Sometimes Mommy Wars Are Worth Fighting: Let’s Have a Healthy Debate About Vaccines

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Vaccines.

There, I said it: vaccines, vaccines, vaccines.

I feel like the topic of childhood vaccinations has become something that people either GET REALLY, VERY ANGRY ABOUT or avoid altogether. I tend toward the latter. I’m 100% uninterested in online shouting matches, so I steer clear of anything that seems to be devolving into one.

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But I do have my (pro-vaccine) opinions on the matter and I am rather fond of sharing my opinions generally (hence the blog), so every once in a while I jump in when the jumping seems good.

A couple of days ago, I spotted just such an opportunity: a conversation was brewing in response to a Facebook friend’s post. I thought I’d answer another person’s comment with a little something calm and polite before the thread got too hot.

The commenter and I went back and forth a bit. We remained respectful. There were no fireworks. Still, she seemed a little hurt, a little defensive. She seemed to want affirmation. More than anything, she seemed to want people to be okay with her position.

I see that a lot on this topic. I don’t see many anti-vaxxers trying to convince the rest of us that they’re right. (Though maybe that’s just the crowd I run in.) I see them trying to convince us that their decision to not vaccinate should be just as acceptable as our decision to vaccinate.

In response to them, I generally see the combative pro-vaxxers SHOUT REALLY, VERY ANGRY THINGS and the peaceful pro-vaxxers come dangerously close (or completely buy in) to the “everything-is-equal” mentality. You know: We all need to make the decisions that are right for us. That kind of thing.

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Last week I was one of the many thousands of women, I’m sure, who laughed and then cried at Similac’s Mother ‘Hood video. In it, different parenting factions bump up against each other at a playground: the crunchy moms, the working moms, the babywearers, the breastfeeders, the bottle feeders, etc. They’re each convinced of their own superiority and they’re itching for a fight.

Until a stroller starts rolling down a hill.

Right on cue, all the parents rush to the stroller. They stop it in time, the baby is shown to be safe, and everyone is relieved. “No matter our beliefs, we’re parents first,” the ad says.

It’s incredibly touching; I whimper like a baby every time I see it.

But we’re just shown the two extremes. We parents seem to be expected to fit into one of two molds: Mommy War Combatants or Enlightened Pacifists.

What about the middle?

What about not seeing every disagreement as a FIGHT, but also not letting ourselves fall into the intellectually lazy, PC trap that is “let’s agree to disagree”?

What about having the courage to defend our beliefs and the openness to listen to others’ opinions? What about honoring the love that parents have for their children but recognizing that sometimes people make poor choices? What about distinguishing between parenting practices that are matters of taste and those that are matters of safety?

What about accepting that, as valid as our disagreements might be, sometimes they’re worth airing and sometimes they’re not?

Personally, I’m a stay-at-home, from-scratch cooking, no-organic buying, bottle feeding, stroller pushing and Ergo-wearing, time-out using, sometimes-yelling mom. But I’m not about to say a thing to convince crunchy, breastfeeding, exclusive baby-wearing, peaceful parenting moms that they’re wrong. I may disagree with elements of their parenting styles, but I concede that these are matters of taste. What works for me and my family will not be what works for another woman and her family.

Vaccines, though, are not a matter of taste; they are a matter of safety.

It’s blessedly easy for us to forget these days, but for most of human history, it was terribly dangerous to be a child. If you survived childbirth, you had to withstand round after round of disease (not to mention dangers related to hygiene and malnutrition). And if you survived the diseases, you had to withstand whatever effects they left on you. You might be left scarred or crippled or disabled in some other way.

Just walk around any old cemetery and take a look at the headstones – you’ll get a sense of how many children lost their lives too soon.

Thank goodness, these days most of us don’t have to think much about the possibility of losing a child. A major reason for this is childhood vaccinations. They’ve been keeping us safe for generations, in some cases bringing diseases close to the point of eradication. Or, in the case of smallpox, even getting to that point.

Until other diseases get there too, we’ve simply got to keep vaccinating.

