The pair sat smiling in a picture posted to Instagram: actress Jessica Biel, who became famous on the television series “7th Heaven,” next to Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an activist who has spread misinformation about childhood vaccines.
The image, taken in Sacramento, California, this week as Biel and Kennedy lobbied against a bill that would tighten immunization requirements, instantly placed Biel in the company of vaccine skeptics and among the many Hollywood celebrities who have taken a stance on the issue, including Robert De Niro and Jenny McCarthy.
Biel’s lobbying efforts in California’s state capital, and her association with Kennedy, who lauded her on Instagram as “courageous,” prompted a swift and furious response from those who criticized her for seeming to oppose vaccines.
And it reflected one of the realities of anti-vaccine beliefs: They are held by individuals across the country who might have little else in common, politically or otherwise. Anti-vaccine advocates include wealthy actors in Los Angeles, Orthodox Jews in New York, parents in the Pacific Northwest who send their children to Waldorf schools, Somali Americans in Minnesota and conservatives who home-school their children.
Biel quickly issued a statement Thursday insisting that she is supportive of vaccines but opposed to the bill in California, which would require that medical exemptions to mandatory vaccination be approved by state health officials, rather than just individual doctors.
But her backpedaling did little to quell the outrage from parents, doctors and others who have accused those in the anti-vaccine movement of allowing highly contagious diseases like measles to spread in the United States. With an outbreak of the measles now underway, and state legislatures around the country debating immunization requirements, the entry of another prominent celebrity into the debate both broadened the scope of the national discussion around the issue and drew a fierce pushback from the medical community.
On Thursday, Dr. Nancy Messonnier, a vaccine expert for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shared on Twitter a picture of a boy stricken by measles. Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the agency, posted a video clip of Messonnier explaining how vaccines are created. “Vaccines are the best way to protect families and communities from #measles,” he wrote.
Biel’s stance on the California legislation attracted many enthusiastic responses on social media from fans and parents who are suspicious of vaccines. But Facebook groups also lit up with withering insults directed at Biel. One comment read: “Go to med school, do some real-life research, and then maybe you can spew your harmful, baseless opinions. In the meantime, keep your kids away from mine.”
Through June 6, there have been 1,022 new cases of measles reported in the United States in 2019, the largest number since measles was declared eliminated in the United States 20 years ago.
“I think what’s happened is, there is a more organized and engaged opposition to celebrity claptrap and nonsense, and in general anti-vaccine malarkey,” said Arthur L. Caplan, a bioethicist at the NYU School of Medicine. “Defenders of vaccination are much more engaged. They’re saying, we’re not going to put up with anti-vaxxers and celebrities maneuvering around the edges of the debate.”
Biel framed her lobbying against the bill as an effort to support parental rights, according to a statement she posted to Instagram on Thursday.
“I support children getting vaccinations and I also support families having the right to make educated medical decisions for their children alongside their physicians,” she wrote.
In campaigning publicly against the legislation, Biel follows a number of celebrities who have spoken out on the issues of vaccinations and parental rights. McCarthy, a former co-host of “The View,” has suggested for years that the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine caused her son’s autism. De Niro, who has a son on the autism spectrum, promoted a documentary about the alleged dangers of vaccines.
Other famous people who have questioned the benefits of vaccines and of limits on medical exemptions include Alicia Silverstone, Jenna Elfman and President Donald Trump.
“I think when Jenny McCarthy was the main face of the anti-vax movement, medical professionals were a little dismissive,” said Tara C. Smith, professor of epidemiology at Kent State University. “Then she built this empire around these mommy warriors and became the face of women who felt they were empowered by their personal experience with their children and what they had seen of vaccination.”
Since Kennedy, 65, started raising questions about the safety of childhood vaccines, challenging a cornerstone of public health, he has become the most recognizable face in the vaccine wars. Scientists have denounced his claims as dangerous, saying they will lead to epidemics that kill children. He has been abandoned even by formerly stalwart supporters and has lost many friends.
Historically, opposition to vaccines has not broken neatly along political lines. Instead, the position was associated with both the extreme right and the extreme left. In recent years, however, vaccine policy has taken on a partisan bent, with Republicans tending to favor looser immunization mandates, according to Dorit Reiss, a professor at the University of California Hastings School of Law in San Francisco who studies vaccine laws.
Some Republicans opposed recent efforts to tighten vaccine mandates in Colorado, Maine, Oregon and Washington. Maine recently eliminated nonmedical vaccine exemptions, as California, West Virginia and Mississippi have already done. New York, which is battling a large measles outbreak, followed suit Thursday. Washington, which has grappled with a cluster of measles cases, eliminated personal and philosophical exemptions to receiving the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine for children in schools and day care centers.
“The anti-vaccine movement has convinced Republican politicians that school mandates are too restrictive, and that’s a problem,” Reiss said. “You can be for individual liberty and still think that it’s not OK for one family to make going to school dangerous for another family.”
She said that over the past eight years, state legislatures have passed more laws to enforce vaccine mandates than to weaken them, noting: “It’s still true that vaccines have bipartisan support.”
In California, lawmakers have proposed tightening rules to make it more difficult for parents to obtain medical exemptions that allow them to keep their children unvaccinated. Some parents, denied an exemption by their pediatrician, have turned to doctors far from home — including doctors with no experience with children, those who might typically prescribe medical marijuana to adults or run anti-aging clinics — to sign off on exemptions instead, Reiss said.
State Sen. Richard Pan, the Sacramento-area Democrat who sponsored the legislation in the Senate, is a pediatrician with a master’s degree in public health. He lamented Biel’s foray into the political debate.
“It’s unfortunate that a celebrity who does have a platform — she has lots of followers on social media and other things — is spreading misinformation about both vaccines and the bill,” he said.
Pan said he was heartened by those who responded in opposition to Biel’s position.
“I appreciated that many people are calling her out for that,” he said. “It’s important we stand up for science and facts — and, more important, keep our kids safe.”
Reiss said the response signaled a shift.
“One thing that’s reassuring — and I think this is different than in 2010 — is a strong reaction,” she said. “When Jenny McCarthy started this, my understanding is that there were criticisms of her, too, but there were also a lot of positive reactions. Now almost all the positive reactions seem to come from the extreme anti-vaccine movement. Everyone else is saying, ‘What are you doing?’ That is a reassuring difference. It suggests we no longer just smile and nod.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.