Amid a surging measles outbreak in the United States that has grown to about 160 cases in 10 states, Arizona’s legislature recently passed bills allowing for a religious exemption for required vaccination shots — a move that public health advocates warn could lead to fewer immunizations. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey, who describes himself as “pro-vaccination” and “anti-measles,” suggested Wednesday he would strike down those proposals.
But one state lawmaker begged to differ with the governor. Republican State Rep. Kelly Townsend, a five-term state representative who is no stranger to making controversial and befuddling statements on social media, took to Facebook on Thursday to bemoan that Arizona was “prepared to give up our liberty, the very sovereignty of our body, because of measles.”
Why? Because doing so would be “Communist.”
“I read yesterday that the idea is being floated that if not enough people get vaccinated, then we are going to force them to,” Townsend wrote on Thursday morning. “The idea that we force someone to give up their liberty for the sake of the collective is not based on American values but rather, Communist.”
Townsend’s suggestion that it is “Communist” for the government to play a role in “forcefully injecting” children with vaccinations has precipitated the latest wave of strong criticism against the anti-vaccine movement amid what has become perhaps the most emotionally charged public-health discussion today.
“Wanted: a vaccine to protect us from Rep. Kelly Townsend’s crazy Communist conspiracy theories,” Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts tweeted.
Hours later, amid the mounting criticism, Townsend doubled down on her stance in a separate post.
“The point here isn’t whether or not we should vaccinate, that’s for another post,” she wrote. “The point is whether or not your body is sovereign or if the government can force you to be injected against your will.”
In an interview with The Washington Post, the Republican from Mesa, Ariz., said she acknowledges the voluminous studies supporting the need for and safety of vaccines, but she defended her right to opt out of getting vaccinated and to prevent her children from doing so.
“My child is at risk from being injured from a vaccine, and your child is potentially at risk if my son catches something,” she told The Post. “Whose child is more important? Where’s the line?”
Townsend’s position goes against years of overwhelming evidence from doctors, public health officials, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and others that the measles vaccine is effective and safe. As The Post’s Lindsey Bever reported Thursday, measles was declared eliminated from the United States in 2000, nearly four decades after parents began vaccinating their children in a period in which millions contracted the disease annually. “CDC data shows that from 2000 to 2018, there was an average of 140 measles cases per year in the United States,” Bever wrote. “And there were three reported fatalities during that time — one in 2002, one in 2003 and one in 2015.”
But Townsend demanded that instead of continuing to push for widespread vaccination against the disease, the government and the pharmaceutical industry instead invest money into “discovering what in these vaccines is causing so much injury.”
“The problem is something is in those vaccines,” Townsend said.
Messages like Townsend’s are dangerous, federal health officials have recently warned. “The people who read that information may not know it’s false,” Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, said on Wednesday. “They may be well-meaning, but the spread of false information is a major problem.”
Townsend says her opposition is rooted in her experience. The legislator’s 22-year-old daughter has significant medical problems that she blames on a vaccine she received when she was 10 months old. She says no scientific evidence will convince her otherwise.
“My entire life has been a struggle, and it’s been nothing compared to my daughter’s struggle, and it’s been due to the shots she got at 10 months old,” she said. “You can have 10 years’ worth of daily articles saying vaccines do no harm and I won’t believe it because it happened to us.”
Hundreds of critics and constituents in Mesa were quick to push back against her personal opposition to the practice and the government’s role in that conversation. As of early Friday, her Facebook post had more than 600 reactions and 400-plus comments.
“I’m very sorry to hear about your child,” wrote one constituent who highlighted his disagreement by citing scientific evidence showing the benefit of vaccines. “There are incidents of things like this happening, but it isn’t prevalent enough to say that vaccine’s aren’t worth it.”
“There is no proof that vaccines cause physical damage to children,” another commenter wrote.
Still, she found support, including one constituent who wrote, “Exactly why you got my vote! And why our state will stay red!”
Those familiar with Townsend’s outspoken persona recognize her rhetoric is nothing out of the ordinary. She was accused of stigmatizing drug addiction in a 2016 Facebook post about celebrity deaths, according to the Arizona Republic. Last month, Townsend, citing socialism, sponsored a bill that would bar teachers from expressing their political or religious beliefs in the classroom, the Phoenix New Times reported.
Townsend ended her Facebook plea against communism and vaccinations with a quote from Benjamin Franklin: “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”
Although Townsend later told The Post that quoting Franklin was meant to reflect her thoughts on the role of government rather than her feelings on vaccination, her use of his famous line regarding taxation and defense spending is interesting given the Founding Father’s own history and belief on childhood vaccinations. As Franklin wrote in his 1791 autobiography, his son, Francis, who was not vaccinated, died of smallpox when he was 4. Franklin chose not to inoculate his son because of an illness that had weakened him, according to “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.” Even then, Franklin expressed great remorse in not getting his son vaccinated.
“I long regretted bitterly, and still regret that I had not given it to him by inoculation,” he wrote at the time. “This I mention for the sake of parents who omit that operation, on the supposition that they should never forgive themselves if a child died under it; my example showing that the regret may be the same either way, and that, therefore, the safer should be chosen.”
Still, Townsend pointed to the American polymath as inspiration for her right to be exempted based on her personal beliefs.
“At what point are we saying, ‘We’re okay with this because we don’t want to get measles at some point?' ” she asked. “In order to live in a free society, we have to accept risks.”
She added: “That’s what Benjamin Franklin was trying to say, too.”
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