I’m actually not an “anti-vaxxer.” As I wrote here on Medium recently, I chose to get a flu shot after much careful consideration and debate. But that’s the key — it was my choice. My body, my choice, right?
I am becoming increasingly concerned, however, at the efforts to marginalize, censor, and silence people who are against vaccines — especially with the latest news of Instagram banning certain anti-vaccine hashtags.
While I do not agree with anti-vaccine activists on every point, I do think so-called “anti-vaxxers” have valid concerns, and they should be heard.
Ultimately, the issue comes down to this: who gets to decide what happens with our own bodies?
Is Bodily Autonomy a Basic Human Right?
The big battleground over vaccines is with children. But first, to simplify things, let’s focus on the right of grown adults to choose which medications or vaccines are put into their bodies.
Right now, vaccines in America are not mandatory for adults. But what if they were? Given the recent trends towards lowered vaccination rates, I believe we will soon start seeing more laws proposed to mandate adult vaccinations. I believe the efforts by big social media companies such as Facebook to censor anti-vaccine information may be priming us for these laws. (More on this here.)
However, forced vaccinations violate the human right of bodily autonomy — the right to choose what we do with our own bodies.
Bodily autonomy should be the most basic human right, but as with all complex issues, we also need to look at the rights of others.
With the abortion issue, pro-abortion activists will say that a woman has a right to choose what happens with her body. The anti-abortion side will argue that since another life is involved, the woman’s right to choose has to take a backseat to the rights of the unborn child.
With the vaccine debate, we also have another “human being” involved. In this case, the rights of the unvaccinated conflict with the rights of the people who cannot get vaccinated but need “herd immunity” to avoid catching a preventable disease.
Thus, the main argument against vaccine choice is that it puts immunocompromised people (including babies and children) more at risk. I understand that concern, but is it worth giving up our bodily autonomy? We could potentially find better solutions to improve health safety for the immunocompromised (through technological innovations, for example).
Even if we had universal vaccine compliance, the immunosuppressed are always at risk when they go out into the world. The fact is, we face tons of odd viruses and bacteria out there that we cannot vaccinate against, including the new “polio-like” viral illness that has put kids into wheelchairs recently. Vaccines can help reduce risk, but they don’t completely eliminate it. That’s just the reality of living in the world.
The alternative is that we mandate vaccines for everyone, thus opening the door for the government to mandate any sort of intrusion of our bodily autonomy.
Do We Really Want the Government Controlling Our Bodies?
Government-mandated vaccines for adults could potentially set legal precedents for other types of governmental intrusions.
This could go any number of ways neither the left or right would like: For example, it might set a precedent to outlaw abortion or alternatively force consumption of birth control pills for teenage girls.
While conservatives may be in favor of laws against suicide and euthanasia, ultimately, all of these issues — from abortion to mandated vaccines — speak to the greater issue of bodily autonomy. If you say the government has a right to your body, you give up a lot — if not everything.
The government’s authority of our bodily autonomy right now is limited to life issues — whether we can choose to end our own life or the life of a fetus inside of us. Once we mandate vaccines, we have now given the government power to choose what gets put into our bodies as well.
We just can’t open that door. That door could lead to any number of mandated personal violations, such as forced medication or even surgeries.
Thus, as much as it is an unfair burden, I think sick people need to stay at home if they are really that much at risk from the unvaccinated, rather than mandate vaccines. Let’s focus on getting the immunocompromised well and stronger so they can handle possible exposure to viruses. Let’s remember, the world is filled with other viruses the immunocompromised can be exposed to, for which no vaccinations are available anyway.
Are There Better Ways to Prevent Viral Spread?
We should also brainstorm other ways to handle this issue of lowered herd immunity rather than forcing everyone to comply with vaccines. By “other ways,” I’m not talking something obviously drastic and ill-advised such as setting up quarantine camps for either group.
I’m also not talking about censoring anti-vaccine information. That is only going to fire up people against vaccines and reduce the ability to have a constructive dialogue on the issue. Besides, censorship is just wrong and un-American.
Instead, I’m talking about technologies that could reduce risk of viral spread, such as robotic sanitization of public spaces. I’m talking about improving transparency surrounding vaccine development and safety — and doing better studies on how vaccines actually affect the body.
I’m also talking about listening to the concerns of anti-vaxxers and looking for ways to deliver vaccines in the safest manner possible.
Given all of these options, we should not have to force or mandate vaccines for adults, unless there is a serious crisis with some apocalyptic planet-killing zombie viral outbreak.
