Rand Paul and the Anti-Vaxxers of the Right

Meet the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons.

US Republican Senator from Kentucky Rand Paul addresses the 2015 Conservative Policy Summit at the Heritage Foundation in Washington on January 13, 2015.


By the end of Tuesday, Republicans from Dr. Ben Carson to Kentucky Senator Rand Paul were proclaiming their faith in vaccines. Paul even brought New York Times reporter Jeremy W. Peters along as he got a booster shot. Some of Paul's quotes ended up in a quick story about the strange political theater; some ended up in a Peters follow-up today, about Paul's long association with the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. In an interview, the AAPS's executive director, Dr. Jane Orient, suggested that the risk of mental damage from vaccines was real, and that "we have a lot of observations that are not otherwise explainable."

The Peters story (which came after an Andrew Kaczynski story in BuzzFeed) solved a small mystery: Where did Paul say he'd "heard of many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccine?" Well, he was campaigning for Senate when the Tea Party was in full flower. The AAPS was a big presence at rallies against the Affordable Care Act, and at the time reporters asked why so many Republicans were associating with it. It was a controversy when Nevada's Sharron Angle appeared at an AAPS event, and when Paul did the same, the Courier-Journal's Joseph Gerth dove deep into its archives. Among the greatest hits:

  • The AAPS's website ran a story asking whether Barack Obama's charisma could be explained by hypnotic power, positing that his campaign logo "might just be the letter ‘O,’ but it also resembles a crystal ball, a favorite of hypnotists."
  • The AAPS's journal had, three years before the Paul U.S. Senate bid, published a study which argued that "both official reports and the peer-reviewed literature afford substantive grounds for doubting that HIV is the necessary and sufficient cause of AIDS and that anti-retroviral treatment is unambiguously beneficial."

The trove was overflowing. The AAPS had even published research on the autism-vaccine "link" from David and Mark Geier, a father-son medical team that had come to argue for the use of Lupron, a hormone-suppressing drug typically used for chemical castration.

In 2012, Mark Geier lost his medical license, but that was after years of presentations about the "link" and the "Lupron protocol." That same year, Paul joined an AAPS tele-town hall about the considerably less heated subject of Medicare reimbursement.

Paul has not remained so close to the AAPS. "I don't believe he is a member anymore," said spokesman Brian Darling. And Paul is far from alone in having listened to less-than-scientific concerns about vaccines before rejecting the "link" theory. As conservatives have been pointing out all week, some of the noisiest "anti-vaxxer" clamor has come from culturally left enclaves. Since last year, the Daily Show has mocked "anti-vaxxers" and the "dumb liberals" who fall for their arguments. Yet 10 years ago, the show invited Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. on to discuss his theories about the "link."

"If you actually read the science, which most journalists don't do, the evidence is overwhelming," said Kennedy.

"If these vaccine-makers or other people are allowing a certain compound into these vaccines that's causing autism, and they now know it, why are they fighting so hard?" asked Jon Stewart. "Is it purely to save their asses, or are they worried about people rejecting vaccines in general, and then the public health suffers?"

Since then, Kennedy has become a sort of tragic, pathetic figure on the left; a Washington Post profile last year captured how Democrats were hearing him out, to be polite, before speeding away from his theorizing. Paul survived his 2010 association with the AAPS and some quack theories, and won a Senate race. But more people are paying attention now, and the "left," Kennedy excepted, has gotten over its own confused flirtation with anti-vaxxers.

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