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.