California Focus: Anti-vaxxers cause is morally bankrupt
For years, anti-vaccination activists have demonstrated against laws compelling schoolchildren to be inoculated against diseases like polio, rubella, measles, mumps, diphtheria, whooping cough and others. Now, for the first time, this cause has turned violent in an apparent recognition that it will get nowhere on the strength of its own merits and morality.
The violence was not severe – this time: Democratic state Sen. Richard Pan, the California Legislature’s only M.D. and a pediatrician sworn to protect and save lives when possible, was pushed aggressively from behind while walking a street near the state Capitol in mid-August, within his own Sacramento senatorial district. He did not fall and suffered no apparent harm.
The perpetrator (not named here because notoriety is often a goal of such assaults) resents Pan’s sponsoring several bills tightening California’s vaccination requirements. These have made matters difficult for parents who don’t want their children immunized, seeking to evade the shots while still keeping the kids in public schools. Anti-vaxx groups immediately denied association with the perpetrator, calling him a “lone wolf.” But they embraced him just last year, when he tried to oust Pan both in the primary election and via a still-active recall petition.
Pan’s latest bill requires the state health department to review exemption forms written by doctors who sign more than five such waivers in any one year. The bill aims to correct a scenario where hundreds, maybe thousands, of parents have sought out scurrilous physicians willing to sign spurious exemptions for fees of about $300 apiece.
The anti-vaccination effort mainly uses unproven claims that vaccinations cause autism and other serious reactions. A British study making those claims early in this decade was long ago debunked, its author recanting.
Little more than this discredited study, plus purely anecdotal claims confusing correlation with causation, has ever been used to justify exemptions for anyone other than kids affected by things like organ transplants, HIV or ongoing chemotherapy.
So the vast bulk of parents trying to exempt their kids essentially disregards the proven fact that vaccinations virtually eliminated once-dreaded diseases like polio and vastly minimized fatalities from measles, for one example which killed thousands of children annually as recently as the early 1960s.
On the basis of what amount to folk tales about autism, these parents choose to endanger all others with whom their children might come into contact if they are infected and contagious, but don’t yet know it. Such circumstances produced several significant outbreaks in California within the last six years, exposure to measles occurring at places like Disneyland and the Los Angeles International Airport.
The moral weakness of the anti-vaccination stance is obvious, no matter how often activists masquerade as crusaders for “medical freedom.” Medical freedom can be a just cause when, for example, cancer patients with terminal diagnoses are denied access to experimental drugs or remedies not yet approved by government agencies. Things are very different when the goal is avoidance of vaccines proven effective over many decades.
That contrast explains why Pan’s previous bills zipped through the Legislature, ending religious exemptions that formerly applied even when families involved followed no discernible religion. It’s also why the current bill had no trouble getting through state Senate committees and appears poised for Assembly passage and a signature from Gov. Gavin Newsom.
The anti-vaccination camp has failed for lack of merit to convince many lawmakers of the morality of its cause, frustrating adherents like the man who assaulted Pan while live-streaming his action on Facebook.
It’s easy enough to blame an episode like this on today’s contentious political climate, but devotees of morally bankrupt causes have long resorted to violence and threats. The Ku Klux Klan does this; so do other hate groups. And the anti-vaccination camp has never been reluctant to make veiled threats, often painting Pan as a danger to children who should be punished.
All of which makes the assault on Pan as much an admission of moral, intellectual and political failure as anything else.
Email Thomas Elias at firstname.lastname@example.org.