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Vaccine rejectionism and empowerment

April 14th, 2008 · 67 Comments · Critical thinking, Narrative

What motivates and sustains the anti-vaccine movement? Science rejects a link between vaccines and autism, and the persistence in illogical beliefs doesn’t advance the cause of austic people one iota.

Dr. Amy Tuteur, MD, says “vaccines rejectionism” is about how parents see themselves, and that it has little to do with children or vaccines. She recently shared her devastating critique of organized opposition to vaccines in the comments on a New York Times site, which I am publishing with Dr. Tuteur’s permission.

Vaccine rejectionism has been around for more than 200 years, almost as long as vaccines themselves. Over those two hundred years not one of the myriad claims of vaccine rejectionists have turned out to be true. Despite the fact that vaccine rejectionists have been 100% wrong in their understanding of vaccines, statistics, risks and claims of specific dangers, they still have a following. In large measure that is because the cultural claims of vaccine rejectionists resonate with prevailing cultural assumptions. Vaccine rejection is based on social constructs that have little if anything to do with objective reality or science.These constructs are explored in a fascinating article, ‘Trusting blindly can be the biggest risk of all’: organised resistance to childhood vaccination in the UK (Hobson-West, Sociology of Health & Illness Vol. 29 No. 2 2007, pp. 198–215).

The fact that vaccine rejectionism is based on false premises is sidestepped by ignoring the scientific data and focusing instead on whether parents agree with health professionals. Agreement with doctors is constructed as a negative and refusal to trust is constructed as a positive cultural attribute:

… Non-vaccinators or those who question aspects of vaccination policy are ‘free thinkers’ who have escaped from the disempowerment that is seen to characterise vaccination…

… [vaccine rejectionists] construct trust in others as passive and the easy option. Rather than trust in experts, the alternative scenario is of a parent who becomes the expert themselves, through a difficult process of personal education and empowerment…”

The ultimate goal is to become “empowered”:

“… the moral imperative to become informed is part of a broader shift, evident in the new public health, for which some kind of empowerment, personal responsibility and participation are expressed in highly positive terms.”

Vaccine rejectionism is about the parents and how they would like to see themselves, not about vaccines and not about children. In the socially constructed world of vaccine rejectionists, risks can never be quantified and are always “unknown”. Parents are divided into those (inferior) people who are passive and blindly trust authority figures and (superior) rejectionists who are “educated” and “empowered” by taking “personal responsibility”.

This view depends on a deliberate re-definition of all the relevant terms, however, and that re-definition is unjustified and self aggrandizing. The risks of vaccines are not unknown. Believing that vaccines save millions of lives is not a matter of “trust”, it is reality. Questioning authority is not the same as being “educated”; indeed, it isn’t even related. Lacking even basic knowledge of immunology and rejecting medical facts is not a sign of education, independent thinking or taking personal responsibility. It is a sign of lack of education and understanding.

— Posted by Amy Tuteur, MD



67 responses so far ↓

  • 1 AutismNewsBeat // Aug 28, 2008 at 3:36 am

    I thought that was Ed Sullivan?

  • 2 Regan // Sep 2, 2008 at 1:53 am

    Robyne said,
    “Okay, so this Sullivan guy who is a self proclaimed ‘knower of everything’ is gay (this is obviously good for our children and the people of this blog to look up too when it comes to listening to someone telling what is good for your children)…”
    Yes, ANDREW Sullivan is, and has never made any bones about it. David Kirby is also, for that matter, and ditto.
    And your particular point is…?

    What does anyone being gay or not, (or a liberal or not, for that matter) have to do with Amy Tuteur’s article or (the other) Sullivan’s review and critique of Julie Deardorff’s articles?

    Or was that just a gratuitous and seemingly desperate attempt at homophobic ad hominem?

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