It seems that anti-vaccination advocates are immoveable. As in, they cannot be moved by rational arguments based on evidence. They weren’t moved when Dr. Andrew Wakefield, who authored the discredited paper linking autism to vaccines, lost his license to practice medicine. Retracting that paper, originally published in the Lancet, didn’t move them, either. They clearly are not moved by appeals to the public good. The recent outbreaks of whooping cough and measles don’t seem to be moving the needle much, either, as the New York Times reports that anti-vaxxers are digging in their heels, denying responsibility, and minimizing the dangers of the various diseases they have helped usher back when medical science thought they were nearly over.
The worst part is that it appears anti-vaccination parents can’t even be moved by concern for their own children’s welfare. Sure, they talk a big game about how much they love their children, but all too often we see anti-vaccination parents exposing their kids to harm rather than admit that they are wrong about vaccination. The New York Times article, for instance, describes a mother named Crystal McDonald whose daughter asked for a measles shot so she could stay in school, only to have her mother refuse by saying, “I’d rather you miss an entire semester than you get the shot.” Another parent admitted her son had already endured chicken pox and whooping cough. There have been reports nationwide of parents deliberately exposing children to chicken pox instead of letting them be vaccinated, even though 11,000 children a year were hospitalized for chickenpox in the years before the vaccine was developed.
That old saying, “you can’t reason a person out of a position that they didn’t reason themselves into,” applies here. The anti-vaccination trend is, at its heart, less about real concerns about “toxins” and more an expression of identity by the parents. The mentality seems to be that vaccines are for the children of hoi polloi, but their family will use more elite methods of disease protection, such as breast milk and organic foods. “[M]others see their own intensive mothering practices— particularly around feeding, nutrition, and natural living—as an alternate and superior means of supporting their children’s immunity,” sociologist Jennifer Reich argued in 2014 paper on this subject. “My child is pure,” said Dr. Jack Wolfson of Arizona in a CNN interview justifying his decision not to vaccinate. The fact that these elite methods don’t actually work doesn’t matter.
It’s not just that anti-vaccination is selfish. It’s selfishness for its own sake, a way for snobs to distinguish themselves from the vaccinating masses. Anti-vaccination is tailormade for deeply selfish people, because it gives them a chance to show off how superior they think they are while shifting the cost of their choice on other people, from their own children to the beleaguered school officials and pediatricians who have to deal with them.
But what if we changed the equation, so that parents could not shift all the costs for their choice onto others? The easiest and most straightforward way to do that would be to start fining parents who don’t vaccinate, with exceptions for the few that have immune-suppressed kids who can’t handle it. It’s the only thing that actually addresses the deep selfishness at the heart of anti-vaccination. Appealing to the common good won’t work, since they think they are better than common. Appealing to their own pocketbooks, on the other hand, might just work.
Considering that anti-vaccination is primarily a matter of elite people showing off their elite status through anti-vaccination, the fine can’t be small or they’ll just see it as the price of doing business. Perhaps $5,000, per kid, per year the kids aren’t vaccinated. The money can go toward paying for public health initiatives for people who would kill to have the access to healthcare that anti-vaccination people turn their noses up to. Not only would that actually help people, but it would highlight some of the unspoken classism underlying the anti-vaccination movement. I realize that just straight-up fining people is politically unpopular in our era of soft libertarianism, but as Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig at the New Republic points out, it’s exactly that kind of American hostility towards seeing ourselves as part of a collective that caused the anti-vaccination crisis in the first place. It’s as good a place as any to start fighting back against the tide of selfishness that threatens to overwhelm us.
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist who writes frequently about liberal politics, the religious right and reproductive health care. She’s a prolific Twitter villain who can be followed @amandamarcotte.