Vaccine Refusal and Responsibility to Other Children

A common belief about anti-vaxxers is that they think they are only responsible for their only children. This belief is perpetuated by anti-vaxxers themselves. In fact, while perusing the stats of this blog last night, I found a link to a Mothering.com forum discussing a previous post I’d written comparing clusters of vaccine refusal to clusters of people refusing to pick up litter at a ballpark. The Mothering folk didn’t like it:

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The “lame social contract kind of argument” doesn’t resonate with vaccine refusing parents in the same way that picking up garbage other people have thrown out doesn’t resonate with middle school students. It’s a sort of “If it’s not mine, why should I care” mentality that puts children who cannot be vaccinated at risk for the very worst complications of diseases that are preventable.

The first time I heard an anti-vaccine mother argue that she was not responsible for other people’s children, I thought perhaps I had encountered a particularly horrible person. I asked her if she would save someone else’s child in the street about to be hit by a car if it meant leaving her own child on the sidewalk for a moment. I was trying to prove to her that we all feel a compulsion to protect children, whether or not they are ours, but she refused to answer my question.

Since then, I have seen more often the argument that we are only responsible for our own children and therefore do not need to worry about vulnerable people in our communities. Anti-vaccine doctor Jack Wolfson gained a lot of publicity for this stance, telling a local news station:

It’s not my responsibility to inject my child with chemicals in order for [another child] to be supposedly healthy…I’m not going to sacrifice the well-being of my child. My child is pure. It’s not my responsibility to be protecting their child.

Long-winded blogger Megan Heimer also made this argument:

Although I sympathize with your situation, pray healing for your child, and wish your circumstances on no one, that does not give anyone the grounds to trump my parental rights. My obligation as a parent is to my children, not yours and I will always (always) put them first.

These are only the examples of those publicly expressing this sentiment. Privately, many parents feel that their children are perfect and that they do not need to sully them in order to protect sick children–especially when anti-vaxxers often blame vaccines for whatever illness comes along.

Even so, the question isn’t whether or not we have any obligation to protect other children. Even in Megan Heimer’s loquacious exhortation on why she shouldn’t have to vaccinate her children to protect a child undergoing chemotherapy, much of her mental gymnastics seems to be justifying an unjustifiable position. She spends a lot of time blaming vaccinated people for spreading disease and urging vulnerable children to stay out of public places. She doesn’t argue very much, though, that the other child matters less than her child.

Don’t get me wrong. Many anti-vaxxers do believe that their children matter more than other people’s children, such as one woman who interrupted Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez‘ testimony in California by shouting “That child is my child, and he is more important than your child!” Some believe that their pure children have a specialness that exceeds that of others. In fact, in her research into mothering practices and vaccine rejection, Dr. Jennifer Reich describes these mothers are particularly intense in their parenting methods:

As experts on their own children, women saw their efforts as superior to the generic recommendations made by medical professionals who did not know their children. Although many of these practices are not shown to affect vulnerability to infectious disease, mothers worked hard in time and resource-intensive ways to protect their children without vaccines.

The take home message from many of these anti-vaxxers is that they are doing the better job of parenting their children, and were others doing what they were doing, those children could be healthy, too. These beliefs help them conclude that they cannot be held responsible for the health of other children since the parents are using inferior practices to keep them healthy.

When we flip this belief over to see the stitching on the back, the fear that weaves it together becomes obvious. It’s not that feeding your child organic foods, breastfeeding, and buying MLM oils is superior. It’s that the alternative, in their eyes vaccinating their child–is particularly dangerous. Let’s look at again at Megan’s interminable post and what always lies beneath the surface:

I dare not sway opinion with an emotional story of my son, who was vaccinated with MMR, almost died, and was subjected to a 240% increased risk of developing autism. No, I won’t show the photo of his sick, emaciated body lying in my arms after we flew across the world to be with him.

Do you see it? It’s right there, just like it always is. Autism. Even though ridiculous numbers of studies have shown that vaccines do not cause autism, the fear of autism always (needlessly and offensively) lurks beneath the surface. Vaccine refusing parents do not want to sacrifice their children, rendering them autistic, in order to protect the life of someone else’s more vulnerable child. Even though such a sacrifice could never happen.

As I’m told Dr. Greg Poland once said, fear is more contagious than measles.

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