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Nikki Haley (And Her Opponents) Struggle With a Vaccine Message
The Health 202

Nikki Haley (And Her Opponents) Struggle With a Vaccine Message

Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley portrays herself as a voice of reason in the Republican Party. “Let’s find consensus,” she said about abortion during the first GOP primary debate. “Let’s treat this like a respectful issue.”

It’s talk like that — and strong polling in a hypothetical matchup against President Biden — that has helped position Haley to potentially overtake Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis as the GOP’s “plan B” presidential candidate.

But an examination of her record on vaccination shows how she’s also tuned her positions to the views of the Republican base. 

Many of the GOP presidential candidates have struggled to fine-tune their message on vaccination, my colleague Daniel Chang and I have reported, as their voters grow increasingly skeptical of shots that most doctors will tell you are vital for public health. Former president Donald Trump, for example, has tried to simultaneously claim credit for his “Operation Warp Speed” program to accelerate development of coronavirus vaccines and also bash DeSantis for promoting vaccination to Floridians.

Forty percent of Republicans believe that parents should be able to opt out of required childhood vaccines — about double the rate in 2019, according to a September survey from KFF. Support for vaccination among Democrats has remained stable, by comparison, with 84 percent saying they should be required for public school students.

It’s an especially tricky subject for Haley as she tries to hold herself out as the sensible GOP candidate. Her basic message: Covid vaccines are good but shouldn’t be required. 

During the height of the pandemic, Haley praised the Trump administration’s efforts to expedite vaccine development — and even touted Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates’ donations for vaccine manufacturing plants.

But she’s since declared her opposition to vaccine mandates, saying in a November 2021 interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network: “Mandates are not what America does.” And she’s encouraged some anti-vaccine themes. 

“Did I get it, did my family get it? Yes,” she said in the CBN interview. “But if you ask a woman who wants to get pregnant, and she’s worried about it, or you ask a parent whose child might be compromised, and they’re worried about it, that’s a personal family decision.”

The idea that the coronavirus vaccine may interfere with fertility is a common fear stoked by anti-vaccine activists. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says on its website that there is “no evidence that any vaccines, including COVID-19 vaccines, cause fertility problems.”

Early in her political career as a state legislator, Haley co-sponsored a bill mandating vaccinations for HPV — a common sexually transmitted virus, some variants of which can cause cervical and other cancers as well as genital warts.

The benefits of HPV vaccination are hard to dispute. One 2020 study tracking nearly 1.7 million Swedish girls and women over 11 years found a nearly 90 percent reduction of risk for cervical cancer for those who began vaccination before age 17, compared with the unvaccinated. HPV vaccination can also help protect boys against some cancers.

But Haley, and the rest of the South Carolina legislature, faced a lobbying blitz by evangelicals, who feared that the vaccine would encourage children to have sex. Support for the bill cratered; Haley kept her name on as co-sponsor but later voted against the legislation. As governor, Haley vetoed a bill that would have encouraged — not mandated — HPV shots.

Haley’s primary positioning on vaccines is less extreme than that of some of her rivals; biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, for example, has said he regrets getting the covid shot. 

But her long history on vaccination issues looks today like a premonition. Megan Weis, a research assistant professor at the University of South Carolina medical school, said of the state’s struggle over the HPV vaccine: “In retrospect, that was the beginning of some of the vaccine misinformation movement.”

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[Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Megan Weis’ title. It has been updated to reflect her current role.]