Pro-Vaccine World Tour

On Friday, I found myself protesting an anti-vaccine bus. A decade ago, I could not have imagined even writing such a sentence, but there I was.

Some backstory, first.  (Scroll down if you don’t need the backstory.)

In 2011, amidst a growing measles outbreak among some unvaccinated Somali-American children in Minnesota, Andrew Wakefield flew into town and held a private meeting with them. Who knows what was said in this meeting since the people in attendance were parents of autistic children who are convinced of the vaccine connection and Wakefield–a defrocked pediatric gastroenterologist. I mean, what could he say? Who knows, but it was history.

Until April of this year when measles made a predictable comeback to the same community. Wakefield didn’t come back, but there was plenty of anti-vaccine outreach into the Somali-American community to convince them not to trust public health officials (to the consternation of many Somali-Americans). The Washington Post also reported talk about white parents of exposing their children purposely to measles and convincing Somali-American mothers that there was no measles outbreak, that it was all a trick concocted by public health.

And that’s all bad enough, but the anti-vaccine community in Minnesota has been actively working on translating Wakefield’s 2015 fraudumentary, Vaxxed, into Somali for further indoctrination. I’m not done. We were all disheartened when Tribeca announced (and eventually retracted) that Vaxxed would be screened, but now the film is available on Amazon Prime and a tour RV/bus (it’s an RV, okay?) containing Polly Tommy and her friends is making its way through the country and recording stories of so-called vaccine-injury (usually autism).

Enter self-described Pro-Vaccine Troll, Craig Egan. Craig asked his Facebook friends and fans if he should follow the Vaxxed RV/bus/it’s an RV à la Grateful Dead. $10,000 in GoFundMe donations later, he was pulling into Minneapolis and following the Vaxxed vehicle.

On the day the measles outbreak was finally declared over.

End of backstory.

Everyone wants to know what it was like confronting the Vaxxed jalopy, and so I thought I would write out my story. The day before, I wanted Craig to get a real sense of what we are really fighting for–preventing kids from getting sick. So I took him to Children’s Minnesota to meet Patsy Stinchfield and Joe Kurland, who worked directly with the measles cases and with system-wide infection prevention. He interviewed them on video (and they interviewed him back):

At this point, we still had no idea where the bus was going to be. The anti-vaxxers in Minnesota were being purposely coy about where they were filming. Even though it was the day before and we had had feelers out for weeks trying to figure out where it would be, we didn’t know. But one journalist got confirmation of where it would be, and I called him Friday morning and was lucky enough to find out. This is where I admit that we tipped off a few reporters, as well. When I arrived, Craig, his girlfriend Sharon, Joe Kurland, a few mothers, and a reporter were there, being filmed by an anti-vaccine mom standing at a distance. I waved hello because I am polite.

Not much happened other than some good conversation on our end and worried looks shot our way from theirs. Joe decided to do a Facebook Live video.

Eventually Patsy Stinchfield arrived and Joe left. She pointed out the Sunday Mail journalist Ian Birrell was over at the RV. He had interviewed both of us in the week prior, and we were both impressed with his depth of knowledge concerning science and the anti-vaccine movement–especially Andrew Wakefield in particular. I knew he had connected with Polly Tommey, and he allowed her to interview him aboard their transport.

Because Patsy is brave and I want to grow up to be just like her because she is also smart and pretty and amazing, she decided she wanted to get up close to see the Vaxxed wagon. A number of people had been staring at use almost the entire time we had been there, and they didn’t look happy that we were walking closer. I held out my hand and introduced myself to a few people, only because I wanted to convey to them that I was not there to belittle or harm them. I feel like giving people your name helps you connect as people rather than representatives of some opposing side. Most of them shook my hand and told me their names, too. They were polite.

