New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a likely Republican presidential candidate, is known for his strong opinions and booming voice.
But on the issue of vaccinations, he has gone wobbly. Asked by reporters in England about the recent measles outbreak in the U.S., which has been linked to children whose parents didn't have them immunized, Christie said:
"It's more important what you think as a parent than what you think as a public official. I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well. So that's the balance that the government has to decide."
Back in the U.S., Christie's comments were met with an immediate backlash. A few hours later, he attempted to walk them back in this tweet:
Christie's reluctance to take a strong stance against the anti-vaccination movement — which is based on a scientifically rejected link between disorders like autism and childhood immunization — cut a stark contrast with the message President Barack Obama delivered in response to a similar question less than 24 hours earlier.
"You should get your kids vaccinated," Obama said in a pre-Super Bowl interview on NBC. "I understand that there are families that, in some cases, are concerned about the effect of vaccinations," but that "the science is, you know, pretty indisputable."
Indeed, the most prominent study to link vaccines to autism in children has since been debunked, retracted and declared an "elaborate fraud." No reputable doctor or medical scientist has produced any meaningful evidence to suggest that vaccinating one's child isn't only safe, but an important step in preventing the spread of preventable diseases like measles.
Politicizing the vaccine fight: During the great American Ebola non-crisis of 2014, Christie ordered a nurse who had worked with infected patients in West Africa to be quarantined against her will.
"This is government's job," Christie told Fox News at the time. "We have taken this action, and I have no second thoughts about it."
Back then, like in his comments Monday, the governor rejected medical evidence in order to make a political statement. And while we should take Christie at his (revised) word and believe that he understands vaccines work, his comments point to a dangerous new framing of an increasingly heated "debate."
(Christie's actions in going from wildly over-cautious with the "Ebola nurse" to dangerously careless on the matter of vaccinations is good fodder for partisan pundits. But it elides the more serious issue at stake.)
In first advocating for parents' "choice" on the question of immunizing their kids and then, in his second statement, nodding to the discretion of the "states," Christie has cast the fight in recognizable political terms. In doing so, the governor delivers a level of undeserved legitimacy to the idea that choosing to skip vaccinations can be anything other than grossly irresponsible and downright stupid.
Luckily, the loudest voices on the right have so far remained responsible in their reporting. Rather than chase ideological points, they've reserved their ire for prominent entertainment industry figures — Jenny McCarthy and Alicia Silverstone leading the way — who have for years been spreading misinformation about vaccines. That the recent measles outbreak took place at California's Disneyland played into an equally familiar but ultimately less dangerous "Blame Hollywood" narrative.
But as the outbreaks pile up and more of society's least responsible actors, like Glenn Beck, join the fray, the issue will move away from this mostly reasonable middle ground. By suggesting this is somehow an issue for the "states," Christie opened the floodgates to a particular kind of conservative political argument steeped in the idea that even something decent and useful, like mandatory vaccinations, is a government overreach to be fought at all costs.
Danger ahead: Ultimately, choosing not to immunize one's children is more than the "personal decision" some "anti-vaxxers" claim for themselves. As we've seen in the past few months, those decisions can carry dire consequences for at-risk families trying to do the right thing. The parents of children with weakened immune systems shouldn't have to fear sending their kids outside because an unvaccinated boy or girl has been playing in a shared sandbox.
Reckless behavior behind the wheel of a car is prohibited by law. Politicians should follow that model and punish similar negligence among parents who reject simple science and choose to endanger entire communities of children. For Christie, whatever his political ambitions, this is an issue he simply cannot risk treating as anything less than deadly serious.