Capitol Alert

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. jumps into California vaccine debate

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife actress, Cheryl Hines, photographed in March 2014.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and his wife actress, Cheryl Hines, photographed in March 2014. Invision/AP

The California Legislature’s debate over whether to make childhood vaccines mandatory has attracted another high-profile personality: Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of the late U.S. senator and nephew of former President John F. Kennedy.

In a call Monday to The Sacramento Bee, Kennedy Jr. – a longtime skeptic of the safety of some vaccine ingredients – said he’s hoping to organize a Sacramento screening of a film that he wants legislators to see before they vote on Senate Bill 277. The measure, by Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, would eliminate the ability of parents to opt out of having their children vaccinated based on their personal beliefs. It has touched off an impassioned debate among California parents pitting arguments of personal freedom against public health.

“I believe everybody should get vaccinated, but I also understand it’s a nuanced issue. It’s not as simple as they make it,” Kennedy Jr. said. “I don’t feel that my children were damaged by vaccines, but I know that other children have been.”

Kennedy Jr. calls himself “pro-vaccine” and said he has vaccinated all six of his children. Yet he has become a loud voice in the movement that questions the safety of vaccines. He promotes the idea that vaccines can cause autism – an idea not supported by mainstream science – and says pharmaceutical companies that make vaccines have too much political clout. He recently wrote a book about thimerosal, a preservative that health authorities have removed from most vaccines. A Washington Post profile of Kennedy Jr. last year described his struggle to gain acceptance for his vaccine views in health and political circles.

Kennedy Jr. said he showed “Trace Amounts,” the movie he wants to screen in Sacramento, to members of Oregon’s legislature before they recently decided to back away from a bill to require more vaccines. The movie raises questions about the safety of vaccines by telling the story of a man who believes he was damaged by a shot containing thimerosal.

Pan, who is carrying the California bill to make childhood immunizations mandatory, said he’s not worried that a movie screening by a Kennedy will derail his legislation.

“It’s more important that we actually look at good science, listen to organizations like the Institute of Medicine, the CDC, our own Department of Public Health, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the World Health Organization, and many other credible scientific, medical and public health organizations that all stand together saying vaccines are safe and effective,” Pan said. “And that getting high vaccination rates is a necessity to protect the public health and public safety.”

Call Laurel Rosenhall, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1083. Follow her on Twitter @LaurelRosenhall.

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