One woman, however, did refuse to shake my hand. I felt a little like Angela Merkel, and hey–that’s not bad company to be in. She also would not tell me her name. I don’t know if she was afraid of what I would do with her name (honestly, I am terrible with names, so forget is the correct answer) or if she was just being hostile.

She wanted us to say something about the names written on the bus. (The names are supposed to represent people who have been injured by vaccines. I did notice how many of the names were written in groups by the same hand, and it seems an improbability to me that anyone would have multiple people from the same family who suffered a true adverse reaction to a vaccine.)

In any case, we didn’t reply as she wanted, and she expressed her displeasure. She wanted us to know that the names were important, so I tried to prove I was listening to her by paraphrasing what I believed she was saying, but that also made her angry. I supposed she didn’t like my paraphrasing. I was trying, though! Perhaps she was just spoiling for an argument.

She told us that if our brakes went out in our cars, we would want to warn other people. Patsy commented that brakes are a good analogy, except that with vaccines, we need everyone to use their brakes or else we are all in trouble. We can’t allow people to opt out of brakes. This unnamed woman told us that we couldn’t use a car as a comparison because the human body is not a car. Craig pointed out to her that the car/brake analogy was hers, but that didn’t satisfy her. I’m also not really a huge fan of arguing about analogies. The thing about analogies is that they are always imperfect. The only thing that is exactly like the thing is the thing. So we moved on.

Another woman then approached us. She did give us her name (I am not going to disclose it here), shook our hands, and told us that she was vaccine injured. Patsy asked what happened, and she said she had a stroke after the flu vaccine.

I’ll just pause briefly for an evidence aside. The flu vaccine is, in fact, associated with a temporary drop in the risk of strokes and heart attacks. Unpause.

She disclosed some other information to us that isn’t pertinent to anything and I don’t think is appropriate to share publicly. It was a calm, polite conversation. No minds were changed. She probably doesn’t like us.

We returned to our picnic table, and Ian came over and chatted with us briefly. His photographer took a photo of us. He asked us not to smile, but he was standing next to an adorable baby who kept waving at us.

As we stood there, someone we called Frisbee Guy walked past and said, “I’m with you guys!” I guess while I was at the bus with Patsy, a family on a Surrey bike pointed at the Vaxxed vector and shouted, “They are the ones who caused the measles outbreak!”

Craig presented me with a check for Voices for Vaccines. He donated a third of his GoFundMe proceeds, which was incredibly generous.

As I drove home, I heard a reporter from Minnesota Public Radio give an in-depth (and really well-covered) report on the end of the measles outbreak and the Vaxxed cohort’s dealings. If possible, please listen rather than read the MPR report, as it is abbreviated in print.

If you live in Minnesota, please use the contact form on this blog to reach me and to learn how to combat the anti-vaccine movement. The next measles outbreak will happen if we do not act now.

Lessons learned:

  1. There is only one Craig Egan.
  2. Anti-vaxxers want to argue. Kind of. Not about car brakes.
  3. Read the dimensions on Amazon products carefully.
  4. Eric Clapton became a terrible person while I wasn’t looking, so I can’t tell you who I thought looked like him. (I now denounce that opinion. He was much handsomer than Clapton.)
  5. The Vaxxed tour is devolving into the end of the Spinal Tap tour. All they need is their miniature Stonehenge.
  6. Pro-vaxxers are awesome, and they are often huggers.


Anti-Vaxxers Dox a Child

One particularly vile and unethical way of shutting down opposition is to make public personal information about someone whose ideas oppose yours. Sometimes doxing comes with the presumption that others will then follow up by contacting and harassing that person. Often the defense on the part of the doxer is that the doxee’s information is already available online. However, giving that information to people who are ideologically opposed to someone makes that person a target, and thus doxxing becomes horrible and awful and you should never do it.

