Fear + vaccines + autism = ?

Dear friends,

I was taking a break from some preliminary dissertation reading (that’s right – done with term papers and on to dissertation work!) via Tumblr and came across this post:

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There’s a nearly obscene amount of sass in this post, and I would personally refrain from expressing any thoughts on this matter in such an accusatory way. However, I think this post does point towards a few deeper issues that we need to confront.

I’m really interested in value judgments that humans give to medical treatments (or just value judgments in general, but that discussion is for another time), especially when potential death is involved. Specifically thinking about vaccinations, we might see value in vaccinations only for making us physically healthier, or for allowing us to avoid death caused by a little molecular entity having a field day with our bodies. However, the recent phenomenon of parents (not just mothers, as the post refrains to regard (we don’t want to gender the politics of decision-making for children’s health)) choosing to not vaccinate their children raises peculiar issues regarding value judgements regarding vaccination. With this phenomenon, we see a parent choosing that their child face the risk of losing their life, or having their life physically threatened, solely for the sake of avoiding what is perceived as a disability by contemporary society.

I (regrettably) don’t know enough about autism to make informed comments on this condition, but I want to raise a point that may let us circumvent having to know too deeply about autism.

What is the fear of a child having autism saying about our value judgments when it comes to disease risk versus risk for a ‘disability’ that (is said to, and might not actually) come from getting a vaccine? One of these outcomes will, quite objectively, kill you. The other is what I believe to be the simple consequence of a different neural network, one that causes ‘issues’ only due to the difference’s relation to what is perceived as ‘normal’ in our society. Additionally, having autism will not kill you. (That’s to say autism will not physically kill you. The stresses caused by having to conform to mainstream society might lead to more stress and premature death, but again, we must save that conversation for another time.) Must we assume, then, that the fear of a child having autism (what can be seen as a socially contrived condition) is greater than their child potentially dying (not to mention the potential risk of causing other friends’ and family members’ children the same demise)?

Moving along and assuming that this assumption is true, is it right to blame the parents who choose to not vaccinate their kids for acting irrationally? If they are acting irrationally, then are they acting out of impulse or emotion? Is this impulse born out of their own research (regarding the post’s mention of “access to the internet”), or born out of the larger societal notion that autism is a bad thing to have in our society, bad enough that we are willing to risk death by infectious disease to avoid autism?

Contrast this phenomenon with the idea of putting a loved one on life support to extend their living but possibly vegetative state. In this instance, we are putting objective physical health (staying ‘alive’ in a biological sense) over socially valued health (being able to interact with others in an unhindered way, or living comfortably without being connected to medical equipment 24/7). In essence, our value judgments have flip-flopped.

At the bottom line, we can see here that value judgments are by no means concrete or unchanging. Just because we might swing one way when it comes to vaccinating a child, does not mean that we are bound to swinging that same way when we might make a decision for our less-than-autonomous parent who is approaching a (dignified) end. What does this say about where our value judgments are based? If we see that value judgments are not coming from objective moral reasoning, and rather from impulse and emotion born out of highly external factors, then I fear that we cannot put sole responsibility on the non-vaccinating parents for making that decision.

We might instead see that we have a duty as a whole to work toward a re-conceptualisation on what is socially valued, especially with notions of what is deemed ‘good’ and ‘bad’ regarding action in the social setting (that which is affected greatly by autism). Hence, instead of blaming those who make these decisions to not vaccinate their children, I might think that we have a shared responsibility in resisting a (what I see as detrimental) shift in the perception of value in vaccines.

Furthermore, I might call attention to the fact that this vaccination issue is a manifestation of a larger social problem of how we create (yes, create) disabilities that result in unjust stigmatisation. Regarding the word ‘create’, I mean only that much of what we may see as a difference (in social interaction, or mental processes) is deemed a disability when, in reality, this difference is only a difference and nothing more. If we don’t address this detrimental social wrong that takes place all too often, then fighting the vaccine issue (by any means, including blaming parents who probably shouldn’t be fully blamed) will not fix the problem, and we will come out of this situation with two ‘bads’ (namely, sick children with antiquated diseases and further social stigmatisation). Certainly, we might (rationally, emotionally, however you like) fear this outcome.

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