Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Fear of An Autistic Planet [Updated 2/6/15]

I've been wonderin' why
People livin' in fear
Of my shade
(Or my hi top fade)
I'm not the one that's runnin'
But they got me one the run
Treat me like I have a gun
All I got is genes and chromosomes
Consider me Black to the bone
All I want is peace and love
On this planet
(Ain't that how God planned it?)

-- From "Fear of A Black Planet" (Chuck D/Public Enemy)

*     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *     *

We are living in fear of an Autistic Planet. This is the primary reason why so many, including Catholics who consider themselves pro-life, feel justified in their decision to risk the disability and death of their children and the children of their fellows by refusing the MMR vaccine.

Of course, they will tell you that this is not the reason they refuse it. They will tell you that the reason they are willing to risk death for their children and others' is that the vaccine was grown in a culture derived from the cell line of an aborted fetus fifty years ago.

This is supposed to be some kind of principled pro-life stand. It is not. 

Here's why:

- The material cooperation with evil on the part of those who use the vaccine is so remote that it is devoid of any of the characteristics that would make it sinful;

- The willingness of self-styled pro-life anti-vaccinators to risk the death, from measles, of those who are immunocompromised and must rely on herd immunity to stay safe is in direct contradiction to any principle that purports to stand for life; and

- To deny the good that has come from vaccines, including those derived from aborted fetal stem-cell lines fifty years go, undermines Christian theology itself.

I know that some Catholics are calling vaccine refusal "conscientious objection." It is not. True conscientious objection admits that the dictates of one's own conscience are in opposition to the social conscience, and is willing to accept the consequences, including punishment, of following them. Conscientious objectors to the draft in World War II and Vietnam, for instance, willingly served prison time for their choice (draft dodgers who fled to Canada in the latter war were obviously not conscientious objectors). I have yet to meet or read of a so-called conscientious objector to the measles vaccine who would accept a similar punishment for following what he purports to be the dictates of his conscience. Rather, the argument they make is that one's own self-interest trumps the common good. Can someone explain to me how this argument can be legitimately called either pro-life or Catholic?

The Vatican has made it clear that vaccinating is neither an occasion nor a near-occasion of sin (see the link above). If this is so, then what is the real reason that so many apparently faithful Catholics refuse the vaccine, even if to do so announces to the world, in the starkest possible terms, that they do not love their neighbors as themselves?

It's because they fear autism. And because they believe in the debunked and compromised results of a corrupt and amateurish study, published in the Lancet almost twenty years ago, that linked the measles vaccine to a gut syndrome in twelve children and theorized that this syndrome somehow made them autistic (a study conducted by a doctor with undisclosed conflicts of interest, who has since been stripped of his license to practice, but has moved to the U.S., where he is exploiting some parents' Fear of An Autistic Planet for cold, hard cash). Apparently anything, including the death of children, is better than having an autistic child. Can someone explain to me how this fear of autism can be legitimately called either pro-life or Catholic?

I will not link here to any of the so-called Catholic commentary that tries to pass off the championing of personal freedom over the good of all as conscientious objection. Because it's not Catholic. It's libertarian. And libertarianism, in spite of all the recent Talmudic parsing by Catholic libertarians to make it seem Catholic, is not.

But let us be hypothetical for a moment and suppose that all these free-floating fears are justified. Let us imagine that big pHARMa really does want to change your child's genetic neurological structure in order to line its own pockets (never mind the fact that the pharmaceutical companies that make vaccines give millions of doses away to Third World countries and that vaccines are actually a loss leader for these companies). And let us suppose further that, in cahoots with Big Pharma, the governments wants, in Jenny McCarthy's evocative phrase, "the soul gone from [your child's] eyes]," probably in order to take your child from you and make him a ward of the evil state, or something like that.