So why is it happening to a child? I guess the answer, if you don’t want to read any further, is that anti-vaxxers are narrowly hellbent on defeating anyone who champions vaccines that they don’t see a child as a child, a human, an actual person who should be off limits to harassment. Marco Arturo, whose adorable satirical video purporting to show all the evidence that vaccines cause autism (Spoiler: he reveals an empty folder), has become the target of Levi Quackenboss‘s doxing.*

I’m upset, my friends. And that’s really the motivation behind this post. However, because I don’t want to further the doxing and harassment, I won’t link to the blog post in mine.  But here you have a screenshot:

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In one particularly hypocritical point, “Levi Quackenboss” writes:

So who is Marco?  I’m not going to post his full name out of respect for him and his parents as well as their safety, but they’ve been a little sloppy about making trails to it so they should clean that up. The last names his parents use are not the name that he uses on social media.

Why is this hypocritical, you ask? You will notice that everyone who responds to “Levi Quackenboss” calls her she and her, not he or him–as you would expect with a man named Levi. Guess what. Levi Quackenboss is not the blogger’s real name! Oh shocking! (Or actually not at all.

Although, as a side note, I was irked that “Levi Quackenboss” used one of her pseudonyms to testify in front of a Colorado congressional hearing. Her testimony consisted of showing memes that Voices for Vaccines had made and making false and disparaging remarks about the organization and the Colorado VFV Parent Advisory Board member who was in attendance. She does seem to hide behind fake names to say horrible things.

A second aside, amazeball epidemiologist and awesome guy, Rene Najera points out this Picasso’s full name is Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso. So yeah. Marco didn’t use his full name.

“Levi” concludes her doxing piece against a child with this bit a conspiracy paranoia:

One thing is obvious, though: Marco isn’t just some random unknown kid when his parents have connections with the Mexican government and Walgreens is on standby with a celebrity media company to sponsor his pro-vaccine video.

Yes, because children of lobbyists never make videos and don’t have opinions. And Walgreens and Ashton Kutcher are apparently in on the conspiracy–along with the Mexican government–to cover up the vaccine-autism connection championed by such savory characters as Andrew Wakefield. People who believe this are really the same sorts of people who believe that Tupac is still alive and that 9/11 was an inside job.

This entire affair brought to mind an experience I had with a viral blog post and doxing. In December 2013, my organization (Voices for Vaccines) published a piece by Amy Parker titled “Growing Up Unvaccinated.” I actually hadn’t realized it was going viral until our website crashed and I was unable to access my email. Like Marco’s simple and marvelous piece, Amy Parker’s struck a nerve both among pro- and anti-vaxxers.

And the anti-vaxxers immediately pounce in some of the most despicable and horrible ways possible. They began by taking to Google and discovered someone named Amy Parker Fiebekorn who worked at the CDC. They immediately decided that because Amy Parker is such an unusual name that this CDC Amy Parker, and not the one from the UK whose actual biography we gave, was the true author of “Growing Up Unvaccinated.” You know–because if we went to the trouble of tricking people by secretly publishing a piece by someone at the CDC, we wouldn’t bother changing her name. This myth persists to the day and will pop up if you Google “Growing Up Unvaccinated Fake.”

Others were not satisfied and decided that perhaps Amy Parker didn’t work at the CDC. So they tracked her down. They found her profile and her mother’s Facebook profile. Some sent PMs. They found Amy’s cell phone number, and some began texting her. They found a video where she discusses her struggles with mental health issues and posted it publicly, as if to shame her with the stigma of mental illness. In one forum, one woman (who, by the way, makes a living teaching online classes about the dangers of vaccines), discussed paying her a visit:

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Amy Parker (the real one) had to shut down her Facebook page and take down her business page (which included her phone number). To make matters worse, the doxing and harassment came as she welcomed a new baby into her family.

Doxing has real consequences, and an adult shouldn’t have to deal with those consequences, but a child really, really should not have to. The doxing of Marco Arturo is despicable and has to stop now.

All this because a child made a satirical video. Grow up, anti-vaxxers. If you disagree with him, discuss your disagreement. Don’t disparage and harass a child.

