My son is vaccinated.
But that doesn’t mean I believe vaccines are completely safe.
There is a lot of talk about this subject right now and it makes sense why, especially given the recent measles outbreaks. But what doesn’t make sense to me is the extreme polarization of both sides of the debate. The articles and comments I read tend to tout vaccines as either “completely poisonous” or “perfectly safe”– rarely anything in between.
To me, both those descriptions sound fishy.
My experience is that when you look at a material problem of the material world, of inexact science and probabilities and risks, such complete condemnation or complete acceptance is usually dangerous. We like simple, clear answers, especially when they are about the safety of our children, but such answers are often impossible when our world and its people are imperfect.
The fallacy I see most often on both sides of the vaccine debate is a refusal to admit or fully account for this fact. The extreme anti-vaccine argument relies on the assumption that children’s bodies were made to effectively fight off diseases. The extreme pro-vaccine argument relies on the assumption that the medical system was made to effectively fight diseases. Both of these statements are true. What they are missing is the caveat: but sometimes the bodies– and the medical system– fail.
What this means is that we need to have a healthy skepticism of every method we use to protect our children (and ourselves.) There’s plenty enough evidence to show that we ought not blindly trust our medical system. Just look at the way regulations and recommendations change so drastically over the years (each one usually presented with complete confidence and assurance.) We were told to formula feed and now we’re told to breastfeed. We were told a drug was harmless and then it is recalled. Babies were supposed to sleep on their stomachs and now they’re supposed to sleep on their backs. Antibiotics were the first line of treatment for mild infections until we realized that they might be making those infections stronger. All the while we like to cling to this fantasy that the doctor always knows best. The doctor certainly has a lot to offer but his expertise, by its very nature, remains inexact and worthy of our scrutiny. As tempting as it may be, we can’t just surrender our health to the medical system.
But neither should we fall into the opposite temptation– the opposite fantasy: that bodies always work fine when left alone. History easily proves that one wrong. I’ve heard some version said time and time again by people of the older generations, I remember what it was like in the days of polio. We don’t want to go back to that. Now, I know there are conspiracy theories about how vaccines have nothing to do with the eradication of many of these deadly diseases. Could they be right? Maybe. But the nature and language of the conspiracy theories remains suspect. We do know for sure that in almost all other places and times children often died in childhood. Despite the greed or dishonesty or flippancy that may exist in some of the medical community, it does seem pretty likely that they played a large part, especially with the advent of vaccines, in reversing that horrific reality. We must accept that bodies, when left alone, sometimes don’t fare well.
So if we can’t fully trust the immune system or the medical system then what do we do? What do we do if we need the vaccines but we know they might not be totally safe? We can’t settle for easy answers. We have to take each medical situation and research and address it individually. We have to look at the scientific journals and the “mommy blogs”— we have to look at them all because all of them have some relevant data. It is a parent’s duty to sift through that data and evaluate it. Personally, that data almost always leads me to vaccinate my child. But that doesn’t mean I believe vaccines are totally safe. That doesn’t mean I trust any one source about them completely.
But this lack of trust doesn’t have to mean I have no faith in doctors or scientists or my child’s immune system. It doesn’t mean I have no faith in humanity. In fact, I believe healthy skepticism allows us to have more faith in humanity because it allows us to forgive humanity.
What amazes me most about the vaccine debate is the hatred amidst it. I’ve read so many comments back and forth like, “if you (do or don’t) vaccinate your children they ought to be taken from you.” I can’t see how anyone would think such comments might facilitate open-minded discussion– but I also do understand where the hatred comes from. Dangers, especially to our children, are scary. We like the idea of easy answers. When we realize the answers aren’t so easy or obvious it makes it all scarier. It is tempting to demonize the other side who is pointing out the complicated nature of the problem. It is tempting to turn an issue of balancing risks (exactly what the issue of vaccines comes down to) into a moral dogma. And then those on the other side become evil. We cannot see them clearly. We cannot see ourselves clearly. We cannot see the most important point about all of this: that most parents, whether they vaccinate or not, are truly trying to take care of their children.
They won’t always succeed, but that’s the nature of an imperfect world. Our job is to do our best to navigate that imperfection and then, to forgive the imperfection– in the world, in the science, in each other, in ourselves. Only then can we begin to have any clear-headedness or discussion about any of it.