Commentary Family

The Anti-Vaccination Movement Has a Lot in Common With Anti-Choice Groups

Amanda Marcotte

Despite some facile language about "choice" from anti-vaxxers and individual beliefs held among some of them, the reality is that the anti-vaccination movement has way more in common with those trying to restrict abortion access.

Read more of our articles on the 2015 measles outbreak here.

Following the recent outbreak of measles, a disease that had nearly been eradicated from the United States through inoculation, a number of Republican politicians have gotten into hot water by playing footsie with the anti-vaccination set.

Seeing anti-vaccination comments coming from Republicans while Democrats pretty much all sided with the scientists on this one may have come as a surprise to some, as anti-vaccination has often been associated in the public imagination with hippie liberals making organic food and criticizing “Big Pharma,” not with conservatives. Indeed, the “parental choice” rhetoric might even incline some folks to compare anti-vaccination advocates as a movement with those advocating for reproductive rights. But we shouldn’t be fooled, and not just because data shows that anti-vaccination is more popular on the right than the left. Because, despite some facile language about “personal options” from anti-vaxxers and individual beliefs held among some of them, the reality is that the anti-vaccination movement, as a whole, has way more in common with anti-choice groups. Here are a few reasons why.

The obsession with purity. Both the anti-vaccination movement and the anti-choice movement are rooted in this visceral notion of “purity”: a false belief that the body is some kind of temple that has to be zealously guarded from outside forces that would degrade it. For anti-choicers, having sex outside of their very narrow set of rules, using contraception, and getting an abortion all degrade the body and destroy purity. For anti-vaxxers, it’s often not just vaccination, but eating certain foods or just a general fear of “toxins” that make the body “impure.”

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Falsified consequences from “impurity.” “Purity” is more an abstract, moralistic concept than it is a scientific one. No surprise, then, that the consequences of allowing your body to become “impure” rolled out by both anti-vaxxers and anti-choicers are more fantasy than reality. Anti-choicers love to blame all manner of things on what they see as impure sexuality. For example, some claim abortion causes breast cancer; others blame human sexuality for child abuse. Similarly, anti-vaxxers tend to argue that being exposed to some vaguely defined “toxins” in inoculations have a range of ramifications, including autism and mental illness. In both cases, the implication is that we can eradicate all manner of social and health issues by adhering to this abstract notion of “purity.”

It’s all totally false, however. The consequences they attribute to impurity are always due to something else. Continuing research suggests autism is genetic. Diseases like sexually transmitted infections are caused by germs, not sexual impropriety. “Purity” is no bulwark against child abuse or heartbreak.

The patriarchal bent. A lot of individual anti-vaxxers identify as feminists, but sadly, that doesn’t change the fact that anti-vaccination ideology, like anti-choice ideology, is rooted in patriarchal principles of power. Anti-choicers quite obviously want to exert patriarchal command over women’s bodies by denying them access to basic health care. Anti-vaxxers are doing the same, but just to children instead of women. All this language about “parental choice” and “freedom” is a distraction from the fact that this is about parents using the bodies of their children as vehicles to express themselves. It’s actually quite controlling.

That aspect of it became quite clear when Rand Paul justified his hostility toward mandatory vaccination by saying, “Parents own their children.” No, parents are guardians of their children, and anti-vaccination, at its core, is about refusing the basic responsibility to guard one’s children against disease in favor of exerting this mentality of dominance over them.

Fetishizing female sacrifice. It’s not a coincidence that anti-vaccination leadership tends to be primarily female, which should not be mistaken for feminist. Much of the rhetoric around anti-vaccination is centered around the idealization of maternal sacrifice, the concept that while some mommies may rely on a few shots to protect kids from disease, “good”—often privileged—mommies turn to labor-intensive methods of disease prevention. As sociologist Jennifer Reich found when she studied anti-vaccination mothers, a competitive mentality endures among many in the movement. She writes, “They rely instead on other intensive practices in their children’s health, which they saw as rendering vaccines less necessary, including focusing on breastfeeding and nutrition in support of their children’s health and monitoring their social interactions and travel, which they saw as preventing disease exposure.” In fact, none of these alternative methods work nearly as well as a shot does, but the social display of maternal sacrifice of time and energy is more important to these women than the scientific facts.

It hardly needs pointing out that this parallels with the anti-choice idealization of maternal sacrifice, which holds that it’s “selfish” for a woman to consider her independence, her ambition, and even her own health when determining if and when she has children.

The willingness to make other people suffer for your “principles.” One of the most enduring and frustrating aspects of the anti-choice movement is how anti-choicers by and large demand that other people sacrifice for their principles. Oh, sure, they love to talk about how they are rigid and principled people who believe that “life” begins at conception, no exceptions. Notice, though, that the people who have to pay for these principles don’t overlap much with the people who push them forward. It’s not anti-choice activists who lose access to health care when Texas slashes funding for family planning or shuts down abortion clinics in the Rio Grande Valley; it’s low-income and rural women who do. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

It’s also hard to avoid noticing that the “principled” opposition to vaccination is being played out not on the bodies of those who hold those principles (as most of them got to be vaccinated as kids), but on the bodies of the most vulnerable, who have no choice in the matter: children. A recent New York Times piece on this really drove home how much children are being forced to sacrifice so that their parents can preen about their “choice.” For instance:

Tobias has endured chickenpox and whooping cough, though Ms. McMenimen said the latter seemed more like a common cold. She considered a tetanus shot after he cut himself on a wire fence but decided against it: “He has such a strong immune system.”

It’s not just that these kids are put at risk of catching diseases themselves, though; as schools take measures to protect those who can’t be inoculated for medical reasons, unvaccinated children are missing out on learning as well. Note that in this case, a teenager herself is trying to prioritize her education, but her mother openly dismisses this, preferring instead to dwell on baseless paranoia about the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine.

But when the school sent her home with a letter, Ms. McDonald’s daughter was so concerned about missing two weeks of Advanced Placement classes that she suggested simply getting a measles inoculation.

“I said, ‘No, absolutely not,'” Ms. McDonald said. “I said, ‘I’d rather you miss an entire semester than you get the shot.'”

There are echoes here, too, of “parental notification” laws, through which the state allows parents to block teen access to abortion even as adolescents try to make a responsible health-care decision.

And, of course, it’s not just their own kids that anti-vaccination advocates are putting in harm’s way, but other people that have immunity issues or who cannot, for health reasons, be vaccinated. Many of these people are the most vulnerable among us, such as small infants that aren’t quite old enough to get the MMR vaccination. Right now, five babies under the age of 1 in Chicago have been diagnosed with measles. There’s not much “choice” involved when you’re too young to get protection.

Anti-vaccination parents often claim to be acting in a child’s interest, but it’s time to look past what they say and look instead to what they do. Once you do that, you see that what’s really going on is children are being put at risk so the parents can indulge a “personal belief.” And making someone else pay for your principles makes anti-vaccination parents quite a bit like the anti-choice movement.

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