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Vaccinations are the new political wedge issue

Republicans must balance scientific evidence showing the benfits of vaccines with lingering suspicion from many conservatives.

Vaccinations have become a political wedge issue and may have opened up a new front in the GOP culture wars. 

The science of vaccinations is straightforward: Public health officials point to extensive research showing vaccines protect the common good. But the politics are far less clear, as comments from likely 2016 GOP hopefuls like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and other Republicans have laid bare.

Christie, in London Monday, said parents should have a measure of choice when it comes to getting their children inoculated. Paul, later Monday, told CNBC the issue was a matter of “freedom” and said most vaccinations ought to be voluntary. "The state doesn’t own your children. Parents own their children," Paul, a physician, said. 

Paul attempted to clarify his comments in a statement Tuesday, saying "I did not say vaccines caused disorders, just that they were temporally related -- I did not allege causation. I support vaccines, I receive them myself and I had all of my children vaccinated."

The two GOPers made their comments even as public health officials work to contain an outbreak of measles across 14 states. Those who are vaccinated against measles are immune and cannot contract the virus. 

The vaccination issue places Republicans in an awkward position: They must balance the inarguable evidence showing the benefits of vaccination with lingering suspicion from many conservatives, who often regard entrenched institutions -- from big government to the health care industry to scientists at elite universities -- with skepticism.

“What’s happening is they don’t want to alienate their anti-government conservative base but they also don’t want to alienate their middle-of-the-road Republicans who believe in vaccines,” said Dr. Corey Hebert, a professor at the Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center. “It’s a contentious issue even though the science is indisputable. It’s emotional. With emotion it breeds uncertainty.”

RELATED: Chris Christie expressed concern about vaccine autism link in '09

Several more Republicans stoked the controversy Tuesday, arguing that mandatory vaccinations are akin to too much government meddling. GOP Rep. Sean Duffy, a father of seven children, told msnbc host Jose Diaz-Balart on Tuesday vaccines are a “slippery slope” when the government gets involved, and urged parental choice. And House Speaker John Bohener told reporters that while he does believe all children should be vaccinated, “I don’t know if we need another law.” 

There’s also an element of anti-science rhetoric in the discussion reminiscent of the debates around climate change and evolution. In Paul's CNBC interview, he floated the notion – disputed by scientists—that vaccinations can result in mental disabilities. “I have heard many tragic cases of walking, talking normal children who wound up with profound mental disorders after vaccines,” he said.

"It’s a contentious issue even though the science is indisputable. It’s emotional. With emotion it breeds uncertainty."'

Paul's comment echoed those of former GOP Minnesota Rep. Michele Bachmann, who, during her failed bid for president in 2012, claimed that the vaccine against HPV, the sexually transmitted virus that can cause cervical cancer, might cause “mental retardation.” Social conservatives at the time also argued vaccines could somehow lead to sexual promiscuity. That was the line of attack against then-candidate Rick Perry, who during his tenure as governor of Texas, issued a mandate requiring young girls to receive the HPV vaccine.

These politicians have a significant amount of public support on their side. According to a poll released last week by Pew Research Center, a substantial chunk of Americans — 30% — say parents should be able to decide whether or not to vaccinate their kids. Meanwhile, just 68% said the vaccinations of children should be required. The same poll found an ideological split, with 34% of Republicans and 33% of independents saying parents should be able to make the choice, versus 22% of Democrats.

The political lines are not always so clear cut, however, and even prominent Democrats have seemingly shifted their thinking over time. Hillary Clinton tweeted on Monday that “The science is clear: The earth is round, the sky is blue and #vaccineswork”. But back in 2008, she filled out a survey from the Autism Action Network saying, “I am committed to make investments to find the causes of autism, including possible environmental causes like vaccines.” And while President Obama on Sunday said the science regarding vaccines is “indisputable,” in 2008, when he was running for president, he said the science on vaccines was “inconclusive.”

RELATED: Hillary plays the grandma card in vaccination debate

Anti-vaccination views have also been perpetuated by plenty of celebrities, including Jenny McCarthy and Mayim Bialik. “Pop culture icons who have no scientific background are continually being used as leaders in the anti-vaccine movement,” said Hebert. 

Not all Republicans are toeing the anti-vaccination line.

Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, another likely 2016 hopeful, took a middle-of-the-road path. Lucy Nashed a spokeswoman for Perry told msnbc, “Gov. Perry strongly believes in protecting life and has sought to improve the health and well-being of Texans in a variety of ways, including increased immunization rates.”

"Vaccinations are important. I urge every parent to get them. Every one."'

Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson told msnbc that while he strongly believes in the rights of parents to raise their children as they see fit, “I also recognize that public health and public safety are extremely important in our society. Certain communicable diseases have been largely eradicated by immunization policies in this country and we should not allow those diseases to return by foregoing safe immunization programs, for philosophical, religious or other reasons when we have the means to eradicate them.”

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio sounded a similar note when asked about vaccinations on Tuesday. "Absolutely, all children in America should be vaccinated," he said. "There is absolutely no medical science or data what so ever that links those vaccinations to onset of Autism or anything of that nature."

Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal said Tuesday he supports mandatory vaccinations. "I would not send my kids to a school that did not require vaccinations," Jindal, said, noting there had been a lot of "fear mongering" around the issue. "Vaccinations are important. I urge every parent to get them. Every one," Jindal said. 

Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on Tuesday said "of course" children should be vaccinated. Cruz, a tea party favorite, said he believed on a good faith exemption for religious convictions. "That's an appropriate judgment for states to make," he said

Republican strategist Ford O’Connell suggested it's an issue many Republicans hope will go away before the 2016 presidential contest gets fully underway. 

“You have everything to lose and nothing to gain,” O’Connell. “You really don’t need to say much of anything until the campaign really begins unless it’s issues on the national conscious — like ISIS, energy of the economy. Outside those three, you’re better off saving your thoughts,” said O’Connell.