Wait. Don’t answer that. I’m afraid of what you might say.
I sat down to write a post about whether parents should be free to decide not to vaccinate their kids. But I was hesitant at first, not because I’m afraid of touching off a controversy, but because I doubted the need for this discussion. I mean, there can’t be that many people out there who literally equate not getting a vaccine to biological terrorism, and who believe that all parents should be compelled by the State to inject whatever vaccines the government demands, I thought. That’s a fringe notion. Extreme. Far out on the peripheral of the vaccine debate. This is America, for God’s sake, I said to myself.
I know, I know. I am a naive fool. I guess, in the crazy twist ending, it turns out I’m actually the hopeful optimist wearing rosy lenses. You didn’t see that coming, did you?
Evidently, Statist zealotry has gone mainstream. This post, tragically, isn’t as irrelevant as I’d hoped.
So let’s go over a few things here, but I want to start with a caveat:
CAVEAT: I am not an “anti-vaxxer” (but for some reason “vaxxer” does seem like a great alias for a jewel thief or maybe a computer hacker). My kids are vaccinated. They’re even vaccinated for the flu. We got the shot several days ago, and yesterday my son was back at the doctor’s office with a terrible cold, cough, and fever. We’ll talk more about that in a minute. But right now I need you to understand that I’m actually not arguing about whether your kid should have such-and-such vaccine. I’m not arguing about the vaccines themselves. As I’m constantly reminded, I’m not an expert. I’ve done some research, I’ve read some things, but I don’t exactly have my PhD in this field. And, most likely, neither do you. What I’m talking about here are our rights and our liberties, both as individuals and as parents. So go ahead, as many people have in the last day, and call me “anti-vaccine” or a “vaccine truther,” but then realize that you’re murdering the potential for a substantive discussion by, rather than engaging a point, simply categorizing it. And, in this case, categorizing it dishonestly. If I have to be “anti” or “pro” vaccines, I’m in the latter camp, seeing as how I chose to have my kids vaccinated. But I’m also pro-freedom, which makes me, perhaps, a man without a country in this particular argument.
Now, if you’re a silly, idealistic schmuck like me, and you doubt that the “unvaccinated-kids-are-biological-weapons-who-should-be-banned-from-public-spaces-while-their-parents-are-fined-or-arrested” view is especially predominant, let me clue you in. In fact, the first you thing you could do is broach the subject around a group of people and quickly discover your error. Or you could simply write the word “vaccines” with a question mark and post it to Facebook, then stand back and take cover. The mere hint that you might possibly question some aspects of some vaccines in some circumstances will send many of your friends into a blind rage.
I experienced this myself when I wrote a few things on Twitter about how I believe parents shouldn’t be compelled in either direction when it comes to vaccines. I wasn’t even questioning vaccines themselves, just the validity and constitutionality of requiring them or punishing those who don’t get them. Admittedly, Twitter isn’t necessarily the best place for nuanced discussions, and only a few of the responses consisted of “I hope you die, motherf**ker” type sentiments, but I was still treated to an assortment of fallacious comebacks. And I discovered that a very large number of people, many of them ostensibly “small government conservatives” and even self-described libertarians, believe that choice should not play a role here at all.
They aren’t alone.
USA Today published a column recently that suggested all “anti-vaxx” parents should be put in prison. Of course Slate agrees. Forbes contested that parents who don’t vaccinate should be sued. A recent poll found that a majority of Americans believe vaccines should be forced, and a slightly smaller majority think unvaccinated kids should be banned from schools. The TV doctor on Fox News recently called on President Barack Obama to pass federal regulations mandating vaccines for all children.
In short, as we have seen time and time again, despite Ben Franklin’s urges to the contrary, many people will choose safety over liberty, no matter how slight the risk and how serious the infringement. But while they worry about a potential public health emergency, I worry that the Salem witch trial mentality has created a constitutional emergency.
Some will take issue with me calling it a “slight risk,” but it is slight. Even in Disneyland, ground zero of this measles outbreak, 95 have been infected out of the 15 million who’ve attended the park in the last year. And for those who contract the illness, it will almost assuredly not be fatal (yes, I know it can be, but I said almost because the fatality rate is so low). The risk is slight by every definition.
That’s one reason why you can’t compare unvaccinated kids with, say, a drunk driver — because the chances of killing someone while driving intoxicated are much, much, much, much greater than the chances of opting out of vaccine, becoming infected with a dangerous illness, then spreading that illness to another person who then dies.
Do you see how the two scenarios aren’t even close to similar? They’re not just dissimilar in probability, but in substance. When you get behind the wheel after downing a pint of vodka, you are immediately and directly endangering everyone around you. But an unvaccinated child isn’t a danger unless he’s sick, and even then it depends on what he’s sick with, and even then he isn’t the same degree of dangerous to everyone, considering that many of the people around him are fully vaccinated. So driving drunk is more equatable to declining vaccines so that your child will purposefully get sick so that you can intentionally release him into a public space where other unvaccinateds hang out so that you can willfully get them sick. This choice I would disagree with. In fact, it should be illegal. It probably already is. But if you can’t see how that bizarre scenario isn’t quite the same as the scenario of simply opting out of the vaccine to begin with, then there’s probably little hope of a reasonable discussion here.
@MattWalshBlog Just out of curiosity, do you support dangerous driving because "freedom" as well?
— Jon Weinhold (@Jonzor234) January 30, 2015
@MattWalshBlog Should people have the right to decide to drink and drive? Not vaccinating potentially kills other kids, not just your own.
