With measles cases in the United States at a 20-year high, some Republican presidential hopefuls have gotten heat for pandering to conservative voters who doubt extensive scientific evidence that vaccines don't cause autism. With Chris Christie and Rand Paul making controversial comments on the issue, Hillary Clinton came out strongly Monday night on the side of science:
But in 2008—when a widespread theory linking vaccines to autism had already been debunked—Clinton wasn't so definitive on this point. In response to a questionnaire from an autism advocacy group, she wrote, "I am committed to make investments to find the causes of autism, including possible environmental causes like vaccines…We don't know what, if any, kind of link there is between vaccines and autism - but we should find out."
Clinton has a long history of supporting efforts to get children vaccinated. In 1993, she spearheaded the Childhood Immunization Initiative and the Vaccines for Children program, which aimed to make vaccines affordable. Yet, she also has been a strong voice for families dealing with autism, calling in 2007 for $700 million per year to fund research and education. Her comments in 2008 reflected a certain tension to advocating on both fronts.
She also wasn't the only prominent Democrat hedging about autism and vaccines during the 2008 election cycle: At a campaign rally in Pennsylvania that April, Barack Obama was asked about a link. "We’ve seen just a skyrocketing autism rate," he replied. "Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines…The science is right now inconclusive, but we have to research it."
It used to be more politically difficult for Democrats to come out swinging against anti-vaxxers, a problem that now appears to be growing for Republicans. In 2009, 26 percent of Republicans and 27 percent of Democrats believed parents should be able to decide whether to vaccinate their kids. Now, according to a new Pew survey, 34 percent of Republicans and 22 percent of Democrats hold that view.
Obama's position has evolved too: On Sunday, he urged parents to get their kids vaccinated. "There aren't reasons not to," he said.