*ETA: The doxing included in the Quackenboss post included the names of his stepfather and his mother and some employment information regarding his stepfather. A screenshot of the stepfather’s Facebook page included the name of their hometown. This information not only makes it easy to harass Marco and his family, but collating together could incite that harassment. 

No, MLK Jr Wasn’t Talking About Vaccines

The anti-vaccine movement has a history of couching their concerns callously and ridiculously as civil rights issues. Of course, purposely leaving a child unprotected against a potentially dangerous disease is not a civil right.

So I wasn’t surprised to see them co-opt Martin Luther King Jr. day for their own agenda.


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Immediately assuming he is talking about your pet cause does not count as thinking.

There were several other similar posts, including this one, from one prominent California activist, claiming that being required to vaccinate your child before enrolling them in school is the equivalent to being denied the right to vote and use public facilities because of the color of your skin:

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When I saw those posts, I wondered why they were not connecting MLK Jr. to any race issue at all, including their newest claims that a CDC Whistleblower has revealed that the MMR vaccine causes autism in black, male preschoolers. (Spoiler alert: he didn’t and it doesn’t.) Considering this accusation, you would think that when talking about their CDC Whistleblower hubbub they would invoke race and MLK on a day about race and MLK, right?

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Posted on MLK day, this literally says nothing about MLK or race or their main CDC Whistleblower thesis.

Faux-journalist Ben Swann, who works for the CBS affiliate in Atlanta, is coming out with a bombshell documentary (on his own website) about the CDC Whistleblower documents–the ones that claim that there is an increased risk of autism for black males who receive the MMR–and he says nothing about race at all. (Note: these assertions are bunk.)

So much for civil rights, huh?

I combed Facebook to see if others, who were working to promote Ben Swann’s report, but I couldn’t find mention of race at all. I found the Canary Party’s Ginger Taylor’s missive about why God is on their side and how Ben Swann is going to expose the Truth. The Thinking Moms’ Revolution was excited about exposing the CDC for something. Age of Autism discussed how bad the media is and how good Ben Swann is. But I couldn’t find anyone talking about the main Whistleblower hypothesis as it concerned race. And that was on the day many specifically think about race and civil rights.

It is likely just an oversight, but the anti-vaccine activists have been exploiting the idea of race, such as Robert F Kennedy Jr. did in this interview with Tavis Smiley. It’s not that they don’t know race exists. It’s just that they think their rights trump not only their children’s rights but also the struggle for actual civil rights and racial equality.

And let’s not forget the demographic we are discussing. Parents who refuse to protect their children through immunization are often wealthy, well-educated, and white. Despite all of their privilege, they think Martin Luther King, Jr. was talking about them and their supposed right to leave their children vulnerable to disease and to endanger their broader community. And that’s kind of awful.

The Cancer Kids are Taking Over

I frequent Dr. Tenpenny’s Facebook page because it is amusing but also because it helps me understand the marketing being used to make parents afraid of vaccines. Because I keep tabs on Tenpenny, I’ve also taken note of the revolving websites she has attached herself to, from Vaxxter to All About Breast Health. That’s where I found TruthKings.

It sounded promising but also slightly frightening. We all know the spurious ways people like Tenpenny use the term truth, after all. But today I noticed a post about why it is okay to endanger the health of vulnerable children undergoing chemotherapy.

