After my last post about an COVID-19 contrarian surgeon echoing old antivax and other science denial tropes about the “scientific priesthood,” which was even longer than my usual posts, I thought I’d slow things down and try something that I’ve been meaning to try for a while. I’ve repeated the refrain that there is nothing new under the sun in antivaccine rhetoric, pseudoscience, and conspiracy theories. Antivax rhetoric about COVID-19 just seems new to most people because they never paid much attention to it before and are discovering it for the first time, much as I did in the late 1990s. (I will concede, however, that since the pandemic the antivax rhetoric has assaulted us in a more concentrated form than I’ve ever seen.)
While perusing the interwebs last night, I came across an article that got me to wondering if antivaxxers just repurpose old articles to COVID-19 vaccine resistance, so similar was the rhetoric. Originally, when I started writing this article, I thought that it might be interesting just to pull a few quotes from the article and see if you could tell whether the article was about COVID-19 vaccines or was older, but it quickly became apparent that I’d have to alter the text to hide time- and context-specific clues, which I could do, but decided not to. Instead, I thought I’d just discuss the article itself, which was written in 2015 by Lee Hieb, MD and published in WND entitled The feds’ plan to force vaccines on adults. See why it sounds so familiar? The title alone could have come from the last year or so, as could the tagline: Lee Hieb, M.D., declares, ‘Public health does not trump individual liberty.’ This article lead me to another article with similar rhetoric, How vaccine hysteria could spark totalitarian nightmare.
Before I start selecting choice quotes from this article, let’s just review the context of the times in which it was written, March 2015. Less than three months earlier, the Disneyland measles outbreak had shaken California and the US out of its complacency regarding antivaccine propaganda and how it feeds vaccine hesitancy. Ultimately, this led to the passage of SB 277 later that year, which eliminated nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates. A few years later, right before the pandemic, SB 276 was passed to crack down on the cottage industry of fake medical exemptions that had developed in the wake of the passage of SB 277. At the time this article was written, SB 277 had recently been introduced into the legislature and debate was ramping up—as was antivaccine resistance. This article by Dr. Hieb was not about SB 277, but it did reflect the common antivax talking point that “they” are going to “force” adults to be vaccinated. (Again, remember that this was five years before the pandemic.)
As for Dr. Hieb, she is an orthopedic surgeon and former president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS). Remember them? This is an organization that has been featured on this blog dating back to 2006, thanks to its rhetoric and conspiracy mongering. Think of AAPS as the John Birch Society for doctors disguised as a medical professional society, the better to give it a patina of seeming scientific respectability to the public and unwitting reporters when its members spew their pseudoscience. As I’ve noted over the years, the AAPS has consistently trafficked in the most vile antivaccine misinformation (e.g., that shaken baby syndrome is a “misdiagnosis” for vaccine injury and Andrew Wakefield’s claim a few months before the pandemic that the measles vaccine will result in a mass extinction of humans), anti-immigrant fear-mongering, climate science denial, blaming breast cancer on abortion using execrable “science,” and more. The AAPS views doctors as some sort of mythical brave mavericks outside the herd whose godlike total autonomy must never be infringed by the government or anything else and rejects even the concept of a scientific consensus about anything. (Donald Trump’s first Secretary of Health and Human Services, Tom Price, is a member of AAPS.) Earlier this year, it’s even sued to protect its “right” to promote antivaccine misinformation and, more recently, has predictably become a font of COVID-19 and antivaccine misinformation.
Dr. Hieb herself embodies all of the characteristics of the organization for which she is a past president, and that’s just in her WND output, which includes titles like Big Pharma’s vaccines: Naked profit over safety; Feds attempt to squash homeopathic medicine; and, of course, Government medicine is evil (which is really the core philosophy of the AAPS as reflected in the article, which has lots of references to Nazis and eugenics).
So it’s not at all surprising how, five years ago, Dr. Hieb decided that a rather benign government initiative, the Draft National Adult Immunization Plan, was a secret plan to institute forced vaccination. The plan was a draft then, in its final week for public comment, but the final document is hardly the fascist document advocating jack-booted thugs busting doors down to hold adults down and shoot them full of those evil vaccine toxins. (I exaggerate Dr. Hieb’s rhetoric, but not by much.) Just look at the NAIP’s goals:
Goal 1: Strengthen the adult immunization infrastructure
Goal 2: Improve access to adult vaccines
Goal 3: Increase community demand for adult immunizations
Goal 4: Foster innovation in adult vaccine development and vaccination-related technologies
Again, remember that this was 2015.
