As the week closes, there’s really only one thing I could write about, and it’ something that happened right at the end of the time period during which I was away trying to finish my grant. It’s something that people became aware of when news reports picked up on this Instagram image posted by antivaxer Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. of himself and actress Jessica Biel at the California State Senate:
Yes, that’s exactly what you think it is: Jessica Biel was lobbying lawmakers with a known antivaccine crank to kill the bill. But what is SB 276? Remember SB 277, which was passed into law in 2015 in the wake of the Disneyland measles outbreak? Basically, SB 277 eliminated nonmedical exemptions, so-called “personal belief exemptions,” to school vaccine mandates and allowed only medical exemptions. Naturally, it is a law that antivaxers really, really hate, probably because it worked, and personal belief exemptions fell immediately after it went into effect.
Unfortunately, SB 277 has a major weakness, namely that any physician can write a letter justifying an exemption using any reason he wants to, and the state is obligated to grant the exemption. It doesn’t matter if the reason has no basis in medicine and science; the doctor’s letter is enough. This was a necessary compromise at the time to get the bill passed into law, but it was a compromise that caused a huge problem. I bet you can guess rather quickly where this is leading. I did four years ago. It was a problem I foresaw at the time SB 277 when it was passed, when I asked: Will SB 277 enrich antivaccine doctors? The answer, of course, was yes. Led by antivaccine pediatrician Dr. Bob Sears, antivaccine doctors in California quickly developed a cottage industry of selling medical exemption letters. Sometimes this involved online sales, and some doctors became quite “entrepreneurial” about it, such as Dr. Tara Zandvliet, who has been responsible for 141 of the 486 total medical exemptions granted in the San Diego Unified School District since 2015. (The next closest doctor issued 26.) It was something, among other things, for which Dr. Bob got into trouble with the Medical Board of California for his activities. As a result, medical exemptions to school vaccine mandates soared, leading to slippage in California’s vaccination rate.
This problem spurred lawmakers, led by Sen. Arthur Pan, the California pediatrician turned state senator who led the charge for the original SB 277, to take action. The result was SB 276, which, if passed into law, would, beginning January 1, 2020, require that all requests for medical exemptions to school vaccine mandates be approved by the State Public Health Officer or designee, who could reject exemptions not supported by science. Under SB 276, the use of a standard exemption form that clearly states the reason for the medical exemption would be required, and the California Department of Public Health would also be required to maintain a database of exemptions that would allow officials to monitor which doctors are granting numerous exemptions.
This brings us back to Jessica Biel. If you’re Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. and you’re lobbying California legislators to kill SB 276, what could be better than to bring along a little star power with you? Actually, it is a “little” star power, because I don’t even know what Jessica Biel has been in lately and don’t even remember if I’ve ever seen any of her movies, but that’s just me. I have heard of her though. I do know that she’s married to Justin Timberlake, and that, prior to this week’s coming out as an antivaxer, she had been the subject of news stories shortly after Justin’s and her son was born saying that the couple was not going to vaccinate him. I don’t recall her having spoken out against vaccination, however—before now. In any event, the result of her lobbying with RFK Jr. were an article in Jezebel by Anna Merlan entitled Well, Here’s Jessica Biel Apparently Lobbying California Lawmakers Alongside Anti-Vaccine Activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an article in The Daily Beast entitled Jessica Biel Comes Out as Anti-Vaxx Activist, Joins Robert F. Kennedy Jr. to Lobby Against CA Vaccination Bill, and several similar headlines. From The Daily Beast:
On Tuesday, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental activist whose recent work has focused increasingly on baseless allegations that vaccines are unsafe and can injure a statistically minuscule population of “medically fragile” children, appeared at the California State Assembly beside an unlikely scene partner: actress Jessica Biel. In a series of Instagram posts, first reported in Jezebel by Anna Merlan, the two posed with activists, legislators, and miscellaneous bureaucratic architecture. In the caption, Kennedy called Biel “courageous.”
The duo had come to lobby against SB 276, a California state bill that would limit medical exemptions from vaccinations without approval from a state public-health officer. The bill has been decried by anti-vaxx advocates like Kennedy and vaguely critiqued by Gov. Gavin Newsom, over official estimations that it would reduce medical exemptions by nearly 40 percent.