Of course, that’s not how my new favorite truthers framed it, though. They titled their post, “Your Child Having Cancer Doesn’t Mean My Child Should Be Forced Dangerous Vaccines.” The title alone is poppycock. Let’s review in bulleted points:

  • No one is forcing vaccines upon anyone. To force a vaccine would mean to hold a child down and physically inject it into a child. Instead, reasonable safeguards are put on schools, including the safeguard against infectious disease. If you don’t want to participate in helping schools be safe from infectious diseases, you bear the consequences.
  • Vaccines are not dangerous. Millions of vaccines are given every day. 95% of parents choose to fully vaccinate their children. If vaccines were dangerous, pretty much every child in this country would be worse off for being vaccinated. Instead, they are free of diphtheria, polio, Hib, measles, and so forth.
  • Of course it is your responsibility to take reasonable precautions to help other children. That’s why you can’t drive drunk or text while driving. In fact, the law books are filled with things you can’t do because it would endanger others. And Laura Bredesen, mother of a cancer patient exposed to measles, will tell you that leaving your child unvaccinated is a direct threat to the children around him/her who are cancer patients.

Why are these TruthKings taking on the ever threatening pediatric cancer patient? What did these cancer kids ever do to them?

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Don’t worry, cancer kids; you aren’t the only threat. It seems that fluoride, GMOs, education, and the Islamics are all taking over. Or at least the Islamics are.

Fear of the other is the most common cause of bigotry and prejudice. For a TruthKing, you are a threat if you are a Muslim or if you are receiving chemotherapy because your existence means that their freedom might be curtailed. Both cancer patients and Muslims are turned into the enemy by refusing to actually get to know anyone who fits those categories.

After all, Ben Bredesen can’t be your enemy once you get to know him because he’s a sweet kid. And he’s a child. How can a kid be an enemy, and on what planet to you refuse to protect a child?

And that’s just my reaction to the headline. In fact, the entire post is a deep conspiracy about how the government is using pediatric cancer patients to take away our freedom. And you and I are apparently part of the conspiracy:

The Government has pulled at the very fibers which inspire you, cause you to be passionate, make you laugh and make you enraged. They’ve convinced you that myself and my child are here on earth to do harm to your child. And they’ve done this as a way to recruit an army of mothers and fathers to take the helm and become soldiers in a way to fight against parental rights.

In this battle, of course, the rights of the parent trump the rights of the child. People who use terms like “truth” and “parental rights” believe that they own their children, that their decisions are paramount whether or not these decisions are wise. They give no consideration to how children have been historically used by those who believe they own them, children who have worked in sweatshops and have been physically abused. The history of children’s rights is expunged in favor of a new liberty for parent/owners of children.

Of course, you ask, the war metaphor is just a metaphor right? (Okay, maybe you didn’t ask that, but you should.) No. Not at all. Remember these are people who think we are on the brink of an Islamic takeover. Their fears are about something sadistic and nefarious:

When you take the bait by the Government to diminish these very basic human, parental rights, you allow the Government to play to your sadness and despair. They have you at your weakest moment, compromised in your soul. When you really consider what they are doing, using your sick child as bait for your impassioned plea to support the army who is going to go door to door and remove rights, you begin to see how disturbing and disingenuous it all really is.

Going door to door to remove your rights. Sounds frightening doesn’t it?

But again, nothing of the sort is happening or is going to happen. At worst, you might be required to homeschool your child, as is now the case in California. Ironically, of course, asking that you opt for homeschooling instead of government-funded schooling is really the opposite of the foot soldiers coming to your door to remove your rights. It is keeping children closer to the adults who have bought into the fear mongering of the anti-vaccine movement.

Of course someone like Tenpenny shares the heck out of TruthKings on her page. This fear-based marketing, stirring distrust in the government and asking people to cloister against some imaginary army. The purpose of this marketing scheme is to sell her own wares. But real people are being harmed with this marketing strategy, whether these people are Ben Bredesen or our Muslim friends and neighbors. It’s unconscionable that a grifter like Tenpenny make them into the enemies in order to turn a profit. She will never change, but we can make sure our friends and family do not fall prey to these cynical strategies.

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 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.

Anti-Vaccine Word Salad: Civil Rights and Vaccines

I was visiting the (dubiously named) National Vaccine Information Center’s Facebook page, when a post caught my attention enough to click on it. As per usual, NVIC had hidden the link behind a shortened URL and a photo posted directly to their page (so that a thumbnail of the link could not be seen), but their intro was short and confusing: “We Will Not Give Up Our Human Rights for Our Civil Rights.” What did that mean? I had to find out, so I clicked away.