— herpderpchirp (@herpderpchirp) January 30, 2015
Well at least nobody’s comparing unvaccinated kids to rapists and burglars.
@MattWalshBlog I don't support the freedom to decide on lots of things- drunk driving, burglary, rape. Another persons safety is the line.
— Jessica Babb (@Jessicababb) January 29, 2015
This is even worse than I thought.
I’ve heard over and over that choosing not to vaccinate your kids is akin to, if not drunk driving or rape, then a form of biological terrorism. You don’t have a right to not vaccinate for the same reason that you don’t have a right to set off a bomb in a shopping mall, they say. But, again, the decision to skip a vaccination is just a decision to skip a vaccination. The result of the decision is that your kid isn’t vaccinated. This is the first and direct consequence, and in many cases, the only. In order for this course of action to become a risk to you or your family, the unvaccinated (side note: someone should make a horror movie called “The Unvaccinated”) would have to contract the illness and subsequently pass it on to you through his saliva, blood, fecal matter, or whatever bodily fluid is required for that affliction.
To say that someone shouldn’t have a right to not vaccinate is not the same thing as saying they shouldn’t have a right to “put others in danger,” it’s the same thing as saying they shouldn’t have a right to do something that could, down the line, in some situations, given certain circumstances, in the right conditions, assuming a variety of factors come into play, put you in danger. If that’s how you believe — if you believe that our liberties end where the possible potential of risk is present, given that the child is only an actual risk if he’s sick with a serious illness and if he comes in contact with your kid in a certain way — so be it.
But say so, and say so honestly. Don’t try to stuff your vaccine compulsion ideology under the same umbrella that allows the State to outlaw actions that are directly, inherently, immediately, and unreasonably dangerous to everyone in the vicinity. They aren’t the same. You have proposed that the government’s powers be extended beyond that realm, and I wish you’d at least have the courage to admit it.
But there’s another problem.
Even pro-vaccine-compulsion people (as opposed to just pro-vaccine people, like myself) admit that there are at least some circumstances where not getting vaccinated would be the right course of action. Specifically, for a child who has cancer or is immunodeficient. This further separates non-vaccination from other “risky” behaviors, in that those other behaviors are intrinsically wrong and never OK, whereas even the most ardent folks in the pro-vaccine-compulsion camp (PVC) allow for exceptions. Quite magnanimous of them, isn’t it?
These exceptions bring up some questions.
First of all: if vaccines are forced or unvaccinated kids are treated like lepers, segregated in colonies and prohibited from schools and public facilities, would that apply to a child who has leukemia or who’s in some other vaccine-disqualifying situation? Taking vaccines out of it, children with compromised immune systems get sick more frequently, and because they get sick more frequently, they are a “risk” to those around them. What should the government do about them?
And who decides what counts as an exception?
It seems odd that so many critics took umbrage to my anti-vaccine-compulsion position, telling me that their child can’t get vaccinated and relies on “herd immunity” to avoid getting sick, but don’t see that they should be on my side precisely because their child can’t get vaccinated. Do they really want the State, or the schools, or the angry pitchfork mob to decide whether their son or daughter should be granted a pass from the vaccine schedule? I’m advocating for their rights to do what’s right for their child. And I’m exhibiting the humility (a rare occurrence, so enjoy it while it lasts) to acknowledge that I am not in a position to decide who should have that right and who shouldn’t.
You can tell me about the “public safety measures” that should be taken in response to The Unvaccinated, and you can use the most radical and improbable justifications in your argument, but you have to confront the fact that these measures would need to include cancer-stricken children, or children with other ailments, because although it’s not their fault, they’re just as “dangerous,” aren’t they? Are you prepared for that? Are you prepared to bar even them from parks and schools? Do they get tossed in the Unvaccinated Leper Colony? If not, who does? Who decides? What qualifies as an acceptable excuse? Who decides what qualifies as an acceptable excuse? The State? The pharmaceutical industry? You?
And what vaccine schedule should they follow? Do they have any say in that at all? And while we’re dealing with these difficult quandaries, can we determine which vaccines ought to be legally mandatory? All of them?
My kids are vaccinated, but should I not have the right to decline even shots for sexually transmitted diseases? Must it be legally mandatory that we get out infants immunized for HPV and Hepatitis B? What if they ever cook up an AIDS vaccine? Should every 6-month-old in the country be dragged to the doctor to receive it, even if we can easily avoid AIDS just by declining to participate in extremely risky behavior?
What about the flu?
The flu kills far more people than the measles, and it’s very contagious. Should it be required? Should the Non-Flu-Shot Kids be kicked out of class until they get that stuff injected into their bodies? Even if it’s ineffective? Should we all be required? I’ve never had a flu shot, should I be convicted of some kind of crime? As I said, my son got the shot recently. On Wednesday he was back at the doctor with a fever and respiratory problems. We were told that these were entirely unrelated, but I think next year we will be declining the procedure. I know it doesn’t protect against every strand of the flu, but this is a medical decision and a personal judgment call, and I am repulsed at the notion that I shouldn’t have the right to make it.
Indeed, judgment is the name of the game here. Even if the risks are small and the side effects rare, vaccines still carry them. My wife and I looked at it and decided we were willing to assume those risks, but should everyone be forced into it? And what if, in the rare case, someone does have a severe reaction to a vaccine? Who pays the price? Who pays for his medical treatment? Who assumes that cost? He’s just SOL, huh?
Yes, you might say, the risk is necessary for the sake of public safety.
And to that I answer, I’d rather be assuming risks for the sake of liberty.
This is America, isn’t it?
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