We’ve each got to do our own part, as small as it may seem, to stop the spread of disease. When I get my child vaccinated, I not only protect him, but I protect those he comes in contact with. I protect those they come in contact with. And so on.

Some will rely on my protection (and that of others) because for medical reasons they are ineligible to be vaccinated (infants, those with compromised immune systems, those with allergies to vaccine components).

Others may not seem to need my protection because they’ve been vaccinated too. But nothing in this world is perfect. Though vaccines work the vast majority of the time, sometimes immune systems don’t respond as you would hope. Sometimes vaccinated people have to rely on that beautifully-termed “herd immunity” for protection, just as infants and otherwise medically-ineligible individuals have to.

That’s why, when I make the decision to vaccinate my child, I don’t just make the decision for my own family. I make it for yours too.

And – whether you’re thinking of us or not – when you make your decision regarding vaccination for your family, you do so for mine as well.

Please decide to protect us.

I have a 9-month-old baby, not yet old enough to have been vaccinated against the measles. Please decide to protect him.

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Combative pro-vaxxers: Please stop yelling. Please stop calling people names. Please stop questioning motives. Please try not to be so angry.

I know you care about this issue and you want anti-vaxxers to come to see it from your point of view, but anger rarely convinces anyone of anything. If you care enough to weigh in on an issue, you should care enough to try to be persuasive. So, persuade.

Calm down. Think about the issue from your opponents’ viewpoints and do your best to figure out how to make your points in ways that will resonate with them. Go forth and try to make a difference.

Peaceful pro-vaxxers: Please think for a moment about why you vaccinate your own children. If you’re convinced that vaccinations are necessary to keep them safe, then wouldn’t they also be necessary to keep other families’ children safe?

Please consider that maybe issues of safety are worth having a firm opinion on, even worth weighing in on – uncomfortable though they may be. I know you don’t want to hurt others’ feelings. So, don’t be hurtful.

Be brave. Think about the issue from your opponents’ viewpoints and do your best to figure out how to make your points in ways that will resonate with them. Go forth and try to make a difference.

Anti-vaxxers: Please think for a moment about why you don’t vaccinate your own children. If you’re convinced that vaccinations would be harmful to them, then wouldn’t they also be harmful to other families’ children?

If you feel confident in your decision to not vaccinate, then you should want to convince other parents to follow your example. If you feel confident in your decision to not vaccinate, then you should be able to defend your decision. Explain your rationale. Provide your evidence. Own it.

Do not seek affirmation for its own sake. Earn it by convincing others that your side is the right one.

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This is an important issue. Precious little lives are at stake. Let’s do right by our discussion of it.

Let’s fight the good fight – one conducted fairly, one for a worthy cause. Let’s remember that refusing to fight fairly is a mark of doubting your own position. And that refusing to enter the fray can be a mark of doubting its importance.

21 thoughts on “Sometimes Mommy Wars Are Worth Fighting: Let’s Have a Healthy Debate About Vaccines

  1. Great piece, Julie! I also feel that there is a group that often gets lost in the shuffle–parents who want to vaccinate, but also want to get answers to questions about how the vaccines are made, whether children should get them separately to watch for reactions, and just generally to be informed about what is in the vaccines. Are aborted fetuses used in vaccines? I don’t know, but I see that mentioned a lot, and it does worry me. My children are vaccinated, but I do think that it’s not a bad thing for parents to be concerned and asking questions about the safety of giving vaccines at a certain time, as long as it can be a healthy conversation. Absolutely we must protect children who aren’t able to get vaccinated. But I always think in any disagreement it is important to block out the loud angry voices on either end and listen for the quiet ones in the middle that are asking important questions and trying to find answers.

    • I understand wanting to ask questions, but these questions have been answered. We shouldn’t spread them out because #1 they are important enough to be given as soon as possible and #2 we know what the reactions are. when my children receive vaccines, the nurse and doctor both go over what to look for. And the office gives me a paper with that information again, along with the name of each vaccine they received.
      No, aborted fetuses are not used in vaccines. And the USCCB has said that it is ok to vaccinate, so you don’t have to worry about that either.

