Marianne Williamson, spiritual guru, queen of emotion-forward rhetoric, and presidential hopeful (yes still!!), wants you to know that, despite questioning immunizations that have been scientifically shown to be safe and effective, she is not anti-vax. It’s just that if she were somehow elected, she’d “order the Centers for Disease Control to establish an independent commission to review/reform vaccine safety,” she explained in a Facebook post last week. She also has argued that labeling concern about vaccines as “anti-vaxx” is “incorrect and unfair.” She prefers, she tweeted yesterday, the term “ ‘safe-vaxx,’ which is totally understandable.”
This is exactly how an anti-vaxxer would talk about vaccination. “Safe-vaxx” here is a term akin to “pro-life,” a propaganda label that’s meant to make a deeply partisan opinion seem universally palatable. (It also discount the obvious reality that everyone wants medicine to be safe.) And, as Anna Merlan at Vice points out, we already have a National Vaccine Advisory Committee that fills the exact role that Williamson says needs filling (FYI, the inability to ever be satisfied by science and proof is the very definition of being anti-vax). So what is Williamson doing with this language? As my colleague Ruth Graham wrote a few months ago in a piece dissecting another Marianne tweet, about praying away hurricanes, “vaccine skeptics rarely, if ever, call themselves anti-vaxxers.”
Indeed, Williamson is not alone. Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has called the term anti-vax “pharmaceutical propaganda.” He prefers, like Williamson, to use the terms safe vaccines or medical freedom. Jessica Biel, who has lobbied against mandatory vaccines, has said that she supports “families having the right to make educated medical decisions for their children alongside their physicians.” A non-profit called Crazy Mothers got attention recently for urging people to use the term “vaccine risk-aware.” Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey once wanted to “green our vaccines.” In fact, the only time I could find an anti-vaxxer calling themselves an anti-vaxxer was from the 1800s, when Anti-Vaccination Leagues and societies sprung up in America and the U.K. in response to vaccination laws.
I happen to agree that we should reserve the term anti-vax for folks spouting their vaccine-skeptical views from large platforms while refusing to look at the data, as journalist Tara Haelle has argued. The confused parents left in their wake, just trying to mind the health of their own child, can be appropriately called vaccine hesitant. But “safe-vaxx” makes things all the more confusing for anyone who just wants to raise their child, or figure out which candidate to vote for. On the very off chance that Williamson isn’t aware of this, it’s actually her duty, as a presidential candidate, to know such things, so as not to further confuse the public.