Rand Paul's Vaccine Problem

He and Chris Christie are trying to have it both ways.

"Calm down a bit here, Kelly." (National Journal)

Sen. Rand Paul thinks vaccines are great. But that doesn't mean he thinks people should have to use them.

Appearing on CNBC on Monday, Paul doubled down on comments he made to Laura Ingraham earlier in the day saying that he thinks vaccine use is a "personal decision."

"I think vaccines are one of the greatest medical breakthroughs that we have," Paul told CNBC's Kelly Evans Monday evening. "I'm a big fan and a great fan of the history of the development of the smallpox vaccine, for example. But you know, for most of our history, they have been voluntary. So I don't think I'm arguing for anything out of the ordinary. We are arguing for what most of our history has had."

By making this argument in the midst of a measles resurgence, both Paul and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are trying to have it both ways: to emphasize that, no, they would never dispute the science behind vaccines, while at the same time winking at anti-vaxxers who put a premium on having the choice to not vaccinate their kids.

Unsurprisingly, the overall tone of Paul's CNBC interview was fairly combative—at one point, while discussing something else, Paul held a finger up to his mouth and literally shushed Evans. The two main points of Paul's argument pertained to newborn safety and historical precedent—two factors that are not as relevant to the vaccination debate as they may seem.

Here is Paul's full reasoning for why he opposes mandatory vaccination:

"I don't think there is anything extraordinary about resorting to freedom. I'll give you a good example. The Hepatitis B vaccine is now given to newborns. We sometimes give five and six vaccines all at one time. I chose to have my delayed. I don't want the government telling me that I have to give my newborn Hepatitis B vaccine, which is transmitted by sexually transmitted disease and/or blood transfusions. Do I ultimately think it is a good idea? Yeah. And so I had my staggered over several months. I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines. I'm not arguing vaccines are a bad idea. I think they are a good thing, but I think the parent should have some input. The state doesn't own your children. Parents own the children. And it is an issue of freedom and public health."

The case against newborn vaccinations is a familiar argument, and one that Paul's father, Ron Paul, has made before. In 2007, the elder Paul argued that "bunching" vaccines together can be dangerous for infants' health.

"I think the doctors have gotten to the point where they give too many, too often," Ron Paul said at the time. "They bunch 'em together—four, five of these vaccines together—and they overwhelm the immune system."

That claim simply does not stand up to scrutiny. "Numerous studies have found no link between getting the recommended schedule of vaccines and getting other diseases later in childhood," Popular Science reported. "There's no credible scientific evidence that vaccines are able to "overload" babies' immune systems. Though immature, babies' systems are prepared to handle vaccines. They already handle numerous viruses and bacteria all around them in everyday life."

The historical positioning would hold more weight, except for the fact that the anti-vaccination movement is a historical anomaly; opposition toward what was, until recently, a total nonissue in public health. And it's not just personal choice, but laws that affect compliance. An Institute of Medicine study found that in 2011, states with more lenient vaccination policies saw a 90 percent higher incidence of whooping cough.

The case of vaccination poses a compelling philosophical question for the Republican Party; it perfectly captures the tension between the personal freedoms Republicans cherish and the collective good they, like anyone, want to uphold. It's a microcosm of the values that Republicans must reconcile within themselves, and within their party.

Update: Paul released a statement Tuesday pushing back against critics.

"I did not say vaccines caused disorders, just that they were temporally related—I did not allege causation," Paul said in the statement. "I support vaccines, I receive them myself and I had all of my children vaccinated. In fact today, I received the booster shot for the vaccines I got when I went to Guatemala last year."