On Fridays, I share links to blog posts by other writers. I link often but not exclusively to writers affiliated with Patheos, the religion and spirituality web portal that hosts my blog. Please share the blog love by reading these posts, sharing them via Facebook, Twitter, etc., and/or participating in the comment conversation.
My oh-so-brave friend Rachel Stone put herself on the line this week, by writing a post for Her.meneutics (the women’s blog on the Christianity Today web site) in which she argued that vaccinating our children makes sense from a scientific/medical perspective (research has clearly debunked the notion that vaccines cause autism, and the benefit of vaccines arises from “herd immunity”—an illness can be eradicated in a population even if not every single person is vaccinated, so long as enough people are vaccinated) and from a Christian perspective (because of that herd immunity mechanism, if a significant part of the population is unvaccinated, the risk of illness is greater not just for those people, but also for people who cannot be vaccinated for some legitimate medical reason, people with compromised immune systems, neighboring populations, etc.). The dangers arising from widespread failure to vaccinate is on display in some African nations, for example, where diseases such as polio had previously been considered eradicated. But when enough people stop vaccinating for various reasons (for example, one Islamic group spread a rumor that vaccines were a U.S.-led conspiracy to sterilize Muslims), then the disease reappears, and not only in that population, but in neighboring populations.
What concerns me about the anti-vaccination movement is not merely the fact that people are so easily persuaded by falsified claims about vaccine risks, nor the tragedy of people losing their lives to diseases that were (thanks to vaccines) nearly eradicated. Rather, I’m concerned that so many people seem willing to let others carry the supposed burden of vaccination so that they don’t have to. To me, that’s a failure of the commandment to love our neighbors: our infant neighbors, our elderly neighbors, and our immune-compromised neighbors. That’s a disease of the soul for which the only treatment is love—best shown in the God who became man to bear our infirmities in his own body.
Hoooo doggy, did she ask for it. Predictably, Rachel is being flamed by those who pile on the anecdotes and web sites supposedly proving that, not only are vaccines dangerous, but they are made from dead babies! And they are a conspiracy led by Big Pharma, whose sole concern is money, money, money! And furthermore, how dare Rachel suggest that our daily decisions about how to live and care for ourselves and others have anything to do with our faith! People come to the Her.meneutics blog to read about spirituality and Jesus, thank you very much, not to have someone suggest that their Christian faith has anything to do with their behavior and decisions! And anyway, urging people to make decisions based on what’s best for everyone and not just the individual isn’t Christianity, it’s socialism!
It’s obvious where I stand. I think our faith should inform our daily behavior and decisions, both mundane and monumental. I think research is more valuable for decision-making than accumulated anecdote. I think making medical decisions based on what you read on web sites heavy on opinion and conspiracy theories and light on documented research is foolish (I am married to a librarian after all). I think journlists should be allowed to raise legitimate questions about the quality of medical research and reveal the holes in popular cultural notions without being accused of being both cold-hearted and blind to reality. (In my work around reproductive and fertility medicine, I have occasionally argued with those who elevate anecdote over science, and been accused, as Rachel has been this week, of being fooled by Big Pharma and conspiring doctors, while also failing to give a damn about people’s well-being.) I want to bang my head against the wall when I read comments to Rachel’s essay from those who say they aren’t vaccinating their children against diseases like polio because people don’t get polio in the U.S. (and why is that again? oh yeah…because of vaccines!). I hope New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof pays attention to Rachel’s tweet to him the other day: “Please write something about how vaccine conspiracy theory is a US luxury afforded us by the efficacy & safety of vaccines!”
I’d go a step further than that, and argue that widespread suspicion of modern medicine in our culture—the painting of vaccinations, pharmaceutical companies, hospital births, and more as part of a vast conspiracy by those in power to hide the truth, make money, and rob people of their self-determination—is a luxury available only to those who have never faced serious threats to life or limb without benefit of modern medicine to treat them. As Rachel points out in a post reflecting on her vaccination piece (a gracious and wise post, especially given the circumstances), no institution or profession is free of self-interest or flawed priorities. Our medical system has plenty in it that needs fixing. But the people who make up the “system” also possess our better human qualities of wisdom, compassion, and honesty.
As someone who would be living an isolated, painful, limited life without benefit of modern medicine, I choose to look for that wisdom, compassion, and honesty first. I choose to trust that those advocating childhood vaccinations are motivated primarily by the desire to do what research has continually shown to be the most effective thing to ensure that children aren’t suffering from (and dying of) preventable diseases.