An antivaccine-sympathetic legislator right in my own back yard!

I’ve written on multiple occasions of what I like to refer to as “antivaccine dog whistles.” In politics, the term “dog whistle” refers to things politicians can say to certain groups, usually groups with odious views, that they are with them without actually echoing the views for which the group at which the dog whistle is aimed. The intended target audience gets the message, while those not familiar with the issues either don’t get the message or see what is being said as something unobjectionable, even admirable. Think “states’ rights” versus civil rights, for example.

It turns out that antivaccinationists have their own dog whistles. Used most prominently recently by the antivaccine pediatrician “Dr. Bob” Sears and by candidate for the Republican Presidential nomination Rand Paul, antivaccine dog whistles generally involve appeals to “health freedom,” the “freedom” not to be injected with medicines, and, of course, “parents’ rights.” Unfortunately, in practice, what antivaccinationists mean is that parental rights trump the child’s right to receive the recommended standard of science-based medical care with respect to preventative care. Indeed, Rand Paul even went so far as to answer a question about this issue by saying, “The state doesn’t own the children. Parents own the children, and it is an issue of freedom.”

Except for those children, who apparently are the parents’ property, it would appear.

Of course, in fairness, many politicians who use these dog whistles probably don’t realize exactly just what they’re appealing to (I’m talking to you, Chris Christie), but unless they’re completely dense they do realize that they’re appealing to a constituency that believes vaccines are harmful. Be that as it may, With SB 277, a bill that would, if passed into law, eliminate nonmedical exemptions in California, being the subject of intense opposition by the antivaccine movement, not surprisingly the antivaccine dog whistles are blowing fast and furious, so much so that I almost wish I couldn’t hear them as well as I do now ever since I first noticed them. But hear them I do. I hear them in appeals to “freedom.” I hear them in similes and metaphors that liken “forced vaccination” to the Holocaust, although Holocaust analogies bring the whistle into the hearing range of everyone else. The appeal to freedom is a potent message that has succeeded in squashing efforts to make nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates hard to get.

Unfortunately, such dog whistling has arrived right in my very own backyard, thanks to one State Senator Patrick Colbeck. Yesterday, as I idly perused Facebook while eating lunch in my office, I noticed this on Facebook:

Last week, I met with a group of concerned and well-informed parents from my district on the subject of mandatory…

Posted by Senator Patrick Colbeck on Monday, April 27, 2015

Here is a screenshot, in case the post disappears down the old memory hole:

Patrick Colbeck's Facebook post

Yes, that is a state senator promising to appear at a screening of an antivaccine “documentary” Trace Amounts that’s being heavily promoted by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and features a who’s who of the mercury wing of the antivaccine movement. Yes, that Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the man whose completely unhinged conspiracy theories provided my gateway into skepticism and science with respect to critically examining antivaccine claims nearly a decade ago and who just last Friday appeared on Real Time With Bill Maher to promote the movie using the same old antivaccine tropes designed to spread fear of vaccines through fear of mercury that he’s been using ever since I first started blogging. Those “well-informed” parents from his district are anything but well-informed. They are, as I’ve described so many times before, misinformed.

Now, I can understand a politician meeting with groups of constituents to hear their concerns. That’s part of his job. He should do that. But Colbeck has gone beyond that. Not only has he met with these antivaccine parents, but he clearly either hasn’t bothered to examine the science or had had antivaccine proclivities himself—or perhaps a little of both. He’s gone beyond hearing concerns and into advocacy. Worse, he’s asking people to join him at a screening of Trace Amounts because “the responsible exercise of freedom depends upon an informed citizenry.” What he’s too clueless to understand is that anything about vaccines produced by RFK, Jr. will do anything but inform. It will misinform, as I’ve explained more times than I can remember. I haven’t seen the film yet, obviously, but if it’s anything like what’s in RFK, Jr.’s book Thimerosal: Let the Science Speak: Mercury Toxicity in Vaccines and the Political, Regulatory, and Media Failures That Continue to Threaten Public Health, I know it’s going to be chock full of the same antivaccine misinformation that RFK, Jr. began promoting in earnest a decade ago and continues to promote through his book, reaching out to critics ineffectively, and now his movie. Indeed, given RFK, Jr.’s appearance on Real Time, and what I’ve read about the documentary, I know that it features the same ad hominem attacks on Paul Offit plus the infamously silly CDC whistleblower conspiracy theory. Moroever, his penchant for Holocaust analogies about vaccines and autism is nothing new.