      • Actually, there is some truth to what Rita has heard.
        Though the fetal matter is not actually IN the vaccines, it is used to *create* some of them them.
        The organization Children of God for Life (http://www.cogforlife.org/) has information about which vaccines are 100% ethical, which ones have ethical alternatives, and which ones do not. There are only a few unethically developed vaccines that don’t have ethical alternatives.
        That organization is also pushing for the development of ethical alternatives, and I’m really hoping that their work bears fruit soon. I’m generally pro-vaccination, but abortion is a huge issue, and I cried when I realized I’d given my daughter a vaccine that was unethically developed. I missed being able to request an alternative by only a few hours.

      • Yes, unfortunately there are three vaccines in the US where the only options available contain the cell lines from aborted fetuses. They are the MMR, varicella (chicken pox), and Hep A. The pontifical academy for life has written a thoughtful and nuanced explanation of why the origin and production of these vaccines is gravely immoral, and that doctors and parents are tasked with making every possible effort to peruse alternative options. Only then are they advised to proceed to get the available vaccines, although immorally sourced, if they discern it to be the right choice for their families. So no, they are not encouraging the use of the compromised vaccine strands, but they do concede to parental authority as having the final say. Does that make sense?

        It’s very common knowledge (easy to verify with a little searching) that these three vaccines do contain materials from aborted fetuses, and for that reason we have prayerfully discerned we cannot peruse those specific shots for our children. We’re hoping to do a little medical tourism eventually and get the shots outside the US, since ethical alternatives do exist, and in the meantime, we keep lobbying Merck and the rest for access to safe and ethical options, because we d appreciate the grave risk of some of these preventable childhood diseases.

    • I really like your post. It is important to discuss this openly and honestly, without getting nasty and resorting to name calling. I don’t have children but I am anti vax, and have good reason for doing so. I have tried explaining the reasons why but people do not like hearing this, so I (and most anti vaxxers do the same) resign myself to letting people make their own choice in the matter.

      Aborted foetal cellular material and DNA is present in vaccines for shingles, measles mumps and rubella, hepatitis A, chicken pox, and rabies. http://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/downloads/appendices/B/excipient-table-2.pdf
      It is impossible to remove this material completely from the vaccines because this is what the virus grows in. If they removed it completely they would have to remove the virus too which makes the vaccine pointless.

      They also continue to this very day, to use cells from aborted babies for vaccine manufacturing. WALVAX 2 is the most recent baby that we know of. The cells taken from the lungs of a 12 week aborted baby from china, were made into a cell line in 2010. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25803132

      Whether people vaccinate or not I think they need to agree that this is an issue that needs to be discussed honestly and taken seriously. But it very rarely is.

      I have had the most adamant pro life friends of mine refuse to acknowledge this as important because questioning vaccines or portraying them in any negative light is “just not done”. Precious lives taken too soon, suddenly become “stem cells taken from foetuses already dead from years ago” when pro life people want to use vaccines.

      Paul Offit, governments, health departments and vaccine advocates in general, repeatedly insist that it was only 3 babies taken from the 60’s. This isn’t true. If they expect us to take them seriously when they tell us other things about vaccines, then they need to be honest and transparent about the abortions.

      • I apologize for the delay in responding to your comments, Sarah. Honestly, I took your first (this) comment as a response to another comment (Rita’s, above), and didn’t understand that you were expecting a response to it. I thought you were simply making a valuable contribution to the discussion. Regarding this weekend’s comments, I already provided an explanation of my delay — preparing for, going on, and recovering from an out-of-town trip. (And prepping for/putting to rights my kitchen, which my husband painted while we were gone.) 😉

        At any rate — as I noted above — I view your comment as a really valuable contribution to this discussion. I’m glad you made it. I think you have one of the most valid anti-vaxx points of view possible, and I don’t fault you for it.

        Perhaps I should have been, but when I wrote the post, I actually wasn’t thinking much of those whose opposition to vaccines comes from their concern about the usage of materials from aborted fetuses. I was thinking of those who have a knee-jerk tendency to distrust science, those who succumb to scare tactics about autism, etc. I think that’s where the bulk of the disagreement over vaccines lies.

