Potential presidential candidates and others are taking on the touchy topic of children and vaccinations, sparked again by the measles outbreak that started in Disneyland and has now infected nearly 70 people.
Republicans Chris Christie and Rand Paul stirred the debate over the outbreak by saying parents should have a choice, only to be countered by Democrat Hillary Clinton coming down on the side of vaccinations.
The New Jersey governor made the first comments during a visit to the United Kingdom on Monday, telling reporters the government needs to find a “balance” between parental choice and public health.
“We vaccinate ours [kids], and so, you know, that's the best expression I can give you of my opinion," Christie said. "You know, it's much more important what you think as a parent than what you think as a public official. And that's what we do. But I also understand that parents need to have some measure of choice in things as well, so that's the balance that the government has to decide."
Later that morning, his office issued a statement that seemed to soften his comments, saying he believed that with a disease like measles there was no question that children should be vaccinated. Vaccines are an important public health protection, the statement said.
“At the same time different states require different degrees of vaccination, which is why he was calling for balance in which ones government should mandate,” it said.
The issue of vaccinations can be tricky going for politicians.
During the last presidential race, former Texas Gov. Rick Perry disavowed his earlier decision to require schoolgirls in Texas to be vaccinated against a sexually transmitted disease that causes cervical cancer. Merck & Co., the maker of the HPV vaccine Gardasil, was paying to try to make the vaccine mandatory across the country, but conservatives and parents groups objected, saying the demand could seem to condone premarital sex and interfere with the way they raised their children.
A recent Pew Research Center report found that differences between political parties over vaccinations were modest.
Sixty-five percent of Republicans, 76 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of independents said that children should be required to be vaccinated, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2009, there were no party differences.
Greater divisions were based on age. More than 68 percent of American adults overall say childhood vaccinations should be mandatory versus 30 percent who favor allowing parents to decide. But among 18- to 29-year-olds, the number on the side of parental choice rises to 41 percent. Only 20 percent of adults 65 and older agree.
During this latest tempest, Democrats immediately accused Christie of trying to appeal to what the spokesman for the Democratic National Committee, Mo Elleithee, called the "radical, conspiracy-theory base that's wagging the dog of today's Republican Party."
"But if he wants to actually be a leader, then he should stop bowing to junk science and take a cue from President Obama by showing leadership that promotes facts and keeps our children and our nation safe," Elleithee said.
President Barack Obama earlier urged Americans to vaccinate their children.
"The science is, you know, pretty indisputable," he said.
Paul, the senator from Kentucky who has appealed to libertarians, initially did not back down from his comments to CNBC linking vaccines to mental disorders, despite widespread criticism. He presented the decision of whether to vaccinate as one of personal freedom.
"I have heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking, normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines," he said on Monday.
Rand also said he thought that vaccines were a good thing but that parents “should have some input” on whether their children received them. On Laura Ingraham’s radio show, he said most vaccines should be voluntary.
But by late Tuesday, he also issued a statement clarifying his comments, noting he had not said that vaccines caused disorders. He supported vaccines, had gotten them himself and had had all of his children vaccinated, he said.
Democrat Hillary Clinton had jumped in on Monday, tweeting, “The science is clear. The earth is round, the sky is blue, and #vaccineswork. Let's protect all our kids. #GrandmothersKnowBest."
And Florida's Republican Sen. Marco Rubio and Louisiana's Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal both came out strongly for vaccines on Tuesday.
Rubio said all children should be vaccinated, except those who needed medical exemptions.
"This is the most advanced country in the world," he said. "We have eradicated diseases that in the past have killed and permanently disabled people. My own grandfather was disabled by polio as a young child."
Jindal said he would not send his children to a school that did not require vaccinations.
"There is a lot of fear-mongering out there on this," he said. "I think it is irresponsible for leaders to undermine the public's confidence in vaccinations that have been tested and proven to protect public health. Science supports them, and they keep our children safe from potentially deadly but preventable diseases."
House Speaker John Boehner was asked on Tuesday whether parents should legally be required to vaccinate their children.
"I don't know if we need another law, but I do believe all children ought to be vaccinated," he said.
Meanwhile, members of parties came together over during a Congressional hearing over their concern about the outbreak.
“This is far too serious an issue to be treated as a political football,” Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee said. “People still die from measles.”