On Tuesday, Robert F. Kennedy Jr., an environmental activist whose recent work has focused increasingly on baseless allegations that vaccines are unsafe and can injure a statistically minuscule population of “medically fragile” children, appeared at the California State Assembly beside an unlikely scene partner: actress Jessica Biel. In a series of Instagram posts, first reported in Jezebel by Anna Merlan, the two posed with activists, legislators, and miscellaneous bureaucratic architecture. In the caption, Kennedy called Biel “courageous.”
The duo had come to lobby against SB 276, a California state bill that would limit medical exemptions from vaccinations without approval from a state public-health officer. The bill has been decried by anti-vaxx advocates like Kennedy and vaguely critiqued by Gov. Gavin Newsom, over official estimations that it would reduce medical exemptions by nearly 40 percent.
Although reports circulated in 2015 that Biel and her husband, Justin Timberlake, did not plan to vaccinate their kids (“She feels that vaccination could cause complications,” a source told In Touch Weekly), Biel has never publicly commented on the vaccination debate. But on a phone call with The Daily Beast, Kennedy confirmed that the actress, whose past controversial opinions include insisting it is a “struggle” to get roles because she is too sexy, was “upset about this issue because of its particular cruelty.”
Kennedy, who takes issue with the label “anti-vaxx”—which he deems “pharmaceutical propaganda” and “a lie”—declined to align Biel with the controversial movement. “I would say that she was for safe vaccines and for medical freedom,” Kennedy said, before echoing an anti-vaxx rallying cry: “My body, my choice.”
In an Instagram post after The Daily Beast story appeared, Biel denied that she is anti-vaccination.
“I support children getting vaccinations and I also support families having the right to make educated medical decisions for their children alongside their physicians,” she wrote.
This is a spin that many vaccine skeptics put on their position—one that scientists say ignores the fact that high rates of vaccination is what creates herd immunity and guards against outbreaks. In fact, a growing number of medical, religious and philosophical exemptions is experts say fueled the recent measles outbreaks that have infected hundreds with a disease once considered eradicated.
In addition, Jezebel spoke to a California legislative staffer who sat in on meetings with Biel and Kennedy and reported that both spoke of their personal belief that vaccines are dangerous and ineffective—despite study after study showing the opposite.
The staffer claimed that Biel did not comply with the vaccination schedule recommended by her doctor because she believed the child of a friend had been harmed by an immunization.
Biel and Kennedy’s primary concern with the bill stems from what they deem bureaucratic “red tape,” which they believe would force kids to receive vaccinations.
“The biggest problem with the bill, which is something I think Jessica is concerned with,” Kennedy said, “is that a doctor who has made a determination—if he has found children in this state whose doctors have determined that they’re too fragile to receive vaccinations—this bill would overrule the doctors and force them to be vaccinated anyways.”
“She was a very effective advocate,” Kennedy said of Biel. “She was very strong and very knowledgeable. Extremely well-informed. An extremely effective advocate. She knows what she’s talking about… She’s upset about this issue because of its particular cruelty. She has friends who have been vaccine-injured who would be forced to leave the state.”
In her Instagram post, Biel said that her “dearest friends have a child with a medical condition that warrants an exemption from vaccinations, and should this bill pass, it would greatly affect their family’s ability to care for their child in this state.”
But vaccination advocates say the bill will have minimal impact on those with valid reasons for exemption, citing medical authorities like the bill’s prominent co-sponsors: the California Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, California.
“The children who need medical exemptions will not have a problem getting them if SB 276 becomes law,” said Leah Russin, executive director of Vaccinate California, another co-sponsor of the bill. “People who are on immuno-suppressant drugs will not have a problem getting a medical exemption—and in fact, the people who truly need medical exemptions desperately need everyone else to be vaccinated. That’s why they support this bill. Medical advice should be coming from medical professionals.”
When asked about the recent outbreaks of measles, which brought on the largest number of recorded cases in the United States since the disease was declared eliminated in 2000, Kennedy insisted that vaccine exemptions were not responsible. “The measles epidemic has almost nothing to do with unvaccinated children,” he said. “Particularly the medically fragile children have nothing to do with it.”
Kennedy declined to comment on how the pair spent their day at the capitol or who they spent it with, noting only that they had met with some 15 legislators, some of whom supported the bill and some who did not. In his Instagram post, however, Kennedy and Biel appeared alongside Assemblywoman Autumn Burke, who has come out against the bill.
“I have the utmost respect for Dr. Pan [the state senator who introduced the bill] and believe his heart to be in the right place,” Burke wrote in a statement to The Daily Beast. “However I feel this bill is a direct violation of the relationship between an individual child, the family and their doctor.
Representatives for Biel and Timberlake did not respond to requests for comment.
“A Hollywood celebrity and the head of an environmental organization should not have credibility on an issue about how to regulate the medical profession, when an overwhelming number of medical professionals support this bill,” Russin said. “It’s the Jenny McCarthy show all over again.”