        And that’s unfortunate. Because the pro-life concern — your concern, is so much more valid than those, in my opinion.

        Valid. Well-meaning. Understandable. Acceptable. Admirable, even. But still, I choose to vaccinate myself and my children. Because I think it’s acceptable to use even ill-gotten science to achieve the good of preventing the spread of disease. Do the ends justify the means? Absolutely not. I’m not saying that those children should have been aborted or that the scientists who used tissue from their bodies should have done so. I certainly don’t think new fetal cell lines should be established. (And I’m disturbed to have learned, from you, that one line was generated in 2010. I was unaware of that development.) But once we have the effective/helpful/healing fruits of such science, I don’t think we should be compelled to ignore them.

        I realize that this may be an unsatisfying answer. And I acknowledge that this issue deserves more attention. (Including more attention from me, when I write posts like the one here.) But I don’t think that vaccinating my children means I’m not pro-life. As the National Catholic Bioethics Center says in this FAQ: “It should be obvious that vaccine use in these cases does not contribute directly to the practice of abortion since the reasons for having an abortion are not related to vaccine preparation.”

        Thanks for your comments.

      • Hi Julie,
        Thank you for your comment, and please accept my apology for being impatient.
        Wow! This has to be one for the history books!! Someone on a public forum being humble enough to admit an anti vaxxer has a valid and admirable concern and reason not to vaccinate! Thank you :).
        Julie, while I can understand you feeling obligated to vaccinate your children regardless of the abortion connection, don’t you feel uneasy basing your decision on the National Catholic Bioethics Center FAQ, when the information they have provided is not accurate?
        Even though I am against vaccination, I can empathise incredibly with mothers who feel forced to use these vaccines against their conscience, for the sake of their children. But I feel like this decision needs to be made based on more accurate information than the NCCB website provides.

        While mothers who read this and get advice from them can be forgiven for not realising abortions have been more recently done…the NCCB has no excuse at all and their reasoning is quite disturbing. The first three statements they make while not exactly out right lies…are still incredibly deceptive (abortions performed in the 60’s are not really historic are they….and 2010 most certainly isn’t. And the only reason the cells in the cell line “never formed part of the victims bodies” was because the bodies were destroyed. The cells themselves retain the dna and chromosomal structure of the original cells and are simply dividing and replicating the way they would have done if they had been left to grow in a living baby) I have all the empathy in the world for people who feel forced to use these vaccines…but I get a very uncomfortable feeling when justifications and excuses are made to down play how serious the connection is. And then when I see the hate and vitriol directed towards people who abstain from using these things, it makes me feel quite sick. Parents are being blamed for children getting sick and dying here because they are refusing to take part in fetal tissue exploitation.

        And the “crazy anti -vaxxers” who cop so much hate, are the only people that I know of who are being completely honest about the abortion connection (some of them are anyway I realise not all are completely honest. Everyone else (including my own government here in Australia…and yours too although they are more clever in their wording) lies about it. If these anti vaxx sites did not exist I would never have even known this was going on. So autism or not, I think the hate they are copping is unjustified. They have given me more accurate information than my government and health department has. There is truth and misinformation on both sides. And unfortunately as the debate gets more nasty and polarised…less and less people are hearing truth.

        I could understand people feeling justified using these things if abortion was a thing of the past, and fetal tissue research was a non existent thing. But abortion, and the exploitation of the process in “modern medicine” is only getting worse and more prevalent. Type aborted “fetal tissue research” into google scholar and see what comes up :/…a lot of scientists use immoral vaccines as justification for their experiments. We now have aborted babies kidneys being harvested in rats now for organ donation shortages http://www.medicaldaily.com/kidney-harvested-aborted-human-fetus-grown-rat-end-organ-donor-shortage-scientists-319186….we have women who in the 80’s, were publicly claiming that if they could, they would intentionally abort a baby to “cure” a loved ones Parkinson’s disease. http://articles.latimes.com/1988-09-26/local/me-1834_1_fetal-tissue. And then of course we have this: http://jme.bmj.com/content/25/2/87.short

        As Christians we have to understand that the world is getting darker, and there is no denying that a lot of things touted as “miracles” of modern medicine, are in reality, total abominations in Gods eyes…that no matter what the personal cost, we must reject and stand against. It’s only going to get harder to refuse these things…not easier. Pharmaceutical companies are incredibly clever and manipulative, they will have no trouble convincing people that their lives and the lives of their children, depend on the use of these morally problematic products. In Australia, our government is tightening the rules around religious exemptions…it has mostly been brought about, by angry people claiming anti vaxxers are idiots who have no valid reason to refuse.

