [emphasis added]:
“When you have highly communicable diseases where you have a vaccine that’s proven, like measles or mumps, then I think a parent can make that choice, but then I think a school district is well within their rights to say, ‘I’m sorry, your child cannot then attend public school.’ So a parent has to make that trade-off.
I think when we’re talking about some of these more esoteric immunizations, then I think absolutely a parent should have a choice and a school district shouldn’t be able to say, ‘Sorry, your kid can’t come to school’ for a disease that’s not communicable, that’s not contagious, and where there really isn’t any proof that they’re necessary at this point.
Taken in context, Fiorina’s statement ought to be uncontroversial. In fact, her stance pretty well sums up the state of vaccine law in all 50 states, where vaccines are not mandatory for all children, but mandatory before they are allowed to attend public school (and private schools and preschools, depending on the state).
In the strictest sense, it is true that Fiorina does not support “mandatory vaccination,” since she believes the law should not force ALL children to be vaccinated. But using that definition, virtually all politicians are anti-mandatory vaccination. The debate over “mandatory vaccination” in the United States has always has been about whether vaccination should be mandatory for children attending schools, not whether the government should (more problematically) force a medical procedure on every single American child.
Perhaps complicating the matter is that Fiorina also opposed a 2010 California law eliminating exemptions for parents who didn’t want to vaccinate their children. But that was because the law also eliminated religious exemptions. There is a debate to be had about when and how the law should create religious exemptions to generally applicable laws, but again, Fiorina’s stance is no different from the 47 states that allow religious exemptions to the vaccine requirement.
Most outlets covering Fiorina’s statement by focusing on her quote about giving parents a choice on vaccines, but only mentioned her comments about the schools is passing. Other outlets quoted Fiorina’s full statement, but inaccurately treated her stance as though it were out of the political mainstream. But the worst were outlets like Slate that cut Fiorina’s statement in half and didn’t report the part about schools at all.
When Slate’s Jessica Winter was called out on the parsed quote by the Fiorina campaign, she added a correction dripping with sarcasm:
Fiorina’s campaign has asked us to include the rest of Fiorina’s quotation, as follows: “—but then I think a school district is well within their rights to say: ‘I’m sorry, your child cannot then attend public school.’ So a parent has to make that trade-off.” Unvaccinated children are presumably free in this scenario to pursue opportunities to spread measles and mumps in all other locations that are not public schools. Fiorina does not think that public schools should be able to make such judgment calls when it comes to “more esoteric immunizations.”
You sure showed them, Jessica. How dare a campaign demand you not blatantly misquote their boss?
Of course, it’s not often one sees a mischaracterization within a correction for a mischaracterization. Fiorina did indeed say she opposed requiring “esoteric immunizations,” but the context made clear she was talking about “a disease that’s not communicable, that’s not contagious.” The entire logic (and legal justification) behind mandated vaccines is that parents are legally allowed to make bad decisions about their children’s health, but not vaccinating against certain diseases puts public health at risk.
But a child without a tetanus shot, to give one example, poses no risk to other children, because tetanus can’t be spread person-to-person. The state has as much justification for demanding children have tetanus shots as they do for demanding they eat broccoli or exercise daily: i.e. none. Accordingly, zero states require that children have tetanus shots to attend public schools, even though all experts say children should have them.
In short, Fiorina’s beliefs fall well within the political and medical mainstream. The media’s attempt to turn her comments into something akin to Rand Paul’s (or Barack Obama’s) flirtation with the idea that vaccines caused autism is unfair. It’s unfair to Fiorina, but also to all those who attempt to discuss a multifaceted issue with any sort of nuance.
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