Kentucky Senator Rand Paul waded into an increasingly contentious debate over enforced vaccinations on Monday, saying in a radio interview that inoculating children "ought to be voluntary."
"I'm not antivaccine at all," the libertarian Republican said Monday, during an interview with talk-radio host Laura Ingraham, "but particularly, most of them ought to be voluntary. What happens if you have somebody not wanting to take the smallpox vaccine and it ruins it for everybody else? I think there are times in which there can be some rules, but for the first part it ought to be voluntary."
Paul later clarified his remarks in an interview with CNBC. "The thing is I think vaccines are one of the greatest medical breakthroughs that we have. I’m a big fan and a great fan of the history of the development of the small-pox vaccine, for example," he said. "But you know, for most of our history, they have been voluntary. So I don’t think I’m arguing for anything out of the ordinary. We are arguing for what most of our history has had."
He added: "I’m not arguing vaccines are a bad idea. I think they are a good thing, but I think the parent should have some input. The state doesn’t own your children. Parents own the children. And it is an issue of freedom and public health."
The comments come amid a growing furor over New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's suggestion that states should "balance" laws on vaccination against a parent's right to choose. He walked back the remarks Monday amid a report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that cases of the measles had spread to 14 states.
Paul walked a similarly fine line, noting that while some vaccines were essential to public health, decisions over timing and dosage should be left open to parents.
It's not only Republicans like Christie and Paul who have found vaccine messaging tricky. President Obama, who urged parents over the weekend to vaccinate their children, previously said that he harbored suspicions about the (long debunked) link between autism and vaccines.
"We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines," he said in 2008, "this person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it."