Not surprisingly, there was a huge backlash against Biel on social media, and the stories in Jezebel and The Daily Beast spawned many other articles and blog posts criticizing her antivaccine stance. Of course, Jessica Biel and RFK, Jr. did have their defenders. (Antivaxers always do.) For instance, antivaccine-sympathetic pediatrician Dr. Jay Gordon took to Twitter:
I’m not sure if you are pretending not to understand, or actually don’t understand-Those of us opposing mandates and advocating for judicious use of vaccines are not anti-vaccine. We support the doctor-patient relationship as the best way to promote safe and improved vaccination https://t.co/z7SZuM2053
— Jay Gordon, MD, FAAP (@JayGordonMDFAAP) June 13, 2019
RFK Jr is as far from being an “antivax crank” as one can get. He has long been a passionate advocate for clean water, clean air and better oversight of polluters and now of the pharmaceutical industry. https://t.co/z7SZuM2053
— Jay Gordon, MD, FAAP (@JayGordonMDFAAP) June 13, 2019
I laughed out loud when I read that second Tweet and couldn’t believe that even Dr. Jay could say something so utterly stupid. This is RFK, Jr., after all! He’s long been a topic of this blog because he’s been an antivaccine activist for 15 years at least. I first noted him when he published an antivaccine conspiracy theory in Rolling Stone and Salon.com. Of course, this “not antivaccine” icon of reason is known for comparing vaccination to the Holocaust. Indeed, at the 2013 meeting of the quackfest known as Autism One, not only did RFK Jr. compare “vaccine-induced autism” to death camps, but he advocated locking up pro-vaccine advocates like Dr. Paul Offit. The late Dan Olmsted of the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism described RFK Jr.’s Autism One keynote thusly:
Each of us will have our highlights from last weekend’s extraordinary Autism One gathering in Chicago, but for me it was Bobby Kennedy Jr. saying, “To my mind this is like the Nazi death camps.”
“This” is the imprisonment of so many of our children in the grip of autism. Talk about cutting through the neurodiverse claptrap! When Bobby Kennedy says something, it gives “cover,” in a sense, for others to use the same kind of language and frame the debate in the same kind of way. (Language that reminds me of David Kirby’s phrase, “the shuttered hell” of autism, in Evidence of Harm.)
Those who can advocate for themselves should do so. Move right along, please. Those who cannot have advocates like their parents and RFK Jr. who are sick of mincing words.
The enablers may not belong in Nuremburg, but they do belong in jail, Bobby said. “I would do a lot to see Paul Offit and all these good people behind bars,” he said, after listing Offit’s litany of lies and profit. Just to make sure people got the point, he returned to it in his speech. “Is it hyperbole to say they should be in jail? They should be in jail and the key should be thrown away.”
Amusingly, the link to the original Age of Autism article by Olmsted describing RFK, Jr.’s 2013 keynote now returns a blank page. Indeed, I noticed that that had happened within a day or so of the article’s going live. The post disappeared so fast that even the almighty Wayback Machine at Archive.org never managed to archive the original text, leaving only text quoted in my post and a handful of contemporaneous sources as the only source of Olmsted’s account of what RFK Jr. said. My guess regarding what happened is that RFK, Jr. wasn’t pleased to see Dan Olmsted’s account of what he had said in what he had thought was the privacy of a crank conference, realized that it would reflect very, very poorly on him, and told Olmsted to take it down. (I don’t know for sure that that’s what happened, but it’s a reasonable inference.) It is, however, hilarious to me that well over two years before Donald Trump started leading chants of “Lock her up!” in his campaign, RFK, Jr. was doing, in essence, the same about Paul Offit and other pro-vaccine advocates. More recently, RFK Jr. has been channeling antivaccine über-crank Jock Doubleday by issuing a bogus challenge to “prove” that vaccines are safe.
Yesterday, RFK Jr. issued another “I’m not antivaccine statement“:
Kennedy in a statement on Thursday criticized the California bill, saying decisions regarding medical exemptions for vaccines should come from doctors, not the government.
“I am not anti-vaccine. I am calling for safer vaccines and the right for doctors to determine if a patient is at high risk of adverse reactions to vaccines,” he said. “We should all speak out against this clear case of government overreach.”
In reality, despite his risible claims that he is “fiercely pro-vaccine,” RFK, Jr. is rabidly antivaccine. After all, what else would you call someone who’s likened vaccination to death camps and the Holocaust and advocated throwing vaccine advocates in jail? “Antivaccine” is the perfect word to describe RFK, Jr., so antivaccine, in fact, that a month ago his own family called him out for his antivaccine proselytizing.
Not that any of that stopped Dr. Jay:
Jessica Biel Sets the Record Straight: 'I Am Not Anti Vaccinations' @jessicabiel A smart honest stance against a bill which would interfere with doctors taking care of their own patients. Distorted by those who can’t deal w any disagreement at all https://t.co/euDHr4bulg
— Jay Gordon, MD, FAAP (@JayGordonMDFAAP) June 13, 2019
What Dr. Jay was referring to is this Instagram post by Jessica Biel:
View this post on Instagram
This week I went to Sacramento to talk to legislators in California about a proposed bill. I am not against vaccinations — I support children getting vaccinations and I also support families having the right to make educated medical decisions for their children alongside their physicians. My concern with #SB276 is solely regarding medical exemptions. My dearest friends have a child with a medical condition that warrants an exemption from vaccinations, and should this bill pass, it would greatly affect their family’s ability to care for their child in this state. That’s why I spoke to legislators and argued against this bill. Not because I don’t believe in vaccinations, but because I believe in giving doctors and the families they treat the ability to decide what’s best for their patients and the ability to provide that treatment. I encourage everyone to read more on this issue and to learn about the intricacies of #SB276. Thank you to everyone who met with me this week to engage in this important discussion!