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It led me to the NVIC newsletter (link brings you to a Do Not Link page) and a word salad-y, lengthy republication of Barbara Loe Fisher’s speech in front of the California anti-vaxxers protesting SB277.

The piece was a mishmash of words like “freedom,” “liberty,” “choice,” mixed with vague sentiments concerning “vaccine injury” and whatnot. I had to slog through the freedom liberty fighting stuff to get to the part that had caught my eye. In context, it asserted: “We will not give up our human rights for our civil rights. We will not give up the human right to informed consent to medical risk taking in order to exercise our civil right to an education and medical care and employment.”

If I were not thinking, it might sound like she had a case. In essence, the argument is that by eliminating the personal belief exemption in California, parents will no longer be given informed consent before their children are given vaccines, and therefore they will not know the risks; the purpose of foregoing consent would be to enroll their children in school (and then the slippery slope of seeing a doctor and getting a job).

First of all, hogwash.

Informed consent happens at the doctor’s office, and it happens when parents receive the Vaccine Information Sheet (VIS). Furthermore, it is federal law that a VIS be given to a parents before their children receive vaccines. Eliminating an exemption to school-entry vaccine requirements will not make doctors decide to chuck federal law and jab away at kids without handing the parents a copy of the VIS. Assertions otherwise are ludicrous fantasy-laden conspiracy theories.

The language Fisher uses in asserting that children will be denied their access to education goes beyond simple concerns about schooling. She frames it as “human rights” and “civil rights” issues. According to this anti-vaccine speech, receiving a VIS is a human right, and being educated in a school with other children is a civil right.

When used in reasonable discourse, being given full information about a medical procedure could be considered a human right inasmuch as experimenting on a human being or subjecting a human being to medical procedures without their knowledge is a violation of human rights.

However, when I perused the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, I found nothing about abstaining for immunization. The UDHR does touch upon a human’s inherent rights to be free from servitude, torture, fair justice, asylum, nationality, and so forth. Just to remind readers, the assertion is that by eliminating personal belief exemptions to school entry, a denial of “informed consent” (receiving the VIS?) will ensue akin to torture, slavery, and being jailed without a fair trial. The language is inflammatory enough to scorch the fields of any possible civil conversation.

The allusion to civil rights is just as inflammatory. When most people think of civil rights and education, they think of black students in the 19050s braving protests as they became the first students to be integrated into white public schools.

Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division escort the Little Rock Nine students into the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.
Soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division escort the Little Rock Nine students into the all-white Central High School in Little Rock, Ark.

For too many decades after the passage of the 13th and 14th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, students had been denied a decent education simply because of the color of their skin. Undoing this injustice was the beginning of the Civil Rights era, and the beginning of our learning about the evils of discrimination.

To be clear, let’s look at the definition of civil rights by Cornell University Law School:

A civil right is an enforceable right or privilege, which if interfered with by another gives rise to an action for injury. Examples of civil rights are freedom of speech, press, and assembly; the right to vote; freedom from involuntary servitude; and the right to equality in public places. Discrimination occurs when the civil rights of an individual are denied or interfered with because of their membership in a particular group or class. Various jurisdictions have enacted statutes to prevent discrimination based on a person’s race, sex, religion, age, previous condition of servitude, physical limitation, national origin, and in some instances sexual orientation. [emphasis mine]

Civil rights and equal protection under the law are denied to people because they are easily identified by their membership in a group. Unvaccinated children and their parents do not suffer discrimination on the order of any of the other classes of human beings listed above. Furthermore, unvaccinated children are unvaccinated because their parents chose not to vaccinate them*.