I actually have to wonder if Sen. Colbeck knows that Trace Amounts is tightly associated with Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. I say that because Colbeck was first elected in the Tea Party wave of 2010, and he is very much of the Tea Party wing of the state Republican Party. Indeed, he loves to castigate “Obamacare,” which he keeps characterizing as being about “control, not care” and was one of the most vigorous opponents of the state Medicaid expansion, almost succeeding in blocking it. His preferred “alternative” to the Medicaid expansion (and to Obamacare) consists of what are in essence concierge medical plans supplemented with high deductible health insurance, seemingly believing that the magic of the free market will lower costs. I’ve tried to educate him about why his assumptions are painfully simplistic, how the free market often provides perverse incentives in medicine that increase costs, and how one of the “success stories” he used to tout, a surgical center that undercuts the competition on costs, actually produces for itself a similarly perverse incentive to do unnecessary operations and provide unnecessary care in order to “make it up in volume.” (Doctors like to think themselves immune to such influences, but we are not. We’re very good at deluding ourselves that financial considerations play no role in our patient decisions.) The only reason I’ve related these things is because, knowing his far right, Tea Party-associated politics, it would amuse me to see Colbeck cite any material so strongly endorsed by RFK, Jr. for anything, except for the fact that in doing so now he is pushing RFK, Jr.’s brand of antivaccine misinformation, which Trace Amounts echoes in spades.

I also relate this history because it is easy to see how Colbeck would be very susceptible to conflating requiring vaccines to attend school with, apparently, jack-booted thugs coming to enforce “forced vaccination.” You’d hope that a state legislator would know the difference, but apparently Colbeck doesn’t. Either that, or he knows the difference but chooses to conflate the two. In any case, there is a big difference between forcing children to be vaccinated (i.e., true forced vaccination, wherein there are criminal penalties for not vaccinating) versus reasonable requirements that children be vaccinated before they can attend institutions (like school or day care centers) where large number of children will spend several hours a day in close proximity, thus creating what I like to refer to as veritable germ factories.

It’s also very easy to see how he would be particularly susceptible to “health freedom” arguments, not realizing that all “health freedom” really means is the “freedom” of quacks to ply their wares without pesky regulatory interferences. It’s the “freedom” of believers in quackery like antivaccine beliefs to exempt themselves from reasonable societal obligations. It’s the “freedom” not to be science-based in medical matters. Meanwhile, nowhere is there any evidence that Colbeck has bothered to consult…oh, you know…actual pediatricians and scientists who know something about vaccines. Apparently he’s too busy palling around with physician-entrepreneurs offering the sort of concierge medical services that he envisions as the future of American health care.

I also couldn’t help but note that Colbeck also was featured as having answered yes to these three questions by Michigan Opposing Mandatory Vaccines:

  1. I support an individual’s/parent’s right to make vaccine decisions for themselves and their children.
  2. I support an individual’s/parent’s right to informed consent. I would require legislation be passed before forcing parents to view any presentations by the Michigan Department of Community Health or local health departments. The presentations shall be accurate; complete; objective and non-judgmental; and geographically considerate.
  3. I would support independent basic scientific research on the link between vaccination end chronic disease.”

Notice how these are phrased so that, if you take the phrasing at face value, you don’t have to be antivaccine to sign any of these, with the possible exception of #3. In any case, We’ve met MOMV before. They basically have opposed any attempts to make personal belief exemptions to school vaccine mandates harder to obtain or to require true informed consent instead of misinformed consent before they are granted. The above statements are all seemingly reasonable statements on the surface, but if you know the code you will recognize three antivaccine dog whistles: parental rights, “informed consent” (actually misinformed consent when mentioned by antivaccinationists), and a call for “independent” (code for: having nothing to do with the hated CDC) research.

Why am I not surprised that Colbeck answered yes to all these questions?

Unfortunately, the comments after Colbeck’s post are, as of this writing, nearly universally positive, along the lines of:

  • “Thank you Senator Colbeck for taking the concerns of your constituents seriously and addressing this very serious issue.”
  • “Thank you for taking time to hear the less publicized side of the story!!! We need more people in Government like you, sir! God bless you!”
  • “Thank you for for protecting the rights of individuals and medical freedom in Michigan!”

One negative comment criticizing Colbeck for his stand resulted in at least one antivaccine trope like, “What’s the concern if vaccines work, then an unvaccinated child is no threat to a vaccinated child correct?” Wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong! No vaccine is 100% effective, and then of course there are always those too young to be vaccinated. It’s all of a piece with the the “screw you” attitude of antivaccinationists to any other than their own children, which they justify to themselves by deluding themselves into thinking that their decision not to vaccinate has no consequences to any other than their children, that their children pose no threat to other children, even though they do.

Given that Colbeck knows me and does not like me, I can only hope that there will be people in the State of Michigan who recognize how far down the rabbit hole Senator Colbeck’s gone. I notice that there are as yet only 16 reservations, with 69 more needed for the reservation quota to show Trace Amounts at the theater being booked. In light of the past lack of success of antivaccinationists in getting enough people to sign up to book a theater, maybe this won’t be happening. At least now we know where Senator Colbeck stands on the issue of childhood vaccines, and he does not stand on the side of science.

In the meantime, I know that, if any reasonable bill comes before the legislature to tighten up or eliminate nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates, Senator Colbeck will likely oppose it, because freedom.