Regular readers and those who regularly combat antivaccine misinformation will immediately recognize a number of antivaccine tropes being spewed by Jessica Biel. First of all, there’s the old “I’m not antivaccine” trope, a trope going back to Jenny McCarthy and well earlier. When McCarthy used it, it took the form of “I’m not antivaccine; I’m pro-safe vaccine,” with her casting herself as a vaccine safety advocate. It’s a trope that’s easily shown to be utter bullshit just by looking at how, apparently, no vaccine is “safe enough” for antivaxers like McCarthy, and McCarthy is far from alone in deceptively donning the mantle of “vaccine safety activist.” Of course, times change, and now, in Jessica Biel’s hands, the “I’m not antivaccine trope” takes the form of “I’m not antivaccine; I’m pro-freedom” or “I’m not antivaccine; I’m for informed consent” or “I’m not anti-vaccine; I’m for the doctor-patient relationship.” All of these are bullshit too, as Anna Merlan almost immediately showed by actually interviewing a legislative staffer who sat in on one of those meetings between legislators and RFK Jr. and Jessica Biel:
The staffer says that both Biel and Kennedy spent some of the meeting talking about their personal belief that vaccines are both dangerous and ineffective, a belief that goes against the overwhelming weight of medical and scientific evidence.
Biel believes that vaccines are dangerous and ineffective? That’s basically a major part of the definition of “antivaccine”!
In response to Jessica Biel’s Instagram post, the staffer reported:
The legislative staffer we spoke to, however, says that some of what Biel discussed did center around her own personal concerns regarding vaccines.
“Jessica said that her doctor recommended the regular vaccine schedule for her kid and she refused,” the staffer wrote, saying that Biel claimed that her friend’s child had an adverse reaction to a vaccine. (In her Instagram post, Biel wrote, “My dearest friends have a child with a medical condition that warrants an exemption from vaccinations, and should this bill pass, it would greatly affect their family’s ability to care for their child in this state.”)
The staffer also said that Biel seemed to indicate she’d then visited multiple doctors to find one who was comfortable with her preference: “She practically admitted to doctor shopping, which SB 276 is trying to prevent. She said she wants safe vaccines and mentioned ‘corporations’ a lot.”
At that point, the rest of the group Biel was with, the staffer wrote, including RFK Jr., “tried to pivot away from the doctor shopping piece, talking about how vaccines are both dangerous and ineffective at the same time. They kept mentioning these people who don’t develop antibodies from vaccines. They also mentioned a gene associated with vaccine injuries, and when I looked it up, I could only find it on these anti-vax sites.”
So in her Instagram post, Jessica Biel claimed that she was all about the doctor-patient relationship when it comes to vaccines, but when her child’s first pediatrician recommended vaccinating according to the CDC recommendations, she refused. Not only did she refuse, but she immediately went doctor shopping until she found an antivaccine quack more to her liking. Realizing that perhaps talking about her doctor shopping was hurting her, she tried to pivot to antivaccine misinformation, such as MTHFR mutations, the latest favored bit of antivaccine pseudoscience that antivax doctors and parents use to justify bogus medical exemptions.
The MTHFR gene encodes methylenetetrahydrofolate reductase, an enzyme that catalyzes the conversion of 5,10-methylenetetrahydrofolate to 5-methyltetrahydrofolate, a cosubstrate for homocysteine remethylation to methionine. You don’t really need to know the details or to understand that much about it (although, advantages of having been at this a long time, I can’t help but note that MTHFR woo is just the latest iteration of antivaccine woo that claims that vaccines somehow impact oxidation-reduction pathways in the cell in a way that can cause autism or other adverse reactions to vaccine) other than that natural variation of the gene is very common in healthy individuals, with the vast majority of variants of no health consequence. Antivaxers claim that MTHFR variants predispose to “vaccine injury,” but there is no evidence to support these claims. There were some early studies that found MTHFR variants linked to a variety of diseases, but the associations didn’t hold up to bigger datasets and better analytic tools. None of this has stopped entrepreneurial antivax doctors from ordering 23andMe tests looking for MTHFR variants to use as reasons to justify not vaccinating. Jessica Biel apparently buys into this outright antivaccine quackery.
The vast majority of antivaccine activists deny being antivaccine, so much so that when I encounter the rare antivaxer who actually says, “I’m antivaccine,” I almost have to admit a bit of grudging respect for her. At least she’s being honest. So what we have here are two celebrities claiming they’re “not antivaccine.” One, RFK Jr., believes that vaccines are dangerous and ineffective and has a history of comparing vaccines to the Holocaust, advocating locking up pro-vaccine advocates, and spreading antivaccine misinformation and pseudoscience going back at least 14 years. The other also believes that vaccines are dangerous and ineffective and has a history of ignoring a pediatrician’s recommendation to vaccinate her son according to the CDC schedule and doctor shopping to find a physician willing to indulge her desire not to vaccinate, even as she promoted antivaccine pseudoscience to California legislators with an antivaccine crank known for his having compared vaccination to the Holocaust and advocated locking up Paul Offit.
But Jessica Biel and her sycophants, toadies, and lackeys would have you believe that she’s not antivaccine. Yeah, right. She’s as antivaccine as celebrities come. Maybe she’s auditioning for the role of the next Jenny McCarthy.