Nothing irks me more than the anti-vaccine rally cry of “My Child, My Choice” or the insistence by parents of unvaccinated children that their decision to eschew preventative care is a parental right.
The moment the nurse hands your baby to you, you cannot help but examine every square centimeter of her. Those tiny fingernails, those puffy eyelids, those little ears–every piece of the baby needs a nibble or a nuzzle. The feelings of being forever tied to this little body and this young life or overwhelming.
But those feelings do not give you ownership rights over your child. As your child grows, it becomes obvious that you cannot make your child be or feel or live the way you choose. Your child’s life belongs to your child. Your child ultimately owns his own body and is growing into the responsibility of caring for himself. As your child grows, it is your responsibility to take care of him. You are not your child’s owner; you are his caretaker.
Yet, the anti-vaccine movement gets far in framing the vaccination as a freedom-of-choice and parent rights issue. Mothering magazine maven Jennifer Margulis argues:
Unlike in the United Arab Emirates, in America we believe parents are capable of making their own decisions about their children’s health. We believe in freedom of choice. This freedom of choice extends to when — and even whether— parents vaccinate their kids.
Her wording is clever. We aren’t those terrible un-American Arabs, we are American (cue John Philip Sousa). Either you believe in some sort of vague, repressive, Sharia law philosophy, or you are for freedom, America, and allowing parents to refuse vaccines.
What exactly is this choice that anti-vaccine activists think they have a right to? One conservative magazine published an article that claimed: “If parents think that getting measles is a lot better than acquiring a lifelong mental disorder, they should be able to make that choice, especially for diseases that aren’t generally deadly.”
In other words, if parents believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that vaccines cause autism and that autism is worse than measles, it is only American to give them to right to make medical decisions based on these falsehoods. The right to refuse vaccines for your child is the right to believe fear-mongering about autism, to believe that autism is the worst possible outcome while also believing that measles isn’t a big deal, to deny that globally, 17 people die from measles every hour every day. It is to think that those measles deaths happen to the other people far away and to choose to believe that the woman in Washington state who just lost her life to measles is part of some conspiracy.
Anti-vaccinationists assert that they have the God-given right to make medical decisions about and for their children, but basing these decisions on the worst possible misinformation casts doubt on whether or not they are capable of making such decisions.
In the end, however, their capabilities are irrelevant. No parent has complete and unfettered rights to making medical decisions for their children. Just ask the parents of Daniel Hauser, who were ordered by the court in 2009 to bring their son in for chemotherapy for his Hodgkins Lymphoma.
The Journal of Ethics summed up the issue of medical care and parental rights well:
Medical neglect statutes examine whether appropriate care was provided, not how it was provided. A parent who refuses care based on an objection to treatment, whatever the basis, is just as likely to have the state intervene to make medical decisions as a parent who is not physically able to provide care or not mentally capable of making decisions.
Anti-vaxxers love their children and their beliefs are sincere, but they don’t own them and they do not have complete, unobstructed say over their children.
But what of choice? Isn’t choice American, even if the choice is wrong? After all, many people choose to listen to Nickleback or cheer for the Packers. Isn’t it American to defend the wrong choices of others because we believe in freedom?
Unlike putting cheese on your head or listening to bad music, the choice to refuse immunization for your children has consequences for other people: people going through chemotherapy or people who have undergone organ transplants or people who are new and too young to be immunized. America might be about freedom, but we are also about responsibility. If Nickleback carried the potential to kill children with cancer, we would outlaw them forthwith.
Lastly, children have rights. Parental rights are equal to the rights of the child, not greater than them. Children have the right to be taken care of and to be protected against things which might harm them. For this reason, we mandate by law car seats, educational standards, and bicycle helmets for children. A parent’s belief system is never factored into the freedom to choose these mandates. If we hand over full ownership of a child to any parent, we might as well erase decades worth of work gaining rights for children.
I have no doubt that anti-vaccine parents want the best for their children and want to protect them. However, their intentions and beliefs ought not to overrule the rights of their children to best medical practices. Though an anti-vaccine parent wants the best for her child, the science tells us that they are not providing the best for their child. The issue has nothing to do with freedom or choice or parental rights. It’s about keeping kids from getting sick.