Such fears, whether trilled in the strident tones of unabashed conspiracy theorists, or spoken gently by well-heeled Marin County parents (in a recent New York Times article, one mother rationalized that she had "meditated on it a lot" before deciding not to vaccinate her children; another explained that "[v]accines don't feel right for me"), are really the Fear of An Autistic Planet. Even Catholics, who embrace the birth of a baby with Down Syndrome and heroize the parents of such children, evidently want to keep the soul in their children's eyes, and would rather not vaccinate than risk having a child with autism.  I am struggling to understand how this inherently ableist attitude is pro-life.

Finally, it is a denial of Catholic theology itself to insist, against all evidence and clear-cut statements from the Vatican's Pontifical Academy for Life, that the measles vaccine is evil. I do not deny that the basis for its creation -- using the stem cells from an aborted fetus -- was material cooperation with evil. But our faith teaches us that God can, and does, bring good -- even great good -- out of evil. The crucifixion of Christ was evil, undoubtedly the ultimate evil. But the cross, the Romans' barbaric instrument of torture and death, became the sign of our salvation.

The belief that vaccines cause autism, and that refusing them will prevent autism, is belief in magic. The belief that God can use anything to bring about a good effect, and that the measles vaccine has ultimately proven that God brings good out of evil, is Christian. The fear of autism is pagan. The love of all our brothers and sisters is Christian.

Saint Gianna Beretta Molla, whose daughter Maria Zita died of measles at the age of six, a year before the measles vaccine was introduced, pray for us!


Jen C said...

Thank you! I couldn't agree more!

Lydia Cubbedge said...


Melanie Bettinelli said...

I think the fear of autism is real and bad, but I tend to be more willing to accept people at their word when they say their motive is the ethical quandry about the aborted fetal cell line. I don't like to impute motives to anyone even if it might be true that there are subconscious or unvoiced fears at play.

And the Vatican document does make a case for conscientious objection, that I think you dismiss too swiftly. It is grave matter and it's not entirely unreasonable for people to read the document and conclude that they have a moral obligation to not receive the vaccines. That's how I read it the first time through.

Now, my second reading led me to conclude that that obligation to be a conscientious objector is modified by the need to do so in a way that does not put lives in danger. But the Vatican document explicitly does not come down on one side or the other as to what people should do. What the Vatican does here, as the Church always does with complex issues (as it does with NFP, for example), is not to tell people what choice to make but to lay out the principles by which people must make their own choices.

I believe that people who take the conscientious objection stance are in one of three camps:

1. They didn't read the Vatican directive carefully, only read the summary, and missed the if clause "As regards the diseases against which there are no alternative vaccines which are available and ethically acceptable, it is right to abstain from using these vaccines **if it can be done without causing children, and indirectly the population as a whole, to undergo significant risks to their health**" and footnote 15 which underlies the gravity with the example of passing on rubella to a pregnant woman who then aborts her fetus:

"This is particularly true in the case of vaccination against German measles, because of the danger of Congenital Rubella Syndrome. This could occur, causing grave congenital malformations in the foetus, when a pregnant woman enters into contact, even if it is brief, with children who have not been immunized and are carriers of the virus. In this case, the parents who did not accept the vaccination of their own children become responsible for the malformations in question, and for the subsequent abortion of foetuses, when they have been discovered to be malformed."

2. They did read the document carefully and understand the if clause and even read and understood the footnote about German measles, but truly believe that the public health risk is so low that there is no obligation to vaccinate.

3. They didn't read the document at all but are relying on other people's summaries and arguments.

But I think all three of those are not disingenuous stances. I think one can in good conscience hold to the conscientious objector stance based on one of those three scenarios (and possibly others I haven't considered). I also think it is wrong because I don't think the health risk is minimal and I do think we have a grave responsibility to consider the public health risk and the possibility of putting innocent children, the weakest and most vulnerable, in danger. I find the scenario of a woman aborting a child malformed by German measles particularly chilling.

But I'm more willing than you are to give people the benefit of the doubt, which is why I keep quoting what I think are the pertinent lines of the document at people.

Jenny said...