Children — Who Gets to Decide?
I’ve laid out my best, though flawed, argument against forced vaccination of adults. But what about children? Should parents be allowed to choose not to vaccinate their children?
One argument for parental rights is that, while parents aren’t perfect, putting the fate of children in the hands of a government bureaucracy is far worse.
Yet, parents can and do risk their children’s lives with poor health decisions.
When I heard about the parents who refused a tetanus shot for their kid — even after he was hospitalized in an ICU for 47 days from an easily preventable tetanus infection — I was gobsmacked, like many others who are much more pro-vaccine than I am.
To me, if you are going to get one vaccine for your child, it should be the tetanus vaccine. But, do I have the right to impose this belief on parents?
Unfortunately, this extreme example of the $800,000 tetanus child will be used as a reason to take away parental rights, which is a very slippery slope. I’m conflicted on the subject myself.
But, if I had to choose between a flawed system where parents have more rights, and a probably Orwellian system where the government retains total rights over children while the parents have no rights at all — I’m siding with parental rights.
Yes, that means a few kids are possibly going to get sick or even die from catching something a vaccine might have prevented. But, to the parent who is anti-vaccine, the risk of serious disability caused from vaccines is worth that other risk.
I’m not totally sold that vaccines, especially in the number and strength they are given to children now, are as safe as the experts say. What if the experts are actually wrong, and the “hysterical” parents were actually more right than anyone wanted to admit?
At any rate, life is full of risk. As much as it does anger me to see a kid suffer from tetanus when it could have been prevented with a vaccine, kids are at risk every day from just living. They take a risk when they play outside, get in a car, or play a sport. When it comes to vaccinations, I just can’t make these choices for a parent. It’s not my place.
The Best Prevention
People who want to mandate vaccines are well-meaning, but ultimately want to create a safe world where no-one gets sick, hurt, or dies. Unfortunately, however, that’s the reality of living. Even the best vaccines can’t totally prevent you from getting sick from a disease.
Rather than trying to control the behavior of others, focus on your own health. The best thing you can do for your own health is eat healthy food, exercise regularly, and manage your stress levels. Vaccines may help prevent the flu, but ultimately, the healthier you are, the less likely you will be hit with a bad case of it. And that’s all really most of us can do, anyway, even if we have had all our vaccines.
ARTICLE UPDATE (April 16, 2019)
Since I first published this article, officials in New York City and Rockland County, New York, have taken drastic measures to stop measles outbreaks in their jurisdictions. Rockland County forbade any child under 18 without a measles vaccine to go out in public, and New York City instituted mandatory measles vaccines with a fine of up to $1,000 for non-compliance.
In both areas, the measles outbreaks were less than 300 people. No-one had died from the disease.
The affected areas were predominantly populated by Orthodox Jews, who apparently aren’t banned from vaccines based on Jewish law, but may be more skeptical of them for religious and cultural reasons.
A judge struck down Rockland County’s emergency measles declaration after a lawsuit was filed claiming it violated First Amendment rights to freedom of religion.
My feelings are as follows: Such drastic measures taken by the state over these measles outbreaks are a bit alarming. To me, this is more about forcing vaccine compliance regardless of the actual threat level of measles, than about protecting public health.
I remember when we had the possibility of an Ebola outbreak on US soil in 2014. If there is one virus that we should take drastic measures for, it is Ebola. But the media downplayed any calls to ban travel to and from Ebola-infected countries as xenophobia. And a nurse — who should have known better — returned from an Ebola affected area and pitched a fit after she was quarantined due to having a fever when she arrived in the US.
So a measles outbreak is cause for a massive action by the state, whereas Ebola? Just relax, nothing to worry about. But see, we didn’t have an Ebola vaccine yet.
Somewhere in between rounding measles-unvaccinated people up and letting possibly Ebola-infected people roam free is a middle ground. Sane, clear public policy is required — not hyping up measles when it is unwarranted or downplaying a much more deadly virus such as Ebola. Ebola is still a threat, and it could kill millions, if not billions, if it ever spread globally.
By overreacting to measles, public health officials are making it that much harder to justify those drastic public health actions in the future, if, God forbid, they are truly needed.
But I’ll make prediction: Should the experimental Ebola vaccine currently being tested be proven to work safely (and frankly, I hope and pray that it does), you will see a lot more fear-mongering about Ebola, even though we would be that much closer to actually controlling and eradicating it. That’s because money could finally be made off of the deadly virus.
Call me a cynic.