WASHINGTON - Back in 2009, when Rand Paul was pursuing his long-shot bid to win Kentucky’s Republican Senate primary, he spoke to a small physicians’ association that has publicized discredited medical theories, including possible links between vaccines and autism and between abortion and an increased risk of breast cancer.
At the time, Paul, an ophthalmologist, was no stranger to the group, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. He boasted at its annual meeting that he had been a member for more than two decades and that he relied on its research, statistics and views about the role of government in medicine.
“I am not a newcomer to AAPS,” Paul said, referring to the group.
On Monday, Paul helped set off an uproar when he said amid a national measles outbreak that parents should be allowed to decide whether their children needed to be vaccinated, and that he had heard from parents whose children had suffered “profound mental disorders” after being vaccinated.
In doing so, he was echoing the views of the head of the association, which has also lobbied in recent years for state laws permitting parents to opt out of mandatory inoculation programs based on their beliefs.
On Tuesday, Paul sought to clarify those comments, inviting a New York Times reporter to accompany him to the Capitol physician’s office to watch him receive a hepatitis A booster vaccination. During the visit, Paul said he believed the science was definitive on the matter and that vaccines were not harmful.
“It just annoys me that I’m being characterized as someone who’s against vaccines,” he said as he was rolling up his T-shirt sleeve before the shot. “That’s not what I said. I said I’ve heard of people who’ve had vaccines and they see a temporal association and they believe that.”
His attempt to push back against the perception that he puts his libertarian politics ahead of his better medical judgment reflected the difficult balance the senator is trying to strike: To appeal to the kind of voters he needs for a likely White House bid next year - those who do not typically vote Republican - he cannot afford to promote views that seem out of the mainstream.
But Paul and the physicians’ association share a libertarian philosophy and deep skepticism about government involvement in medical care that often plays out in public health debates.
“This is about channeling ideals of freedom, personal choice and liberty even if you put the community in peril in the process,” said Dr. Arthur L. Caplan, an expert in medical ethics at NYU Langone Medical Center.
Dr. Jane Orient, the executive director of AAPS, which is based in Tucson, Arizona, said that she believed the science behind vaccination risks was far from settled and that hundreds of parents had reported that their children had had severe deficits after an inoculation.
“We have a lot of observations that are not otherwise explainable,” said Orient, an internist. “I don’t think we can dismiss it out of hand.”That puts the group at odds with mainstream medical organizations such as the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics, which say that only children with certain medical conditions that may put them at greater risk for complications should be permitted to skip inoculations.
The AAPS stance on childhood vaccines is not its only controversial one. Its periodical, Journal of the American Physicians and Surgeons, has published reports suggesting a link between abortions and higher rates of breast cancer, a tie rejected by an expert panel of the National Cancer Institute. Another report contended that illegal immigrants brought disease into this country and benefited if their babies were born with disabilities.
The association’s agenda opposes government intervention in medical practice and argues that patients have the right to choose their treatments, Caplan said.“They are basically libertarians in white coats,” he said.
Orient said Paul’s membership in the group lapsed around the time he was elected to Congress. But the lawmaker has not been shy about promoting the organization’s work.In an interview with Fox News in 2010, he lauded the organization’s tradition of fighting government intrusion into medicine, such as suing to stop the Clinton administration’s health care initiative in the 1990s and opposing the Affordable Care Act.
He suggested that the association was expanding fast enough to rival the mainstream physicians’ group, the American Medical Association, which he said was out of step with doctors across the country.
“The AMA has been struggling for years, and they do not represent doctors across the country,” he said. “And AAPS has been growing dramatically as doctors who want to fight against big government join together under a different banner. The AMA doesn’t represent me. I’ve never been a member.”
As recently as the summer of 2012, Paul was featured as a speaker at a teleconference town hall that the association hosted on the subject of Medicare reimbursement for doctors.
The group has also provided the senator with modest contributions to his campaign, including $3,000 to his Senate candidacy in 2010.
A spokesman for Paul, Brian Darling, said the senator’s association with the group should not be taken to mean that he reflexively backed its agenda.
“He agreed with the group when they opposed Obamacare, but I can’t imagine he supports every position they’ve ever taken,” Darling said.
The association, which was formed in 1943 and has about 3,000 dues-paying members, has taken on issues beyond traditional medical topics. More than a decade ago, the group unsuccessfully urged the U.S. Supreme Court to release post-mortem photographs of a former Clinton administration official, Vincent Foster, arguing that they were needed to make certain that Foster, whose death was attributed to suicide, had not been murdered.