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RFK Jr.’s claims about vaccines and autism are unbecoming of his family’s legacy

The presidential candidate's views depart from those of his more progressive relatives and are more like those of his grandfather, who saw disability as something to be ashamed of.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in Los Angeles on May 23, 2023.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in Los Angeles on May 23, 2023.Mark Abramson for NBC News

I can’t be the only person who rolled his eyes when Democrat Robert F. Kennedy Jr., who has helped push the lie that autism is something new and something human beings have caused, said during his presidential campaign announcement this spring that he’s “been around at the spear tip of people with intellectual disabilities” his whole life. He’s right that he’s been around people with disabilities. In their founding of the Special Olympics and Best Buddies, and in such policies as the Community Mental Health Act and the Americans with Disabilities Act, others in the Kennedy family have helped to reshape what it means to be disabled in America, and in doing so, helped open doors that had previously been closed to people with disabilities.

It’s disingenuous for the anti-vaccine activist to claim association with his family’s legacy.

But it’s disingenuous for the anti-vaccine activist to claim association with his family’s legacy when the crux of his baseless claim that vaccines cause autism is the ugly message that being autistic is bad, worse even than ushering in the return of potentially deadly transmissible diseases like measles. It’s especially misleading for him to try to hitch his candidacy to that legacy when his conspiracy mongering against vaccines has led some of his family members to publicly disavow him, which he acknowledged in his campaign announcement by saying that many in his family “disagree with what I’m doing.”

RFK Jr.’s anti-autism vitriol lines up more with the legacy of his grandfather Joseph P. Kennedy Sr., who gave his approval for what is believed to have been the first lobotomy in the U.S. performed on an intellectually disabled person, his oldest daughter, Rose Marie, better known as Rosemary. 

The Kennedy patriarch saw disability as something to be ashamed of. Similarly, RFK Jr.’s history of linking vaccines to autism encourages parents to not only be ashamed of having a child with autism but also to blame themselves for having caused it by having that child vaccinated against infectious childhood diseases.

Having a daughter born with an intellectual disability didn’t fit with Joseph Kennedy Sr.’s plan to create a political dynasty, and when she was 23, her father chose to have her subjected to a prefrontal lobotomy. Kennedy historian Laurence Leamer, employing a term used at the time, wrote in his book “The Kennedy Women: The Saga of an American Family” that Rosemary was “probably the first person with mental retardation in America to receive a prefrontal lobotomy.”

When the lobotomy didn’t fix her, Joe Sr. hid her by sending her to the St. Coletta School for Exceptional Children in Wisconsin. Rosemary Kennedy’s sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver said she didn’t know Rosemary’s whereabouts for more than a decade. Rosemary Kennedy was still at St. Coletta when she died in 2005. Her father appears to have never visited her and there’s no record that she saw any of her family members for 20 years.

Their love for their sister Rosemary and her sudden disappearance seems to have informed how those Kennedy siblings felt about people with disabilities and how they should be treated. Shriver, for example, founded the Special Olympics, which, even though it has sometimes reinforced stereotypes about people with disabilities and kept athletes segregated instead of included, offers disabled people what Rosemary Kennedy’s parents denied her: visibility.

President John F. Kennedy called for the number of people institutionalized in mental hospitals to be “cut by half, within a decade or two,” and less than two months before his assassination, he signed the Community Mental Health Act. As two of RFK Jr.’s siblings and a niece noted in a 2019 op-ed for Politico, President Kennedy “signed the Vaccination Assistance Act in 1962 to, in the words of a CDC report, ‘achieve as quickly as possible the protection of the population, especially of all preschool children ... through intensive immunization activity.’”  RFK Jr., they wrote in their op-ed, is “an outlier in the Kennedy family.”

As two of RFK Jr.’s siblings noted in a 2019 op-ed, President Kennedy “signed the Vaccination Assistance Act in 1962 to ‘achieve as quickly as possible the protection of the population ... through intensive immunization activity.’”

In 1965, Robert F. Kennedy Sr., then a senator representing New York,  toured Willowbrook State School and dubbed it a “snake pit,” a visit that helped lead to the closing of that institution.

Rosemary was not the only reason that, after his brothers’ assassinations, Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts picked up the baton on disability issues. His son Ted Jr. had had his leg amputated after pediatric bone cancer. He was a reason his father pushed for universal health care and helped the Americans with Disabilities Act get passed in 1990. I was born that year and, thus, I’ve never known an America without the ADA.

While the personal stories likely prompted the previous generation of Kennedys to do good things, the personal story of RFK Jr., an environmental lawyer, had the opposite effect. His son’s severe food allergies prompted him to co-found the Food Allergies Institute, and some time after that he began arguing that vaccines were linked to allergies. By 2005, he began to argue that vaccines were linked to autism. He told The New York Times last year that he was convinced of a connection after the mother of an autistic child brought him studies that she said make a link between vaccines and autism.

A controversial 1998 paper claimed vaccines caused autism, but it was later retracted. Subsequent studies have not found a connection. A 2019 Danish study found that children who received the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine were 7% less likely to be diagnosed with autism.

Kennedy upped his criticism against vaccines during the height of the Covid pandemic, and at a Defeat the Mandates rally in Washington in January 2022, said, “Even in Hitler’s Germany, you could cross the Alps into Switzerland. You could hide in an attic like Anne Frank did.”

He later tweeted, “I apologize for my reference to Anne Frank, especially to families that suffered the Holocaust horrors. My intention was to use examples of past barbarism to show the perils from new technologies of control. To the extent my remarks caused hurt, I am truly and deeply sorry.”

The New York Times reported the next month that within a two-year period, five of RFK Jr.’s eight surviving siblings had publicly rebuked him for comments he’d made about vaccines. His sister Kerry tweeted, “Bobby’s lies and fear-mongering yesterday were both sickening and destructive. I strongly condemn him for his hateful rhetoric.” She wrote that “he does not represent” the views of the Kennedy family or Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, where she serves as president.

That’s what made a reference to his family’s history so galling when he kicked off his campaign.

Michael Osterholm, the director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota, told The New York Times last year that RFK Jr.’s anti-vaccine crusade “undercuts 50 years of public health vaccine practice, and he’s done it in a way I’ve never seen anyone else do it.”

Within a two-year period, five of RFK Jr.’s eight surviving siblings publicly rebuked him for comments he’d made about vaccines.

Kennedy hadn’t yet kicked off a campaign for president. But even then, Osterholm said that as anti-vaccine conspiracy theorists go, “He is among the most dangerous because of the credibility of who he is and what his family name has brought to this issue.”

Unbelievably, the candidate said at a town hall meeting Wednesday, “I’ve never been anti-vaccine.” He said his position is that they should be tested for safety after he claimed falsely that they’re not.

Who knows whether the work that his father, aunt and uncle did on disability wasn’t their attempt to atone for the sins of their father? If so, that would only make RFK Jr.’s heel turn all the more devastating. He’s essentially arguing that mental illness and disability are reasons to be ashamed and his advocacy would reattach a stigma to disabilities that programs such as the Special Olympics have sought to erase.

He may want us to think about his family’s work with the intellectually disabled, but he’s not continuing the admirable work the previous generation of Kennedys started. He’s desecrating it.