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Consider the qualities that come out so strongly in the debate between those who would force parents to vaccinate their children, and those who would permit parents to choose for themselves whether to vaccinate their children:

  • Name calling
  • Ridicule
  • Ostracism
  • Social coercion
  • ‘I can’t believe you would think that’ substitutes for argument
  • No sympathy and no listening
  • Entire focus is on delegitimation of the opposing viewpoint

Notice too that the invective flows entirely in one direction. Targets of this treatment do not respond in kind. They generally hold their peace, and try to support each other.

I’ll tell you something. I’ll tell you three things:

The evidence about whether or not vaccinations are harmful, or might be harmful, is entirely irrelevant to this debate. This debate is in the same category as the one about whether the state can force parents to send their children to school to learn beliefs and theories that contradict the parents’ own faith. It does not matter what you think about Darwin: if you do not want your child to learn Darwin’s theories, the state should not be able to force the issue, however strongly evidence indicates Darwin is correct. The same logic applies to vaccinations.

The scientific evidence about whether vaccines cause harm says nothing at all about tainted vaccines. I have not seen one study where researchers verified that a vaccine was tainted, then traced the effects of that vaccine. A good reason for that exists, and it does not have to do with the researchers’ thoroughness. No government body involved in the vaccination process would ever admit that health workers injected tainted vaccine into children. Yet we know that medical mistakes occur all the time, for adults and children.

Which brings us to the third and most irreconcilable division between those who would mandate vaccinations for all, and those who would not. Those who want freedom of choice for parents in the matter, have no trust in government’s ability to keep their children safe. Government has proven itself incompetent again and again and again. Beyond incompetence, government has proven it will inject extremely harmful or dubious substances into unknowing subjects, to conduct so-called scientific experiments and worse.

No one has accused public officials of conducting experiments on innocent elementary school children, but the fear and distrust spawned by government’s own actions does not evaporate merely because of a presumption that government would never do such a thing. In fact, parents’ fear and distrust are heightened when their children are involved. No rationally skeptical parent would place his or her child in government’s care, even briefly, given government’s record of incompetence, secrecy, evasion of responsibility, malfeasance, and actual malice.

We need to make the connection between evidence about tainted vaccines and government incompetence as clear as possible. No vaccination program, large or small, publicly or privately administered, can give an absolute guarantee that its vaccines are pure, and that the vaccine will interact with a given individual exactly as intended. Parents have to have total faith that the substance injected into their son’s or daughter’s arm is free of anything that might cause harm in this specific case. The grounds for that trust do not exist. On the contrary, grounds for distrust exist everywhere. Once more, no rational parent would place faith in government’s competence, especially where stakes are high and your own child is the subject of government’s ministrations.

The latest round of ridicule against so-called anti-vaxxers comes from an outbreak of measles believed to originate at Disney World. Faith in the concept of ‘immunity of the herd’ is so strong, you hear nothing but invective directed at parents who do not vaccinate. How do unvaccinated children threaten vaccinated children, though? The critics seem to suggest that unvaccinated children threaten everyone, but that is clearly not the case. If the vaccine works, unvaccinated children who contract measles pass the illness only to other unvaccinated children. They do not threaten vaccinated children, though critics imply that they do. If unvaccinated children are, as critics put it, ‘walking time bombs’ only for other unprotected children, how are the parents of any of the unimmunized children acting irresponsibly?

For those parents have in fact made a rational choice about their children’s care. Mother and father weigh the risks they associate with the vaccine against the risks of contracting a given disease. They decide they can live with one risk more comfortably than the other. Most emphatically, it does not matter if their assessment of risk on either side is accurate or not. One couple might overestimate the risk of the vaccine, and underestimate the risk of illness for their child. Another parent might weigh the risks in the opposite direction. Either way, the choice belongs to the parent, not to the state, not to social control busybodies, or to medical do-gooders who raise alarms about epidemics and threats to public health. Parents are the only people responsible for these decisions, and no, it does not take a village to make them.

One last example, which applies to adults and removes the question from the emotionally fraught world of children. If I do not get a flu shot this winter, and I “catch” the flu from someone else who did not get a flu shot, can I blame the contagious person for being a “walking flu bomb”? Of course not. If I in turn pass the flu on to someone else who did not get a shot, can that person blame me? Again, the answer must be no. All three individuals thought about whether or not to get a flu shot, decided against it, and contracted the flu.

Now suppose I pass my winter illness on to someone who did get a shot. Am I blameworthy in that case? Again, the answer has to be no. The person who contracted the flu after getting the shot overestimated the efficacy of the immunization. The immunization is no guarantee against getting sick, any more than foregoing the shot guarantees that you will get sick. States of health within multiple groups are not monolithic, strains of a disease behave differently across individuals and across groups, and no immunization is one hundred percent effective. You cannot blame people for decisions they make about their own health.

Critics come down heavily and point to a disease more serious than the flu: smallpox. They say that through universal childhood vaccination against the disease, we have eradicated smallpox as the frightening public health scourge that spread so readily among populations in centuries past. Without childhood vaccination, smallpox would still threaten everyone. The argument for universal vaccination stresses that we all have a responsibility to maintain this social good, freedom from a deadly disease.

You may say the position outlined here grants parents and families far more say in the matter than they ought to have. A defense founded on individual and family autonomy, however, remains stout. No social good outweighs a mother or father’s fear that through some mishap or negligence, some terrible harm may come to one’s offspring due to a vaccination. No amount of argument about whether the fear is rational or irrational, grounded or ungrounded, makes any difference in the matter. If parents do not want to have their children vaccinated, no one in a society that protects individual choice can force them to do so for the sake of public health.

Unvaccinated children are not walking measles bombs, or smallpox bombs, or any other kind of bomb. Even if an unvaccinated child does pass a disease to another unvaccinated child, both sets of parents have made a rational decision about possible outcomes for their children. A rational choice is not rational because it pleases everyone, least of all public health officials or members of the community you have never met. A choice is rational because you have thought about it.

This common sense definition of rationality goes for parents who make decisions about their children’s health. Parents are not subject to blame or ridicule for these decisions – no matter what their choices, no matter the grounds for their choices, and no matter the outcomes of their choices. You cannot take people to task for personal decisions they take, merely because you believe their choices harm social well being. The latter principle leads to social coercion in almost every sphere of community life.

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