I've read this post over and over trying to decide what I think. I agree and I disagree.

I think there is a fear of autism at the bottom of a lot of the objections. I admit when my oldest daughter was first vaccinated with MMR, I did have a small irrational fear of autism in the pit of my stomach, even though I *knew* the link had been debunked over and over. I vaccinated her anyway, but I cannot say the source of the rubella vaccine did not disturb me. It did. It does. But I ultimately decided that given the nature of rubella, it was unconscionable for me to put other mothers' children at risk. I do delay the other fetal sourced vaccines, chicken pox and Hep A, until the state forces the issue at school registration.

I decided the risk from those diseases, both to my children and to others, was small enough to make a small protest about it. I know it is probably a vain hope, but I delay those particular vaccines for a few years in the hope that an ethical version will arrive on the scene.

So I agree that the fear of autism is driving some of the resistance, but I disagree it is the only thing.

Pentimento said...

Jenny, I think you and Melanie are right that fear of autism is not the only thing guiding the anti-vaccine entrenchment, but I think it is the main thing.

The Virginian said...

I agree very much with Melanie and I've arrived at a stance much like Jenny's, although, finally getting used to following the advice I received as a scrupulous person, I decided I was probably splitting hairs and/or not informed enough to decide to delay the chicken pox vaccine at all anymore (I'm not saying you're wrong, Jenny; that was definitely a tough one for me to decide). The unfounded fear of autism is definitely and admittedly behind a lot of anti-vax decisions, but I've (anecdotally) found that people who are still convinced of or even seriously concerned by a supposed autism-vaccination link are usually suspicious toward "mainstream medicine" and credulous toward "alternative health" ideas, in general, where autism isn't really an issue. I used to pretty much share their mindset, and concern about a vaccine causing problems for my child in the form of autism was just one, really a small one, of many misplaced fears that drove my decision making and indecisiveness. Part of what "saved" me was Catholic thought, but it wasn't a simple "the Church clearly says this" -- I had to come to a decision to abandon certain types of fear and illusions of control and to humbly listen to the observations of people I might not agree with or be sure were "right" or authoritative on everything but who were much more educated on certain matters than I was. I read that document from the PAL but got much more stuck on the parts about what was immoral since the calculation of unacceptable risk was not black and white enough for me in my scrupulous-OCD days. It was also helpful that I maintained nearly as much fear and skepticism toward "alternative" substitutes as I had for mainstream medicine. I'm terribly grateful to have shed that whole ideology and find it off-putting in others, but I still remember a lot of what it felt like to think that way.

Jean Missud said...

Dear Pentimento
To find out why you don't know what you are talking about go to Crisis magazine for the article: "Some Efficacious Vaccines are Produced Unethically." I'm sure these people would have no problem branding you a "bad" Catholic. But then your real problem is that you still believe in love.

Pentimento said...

Heh. Let's just say, "I believe, oh Lord; help Thou my unbelief."

I try to avoid reading Crisis; it tends to ruin my day a little.

bearing said...

I agree with Melanie, and I think you should take people at their word when they say they are making an ethical choice.

I struggled with the MMR decision for that reason when my first child was small, but have concluded that it's not possible to abstain from the MMR vaccines that are available in this country without creating a significant health risk. So I do not have any compunction about accepting the MMR; it's a matter of proportionate response.

In any case, hearing someone say "I made my decision because of ethical concerns" and insisting that it must be because of fear of autistic people, comparing that to racism via the song you quoted at the beginning of the post? I think that's really disingenuous, and it reminds me of the trope that the only reason to oppose such-and-such a politician is because one hates the color of his skin.

Pentimento said...

I accept that, bearing, but perhaps you might consider that calling my motives "really disingenuous" is no less ill-considered and unfair than it is for me to question your own motives, or those of others who do not vaccinate.

I may be wrong, and I'm certainly willing to admit that. I am not, however, being disingenuous. You may disagree with me, but your ascription of bad faith to my motives is mistaken.