        No matter what people think of these anti vaxxers, none that I know are refusing because they are stupid or because they don’t care about others getting sick. It breaks my heart to think that one day I may not get a choice over whether I accept these things or not. To me, accepting one of these things is like being forced to use soap made from a holocaust victim.

  2. Standing ovation!!!

    I have only one quibble with your piece: the advice to anti-vaxxers that they try to convince others. I see PLENTY of that, besides Jenny McArthy, and I would be thrilled if they all stopped trying to bring others to their side of the argument. Why? Because you’re absolutely right: this is vitally important, with lives at stake. We’re already seeing measles returning in California. The fewer parents decide to eschew vaccines the better. Frankly, if a child dies of measles, I doubt the parents will be comforted because she caught it from a family that really cared about their decision and did lots of Google searches.

    Perhaps you’re being sneaky here, because research reveals that the Lancet has repudiated the fraudulent research that started the whole thing. I worry, though, that people have already decided that the WHO, CDC, scientists, et all are “mainstream” and therefore untrustworthy. There’s an unfortunate distrust of credible research, and I’m not sure what the answer is.

    All that said (sorry for the essay), in general this rocks. This issue is way too important to lump in with less crucial mommy wars.

    • Thanks, Caroline! I knew that some would have difficulty with that part. But: (1) I couldn’t exactly encourage debate on the issue by urging just one side to speak up, could I? (2) I think honest people are well-served by having to explain themselves. Those who refuse to argue openly and honestly — well, you’re not going to be able to convince them anyway. (i.e. the woman you heard on NPR) (3) I think there are a fair number of people lurking in the anti-vaxx ranks who are counting on herd immunity to protect them. They want all the benefits without any risk. I’d like for them to reconsider.

      • I have tried to start an open an honest discussion from an anti vaxx perspective. And I have so far been ignored….I gave a valid reason If there is disagreement with how valid it is can we discuss it?

        I’m not counting on any herd immunity to protect me. Immunity from vaccines wears off, no body denies this. And it wears off at unknown times, because unless you get titers (and honestly how many people get those they are so expensive) or you actually get sick, you don’t really know if immunity was ever achieved to start with. So in reality, we have a huge adult population who are not immunized at all because their childhood vaccines have long since worn off. Adults get boosters if their work requires it or if they are asked to get one to visit a new baby..but largely unimmunized adults provide a large gap in the supposed “herd immunity”. And this gap has been there for decades.

  3. I’m listening to NPR right now, and there is a mother on there who flatly says there is nothing that can change her mind on vaccines. She doesn’t trust anything done by the FDA, CDC, or anything done that is connected with the government at all. Her reasoning? “I don’t believe that.” Belief is a key word. Vaccine studies should not be something that we “believe” in or not. So, yeah, people get angry, because this is not ignorance, it’s purposefully invincible ignorance. I get angry because nothing that anyone says, no amount of studies, no amount of facts, will change some parents’ minds. And because of that perverse ignorance, people will die.

    • I’m sad it’s true, but I agree with you Caroline. I think you are absolutely right. And the level of belligerent ignorance in our society is frightening. It reminds me of Charles Dickens’s oft’ forgotten scene in A Christmas Carol about Ignorance and Want.

    • Regarding the woman, see above. But regarding the anger — I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be angry. I was talking to a friend of mine last night who’s a NICU nurse and she’s (rightfully) angry, because she works with babies who are vulnerable to these diseases. It makes total sense. I’m just saying not to try to argue the issue from a place of anger. Don’t try persuading someone when you’re angry — you probably won’t be very successful at it. (And please, let us take part in these discussions because we want to make a difference, not because we want to vent.)

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