I’m a mess when my kids are babies. Maybe it’s more fair to say that I’m just a mess in general. But when they’re babies, I’m a ball of stress and fear and worry. It’s not ok. I’m working on it. But that’s the truth.
When Ryann was born, everything freaked me out because it was unfamiliar. Quite suddenly, I realized that I had to figure out what to do about people wanting to stab my baby with needles and inject (inert) diseases into her. I was told about the procedures and everything, what to look for when they’ve first been injected. But it’s a crazy idea. A scary one. And the first time she got injected, I held her in my arms and she screamed and then… it was weird. She abruptly stopped. Her pupils dilated and she just stared at me with this strange look. The silence freaked me out. I was unsettled. All the vague things I’d heard about autism and vaccines immediately jumped to my mind and I wondered if I’d just hurt my daughter. Only time would tell.
I started doing a little research at that point. And I talked to doctors and people in med school. I realized that the rumors I’d heard still only live in the realm of rumor. Because I worry about everything, I still worried that Ryann would be autistic. But I kept giving her the vaccines. And, of course, my daughter is the opposite of what autism is. She’s communicative and interactive and empathetic and socially perceptive. She’s fine. She’s better than fine.
I’ve never questioned vaccines again. Not because of my own daughter’s mental/physical state, but because of that research. Because of the conversations with trained medical professionals. More than anything, I trust the data. The data is not ambivalent. It’s very clear: Vaccines are safe and advantageous for both individuals and communities. Are there potential side effects for a very small population? Of course. As with anything.
But those numbers. I keep coming back to those numbers. And the disappearance of polio. The (once) rarity of measles. And all those other dying/dead diseases.
I’ve not hesitated to vaccinate my kids ever since then.
I’ve sort of tracked the “vaccinate/don’t vaccinate/modulate vaccination” debate for a while, simply because I find it fascinating on the level of how people make decisions. More recently, due to measles outbreaks stemming from unvaccinated kids and theme parks, I’ve followed it with ethical interest as well. Should you vaccinate your kids, not just for their sake, but for the sake of the community?
Last night, Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, tweeted the following: “Herd immunity and eradicating disease is a matter of the public good. Life or death. Vaccination is pro-life and pro-neighbor.” He then referred to avoidance of vaccination as akin to trying to prevent disease with a “tin-foil hat.” I sort of raised my eyebrows because both statements are pretty strong and direct and I knew that people, Christian people, would take offense to this claim. And, predictably, people expressed their dismay/disappointment both on Twitter and Facebook (admittedly, not exactly a cross-section of rational conversation).
What I found so interesting was that people’s objection had the language of, not so much of sincere and strong disagreement, but personal offense. People felt insulted and demanded. More than one person said these statements weren’t “gracious.”
I can understand that sentiment in reference to Moore’s comments about tin hats. That does seem rather harsh. But it has to be read in the context of the anti-vaccination movement that heavily relies upon a conspiratorial view of doctors, medical journals, the CDC, and drug companies. I do not think I’ve read a single article opposing vaccination that does not heavily involve skepticism/fear of peer-reviewed science (and I’ve read quite a few of those articles).
I think that this particular leap to “personal offense language” is emblematic of other issues in our culture. Ideas have consequences. Real-world consequences. There are actual questions of public and private health no matter what position you take on this issue. What you believe matters. Because of this, we must be very clear about what we believe on matters of importance. And we cannot get around the fact that strong and clear disagreement will necessarily involve one person telling another, “I think you’re wrong and I think it’s a serious mistake.”
Culturally, we have emotionalized everything, so that someone being clear and direct on matters of right and wrong immediately and predictably produces a response from an “opponent” that heavily relies on “that hurts my feelings” language. And the “injured” party wins with that argument! When this is the way our serious conversations go, we never actually go anywhere in conversation. We just descend into emotionalism and evade any interactions with actual ideas.
Emotion is wonderful. It’s an important part of being human. Emotion is an important part of being a parent. But we are also people with ideas. Our ideas have real effect on the world around us. We have to figure out a way as a culture to move beyond the language of personal injury when wrestling with important ideas. No, that does not mean that any kind of language about your ideological opponent is fair game. I’m not talking about “fighting dirty.” I’m talking about dealing honestly with the things that are so profoundly influential to us, even at an emotional level.
I understand the fears of parents. I understand skepticism over the power of money running through the fingers of pharmaceutical companies. I understand how desperately sad is when someone suffers from an extremely rare side effect to a vaccine or anything else. And I understand you just want to have the right to do as you wish with your child.
But, quite frankly, I think you’re wrong. I think your science is bad. I think your fears are based on fiction or on minuscule possibilities. I think your information is tainted by money just like vaccines are (every anti-vaccination website I’ve ever seen is trying to sell me something: a book, a magic shake, some herbal something or other). I think that people on the Internet and some small percentage of doctors do not know better than the entire medical establishment. I think peer-reviewed science really works and we should probably listen to real experts on stuff like this.
This doesn’t mean I disdain you. I don’t think you’re stupid. I don’t think you’re a monster. I think you’re wrong about a very serious issue and I’ll encourage my kids to not think the way that you do. I pray that your decision to not vaccinate does not negatively affect your child or another person that never had the choice.
It’s ok to say things like this to one another. It’s not unloving. It’s honest and clear. I understand that people will think I’m wrong about this or any number of things. That’s ok! We can call each other “wrong” on stuff! But let’s figure out how to do that together so that we actually talk about substantive ideas instead of hiding behind “I’m hurt” language. We can go further than that. We can think better than that. For important ideas like this particular one and many, many others, we owe it to ourselves and to our kids to figure out how to do better than we are doing right now.