So what does Dr. Hieb have to say about this? Let’s see:
Is it just my sense of irony or is it a signal to fellow travelers that this is a “Five-year Plan”? Did they hire old Soviet central planners or come up with this all on their own?
Next up, some old antivaccine tropes:
Now, I have written several articles outlining my scientific concerns over vaccination. We can have an honest discussion over the science – although so far the critics of my papers have never done so, rather resorting to name-calling and wild pot shots. I still await any actual scientific refutation of my concerns. The closest came with one commentator who cited the falling deaths from childhood diseases, but he failed to examine the entire historical data, which show that over 90 percent of the fall in these diseases occurred before widespread vaccination was adopted. And he fails to note the other factors (Vitamin A and D levels, avoidance of anti-pyretic drugs) that may alter outcomes – it’s not just the vaccination rate.
Given that Dr. Hieb was just repeating the same old antivax tropes (especially the “vaccines didn’t save us” lie), I rather suspect that many had refuted her “concerns,” but that she never learned.
Next, Dr. Hieb sounds even more familiar in the age of COVID-19:
And I have made the point that the pro-forced vaccination crowd are generally also the pro Roe v. Wade crowd – and you can’t have both. You cannot scream for a “woman’s right to choose” when it applies to abortion but give her no right to choose what gets administered to her in a syringe.
Where have we heard this before, but far more recently? Oh, yes, I remember: From antivaxxers about COVID-19 vaccine mandates. Unlike a lot of antivaxxers, though, Dr. Hieb seems to recognize that this argument is a false equivalence. At least, she acknowledges the criticism, seemingly even (sort of) recognizing some validity to it, but she has a response:
The answer I received was this, “Dr. Hieb, you ignoramus” (OK, maybe he didn’t quite say it that way, but I could hear it between the lines), “you know that abortion is a private issue and vaccination is an issue of public health!”
Let me be clear. Public health does not trump individual liberty. End of story.
Dr. Hieb’s rhetoric, my friends, is the core of the antivaccine movement, a total opposition to the very concept of public health. I once wrote (in 2020, yet!) that the reason that antivaxxers so quickly teamed up with antimaskers and “lockdown resisters” during the pandemic was because they all share a common hostility to public health.
It’s also the reason why, increasingly, the politics of the antivaccine movement has shifted so far right over the last decade. It was a shift that I first perceived over a decade ago, going back to around the time that a political party formed by antivaxxers, The Canary Party, founded in 2011, started working with Tea Party-affiliated groups in California. Not long after, the Canary Party became known for sucking up to Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA), with one of its major financial backers Jennifer Larson contributing a lot of money to Issa’s campaign (indirectly, of course) in order to buy influence and win a hearing by his committee examining autism and focused on vaccines as one potential cause. Around the same time, at the right-wing Libertarian FreedomFest in 2012 I was privileged to watch a debate between Julian Whitaker and Steve Novella about vaccines. At the debate, vaccine pseudoscience flowed freely from Whitaker in a most embarrassing fashion, and I couldn’t help but note that FreedomFest that year featured two screenings of Leslie Manookian’s antivaccine propaganda piece, The Greater Good and had featured antivaccine talks in previous years. I was there, too, and amazed at the merchandise and conspiracy theories being touted, although in retrospect, in the era years before the rise of QAnon, conspiracy theories about the gold standard and New World Order now seem almost quaint. As I’ve observed before, this movement rightward by the antivaccine movement appears to have been turbocharged in 2015 during the debate about SB 277 and then supercharged during the pandemic.
Predictably, Dr. Hieb then pivoted to argue that if you support “forced vaccination” then you have no argument against forced sterilization, an argument used by Tucker Carlson about COVID-19 vaccines. (Wanna bet? One could easily point out the wrongness of social Darwinism and eugenics, both from a scientific and ethical standpoint, compared to vaccines.) The real purpose of this pivot, of course, is to allow her to invoke Nazis and the Holocaust, forced sterilization of indigenous women, and, of course, “death panels,” which then allows her to invoke “freedom” against “tyranny”:
So, to the point. Like everything else that’s truly important, it is very simple: If you Americans do not stand against this, it’s over. What liberty do you have if the federal government can force you to have a medical procedure, can force you to surrender your very body to their control? Answer: none. Because there is nothing that cannot be justified on the basis of “the good of society.” The Jewish Holocaust, the Great Leap Forward, the killing of the Kulaks, American Eugenics, Tuskegee experimentation, the cold water experiments of Birkenau, Dachau and Auschwitz, all were justified at the time by their respective leaders as for the good of society. Even doctors start believing that they can determine who should die or be sterilized for the good of the whole society. And if you as a doctor have qualms, it is much easier to just throw up your hands and say you have no choice – it’s a government mandate.
