Two perspectives on the anti-vaccination movement: Has ableism become a factor?

By Aubrey Klein

As everyone is well aware by now, the ongoing debate about the anti-vaccination movement has reached fever pitch. While fears about vaccines have been around since the advent of the technology, there has been a resurgence in the past decade of fears that specific vaccines such as MMR—that’s mumps, measles and rubella—or specific ingredients like thimerosal actually cause disease and/or are linked to autism in children.

On the one hand, I want to react to all this “debate”—if you can even call it that—with “Why are we even talking about this?” These anti-vaxxers are science-deniers, despite an overabundance of research disproving the very fears they stake their claim in. They want to believe that the science of vaccines is somehow incorrect, as is virtually every medical professional.

What’s even more interesting is that the parents that are choosing not to vaccinate their children are not doing so because they never learned about how vaccines work in school or because they can’t afford vaccines. In fact, it’s largely the opposite, for it’s white, wealthy and educated parents that are the ones choosing not to vaccinate their children, citing a “natural” and “chemical-free” lifestyle.

Sometimes I feel like there is no tactful response to this clearly delusional point of view, so I’ll let author and mother J.J. Keith do the talking, in her crude but straightforward way: “If that’s what you’re thinking, then let’s not mince words: You are a goddamned idiot. Please email me your address and your schedule so that I may come over to your house and personally slap you across the face.”

While it would be easy to say that anti-vaxxers are nothing more than a small group of ignorant people perpetuating lies based on quack science and general misinformation, it isn’t that simple. For example, in an opinion piece for the Los Angeles Times, UCLA medical school professor and mother of two Nina Shapiro noted that, for some parents, and most notably those hip/new-age moms described above, not vaccinating their children is, “a little bit cool, it’s a little bit of a trend.”

This notion of trendiness is one of the most absurd things about the anti-vax movement. Matters of health and, in some cases serious risk of suffering and death, should not be matters of trend. Unlike eating organic or drinking Kombucha, which may or may not be better for you depending on who you are, vaccines undeniably prevent disease and should not be a matter of choice.

Parents shouldn’t be able to choose not to vaccinate just because it’s a new parenting trend or because they revel in the self-satisfaction of living a natural, alternative lifestyle. Toying with life and death by not vaccinating your children is not a trend, it is downright dangerous.

Other health choices, like taking a vitamin, exercising or getting a mammogram, are more optional. Certainly, these are all things that people should be doing but, in not doing them, a person causes harm only to themselves. However, an unvaccinated child is a risk not only to him or herself, but to those around him, and not just because they didn’t get vaccines either. Immuno-compromised individuals, newborn babies too young to get vaccinated, and senior citizens are all at increased risk of contracting disease through no fault of their own.

There is another damaging effect of the anti-vax movement that I think deserves more attention from the general public and the media. While children whose parents are choosing not to vaccinate are not really capable of having a voice in the debate, there is a group of people who do, and that is adults on the autism spectrum.

The anti-vax debate carries a strong association with ableism, in that one of the very fears of vaccination is that it will “cause” a child to have autism. There are many things troubling about this line of thought. First of all, it positions autism as a worse diagnosis than the potential illness or death that can result from contracting a vaccine-preventable sickness like measles or mumps.

Imagine how this must appear to people that are living with autism. Parents that fear vaccines for their unfounded link to autism are essentially telling this community that they would rather their child become deathly ill, or make someone else deathly ill, than end up like them.

To anti-vaxxers, an autistic person is a damaged person, and heaven forbid their child be damaged in any way. Nevermind that autistic people are still people and lead lives just as valuable as anyone else’s. But, apparently, this is something that anti-vaxxers cannot seem to wrap their heads around and instead abide by a sick and distorted opinion that dehumanizes people on the autism spectrum and insinuates that their life is not one worth living.

In fact, it does appear that there is more to the anti-vax movement than meets the eye, in that it is more of a threat than we may have realized. It carries not only a physical risk, but an ideological one. This recent controversy shows us the ways in which ableist ideas, while not currently positioned front and center, are distinctly tethered to the anti-vax debate.

As members of a collective society, it is our duty to seek to understand our neighbors, and recognize that the choices we make and the ideas we spread affect those that live alongside us.

In a wider context, the anti-vax movement is not just about parents and kids, but also about the health of a society and how, by virtue of difference, certain groups of people are deemed less important than others. If anti-vaxxers want to live in their own far-off colony of chemical-free organic bliss, then so be it; when they still live in communities full of diverse people, their choice not to vaccinate is really not their own. The consequences—medically, ideologically or otherwise—have lasting effects that will survive long after the media hype is over.