All schools in the United States have requirements for entry. These requirements are not civil rights violations. They are checkpoints to make sure our children are prepared for school and are being cared for. Common requirements include proof of age with a birth certificate, proof of residence, signature of a doctor who has performed a physical exam, a readiness screening, and an immunization form. These requirements keep our schools safe and help them function fairly and well.

Parents who do not want to fulfill any of the above requirements are asking for the school to make exceptions to the law, and schools will usually only do so for good cause (such as a homeless student who has no proof of residence). For many years, we have allowed exceptions to proof of immunization for no other reason than the parents heard a scary rumor and decided to follow it instead of their doctor’s advice.

Disallowing parents from seeking an exception to immunization school entry requirements is not a civil rights violation. It is fair to debate whether or not this is the best strategy to raise immunization rates, but it is not a civil rights violation.

It is offensive to claim that ending the personal belief exemption in California is asking parents to trade their human rights for their civil rights. Real people in the world have to deal with human rights and civil rights violations. We live in a world where people are being deported from the home in which they lived their whole lives or are being gunned down in churches because of their race.

The anti-vaccine movement once again betrays its tendency toward using its privilege to see itself as a victim when they equate themselves with the real threats people face in the world. We should not let them chop up the verbiage of rights and freedom in order to make their own wrongheaded salad of righteous indignation.

Privilege and the Anti-Vaccine Movement

A common argument for keeping (often easy-to-obtain) philosophical exemptions to school entry vaccine requirements is that failing to do so will cause an undue burden on single parents or low-income families. This arguments serves to make refusing vaccines a right and a matter of social justice–when really, nothing could be further from the truth.

Are anti-vaxxers out of touch or are they knowingly trying to play a sleight of hand? Mainstream media has reported on the correlation between wealth and vaccine refusal over and over and over and over and over again. (Apologies for all the overs–it’s been reported a lot!) In an article titled, “Neoliberal Mothering and Vaccine Refusal,” Jennifer Reich explains that children who are intentionally unvaccinated are those who are raised in families with two parents making an income over $75,000 a year.

PediatricianAccess to medical care, and therefore immunization, is an issue related to poverty, as we see higher under-vaccination rates (children who are behind schedule or missing some immunizations), in single-parent families earning less than $30,000 a year. A child who is under-vaccinated may not have seen a doctor recently and probably does not have a medical home–a clinic or doctor who maintains that child’s health records and who knows that child’s full health history.

It’s easy to imagine how a parent with little in the way of resources could end up with an under-immunized child. Taking a child to the doctor often requires time off of work, and when you earn little in terms of pay, taking time off to bring a child in to the doctor means less income yet. Transportation and health insurance are just two other barriers for a low-income child in receiving appropriate healthcare, including immunizations.

Those leading the charge in trying to keep their easy-to-obtain exemptions to vaccines are almost certainly those with the most access to healthcare. These are the parents with enough disposable income to spend extra money on supplements and sham healthcare such as homeopathy. Anti-vaccine parents are not worrying about taking time off of work, finding a medical home, or figuring out transportation to the doctor. They are working from a position of privilege.

What do these privileged anti-vaxxers want to do to solve the problem of access to care? They want to keep it easy to keep children under- and un-vaccinated.

In a cynical and self-serving turn, anti-vaccine activists ignore the many real issues of access to medical care–children who are not being screened for developmental problems, children whose asthma or hearing problems or slow growth are not being monitored, children with serious and potentially deadly illnesses who are suffering for too long because of lack of access to care. The anti-vaccine activists have decided to ignore these real issues in order to use children in poverty as a shield to protect their children of privilege from getting required vaccines to attend school.

A wealthy and educated group of people who use another person’s poverty and lack of resources in order to protect the privilege to opt out of a community responsibility is the absolute height of selfishness. The onus is on the rest of us not only to make sure that immunization rates are high, but also to make sure our under-immunized children get the care they need instead of becoming a shield for the anti-vaccine industry.