The position paper of the Department of Health and Human Services refers repeatedly to consulting the multiple “stakeholders” involved in vaccination decisions: “synergies between state, local, territorial, and tribal governments; health care providers; advocacy groups; vaccine manufacturers; academia and research organizations; payers and health plans; employers; and the general public.” They even cite the military. But, who is the real stakeholder? It is you. There is no “general public” when it comes to decisions about your personal health. No one cares more about the risks versus benefits of vaccination than you do personally. To leave it to a group, to treat you as a member of a group for medical care, is not ethical medicine. It is the stuff of jails and forced labor camps and socialist hellholes – and apparently American academia and bureaucrats. It is time to say no. Although he was probably confused at the time, I’ll quote Al Sharpton: “Resists we much.”
I’ll give Dr. Hieb credit for cleverly using that quote from Al Sharpton, which simultaneously allows her to falsely claim the mantle of the civil rights movement (as antivaxxers have loved to do the last few years) while also mocking Sharpton for a flub that apparently resulted from a teleprompter glitch.
You can see from this WND article just how little antivax rhetoric changes, even from seven years ago. If you’re not convinced, this other article from the same year by Dr. Hieb is a veritable cornucopia of the same sorts of talking points that antivaxxers still use against COVID-19 vaccines, including the same appeals to “my body, my choice,” “freedom,” and the like, as well as:
If you believe absolutely in the benefit and protective value of vaccination, why does it matter what others do? Or don’t do? If you believe you need vaccination to be healthy and protected, then by all means vaccinate your child and yourself. Why should you even be concerned what your neighbor chooses to do for his child – if vaccination works?
“If evolution is true, why are there still monkeys?” (Yes, the argument above is just that silly, given that, as COVID-19 has painfully reminded us, no vaccine is 100% effective, not even the measles vaccine. (Measles outbreaks were the primary concern back then. How quaint that seems now!) The rest of the article includes claims that vaccines cause autism and sudden infant death syndrome, that the diseases vaccinated against are benign (a claim used to oppose vaccinating children against COVID-19 and even vaccine mandates in adults), and more. I’ve covered all these lies before; so I don’t feel a need to go over them again.
The reason I undertook this exercise was not because I felt like deconstructing a seven year old article, but just to remind people of the relative constancy of antivaccine messages. As a reminder, let’s return to the Brownstone Institute, the “spiritual child of the Great Barrington Declaration,” a document advocating a “let ‘er rip” approach to the pandemic, with “focused protection” supposedly keeping those vulnerable to severe disease and death from COVID-19 safe. Never mind that it’s impossible to keep the “vulnerable” safe when a potentially deadly highly transmissible respiratory virus is circulating among the “healthy,” making people like Dr. Hieb more akin to eugenicists than public health officials. So let’s just quote Jeffrey Tucker, founder of the Brownstone Institute, writing in August about vaccine mandates in New York City:
Now to the tender subject of New York City and its new city-wide mandate. It was imposed by executive order by the most unpopular mayor of that city in living memory. This man is literally despised, and New Yorkers are counting the days until he is gone and a new mayor takes his place. He has deployed a huge and draconian new order on one of the world’s great cities that could fundamentally change the entire experience.
There is nothing democratic or consensual about any of this. It’s a pure act of executive despotism of the sort one would otherwise think would be ruled out by the whole pro-choice ethos of American culture. But when lockdowns came so too ended the presumption of liberty and rights for people, and thus began an era when sheer political will and power can override every presumption about what makes a sociopolitical order great. We literally threw out centuries of precedent and presumptions about liberty into the thrash.
I can cite many more examples of this sort of rhetoric. When it comes to antivaccine rhetoric, the words might change, but the song remains the same. In fact, here’s the twist that I didn’t realize at first when going over that 2015 article. Dr. Lee Hieb is now better known as Dr. Lee Merritt (or, sometimes, Dr. Lee Hieb Merritt) and is a member of America’s Frontline Doctors, that premier COVID-19 minimizing, ivermectin-pushing group of antivaccine doctors who first achieved prominence by pushing hydroxychloroquine (and having a doctor among them who believes that dreaming about sex with demons can explain many gynecological problems) and have taken grifting to a new level. So not only does the core message never change, but often the people spreading the message don’t change either.
Same as it ever was. Again. Or the song remains the same. Take your pick.