Anti-vax is a particularly ugly form of privilege


Surprise! Vaccinations jump 500% in antivax hotspot amid measles outbreak.

Demand for measles vaccines leapt 500 percent last month in Clark County, Washington—a hotbed for anti-vaccine sentiment that has now become the epicenter of a ferocious measles outbreak.

As of February 6, the county which sits just north of the border from Portland, Oregon—has tallied 50 confirmed cases and 11 suspected cases of measles since January 1. The case count is rising swiftly, with figures more than doubling in just the last two weeks. On January 18, the county declared a public health emergency due to the outbreak.

That’s what happens when the privilege that allows anti-vaxxers to wallow in their delusions disappears.

What do I mean by privilege? It a sign of privilege to live in a society where a disease has been nearly eradicated by vaccination. Indeed, nothing says “privilege” quite like refusing the same vaccines that an impoverished mother in a developing country would trudge five miles to get for her child.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]It was fun when they were just immoral freeloaders who exposed other people’s infants and immunocompromised children to injury and death. It’s not fun when their own children face the very same risks.[/pullquote]

No sooner did the privilege disappear — destroyed by anti-vaxxers themselves whose choices have ushered back a deadly public scourge — then the anti-vaxxers folded. It was fun when they were just immoral freeloaders who exposed other people’s infants and immunocompromised children to injury and death. It’s no longer fun when their own children face the very same risk of injury and death they were willing to countenance for other mothers’ children.

Anti-vax is a form privilege in another way. Anti-vax is only possible in a society where most of the parents behave morally and follow the admonition to get their children vaccinated. It’s an example of the ethical conundrum known as the free rider problem.

The classic example is a conservation water ban. People in a town are told not to water their lawns in order to conserve water for drinking. Most people, understanding the importance of having enough water to drink, comply. However, there are always a few people who secretly violate the ban. They believe that they will be protected from a water shortage because everyone else is conserving, and — privileged as they are — they imagine they are entitled to keep their own lawns green.

Free riders are free loaders and they’re unethical.

How do we know? If everyone ignored the water ban the town would run out of water for people to drink and everyone would be harmed. So no matter how much you might want to water your lawn during a water ban, it is unethical to do so. It doesn’t matter that the harm is not immediate, or that no one can draw a direct line between your violation of ban and the lack of water. People who continue to water the lawn during a water ban are stealing an unfair share of a communal good and put the entire community at risk. You have to be remarkably entitled to imagine that you have a right to do that.

When enough people become free riders, the town runs out of water and everyone begins to suffer from thirst. Not surprisingly the unethical people who eagerly wasted water on their lawns stop watering them so they and their families will have enough to drink — just as anti-vaxxers are now rushing to get their children vaccinated. But the damage has been done and the most vulnerable members of the community face the biggest threat.

Similarly most people, understanding the importance herd immunity, vaccinate their children. In contrast anti-vaxxers assume that they will be protected from diseases like measles because everyone else is vaccinating, and — privileged as they are — they imagine they are entitled to keep their own children unvaccinated. But anti-vaxxers have been stealing an unfair share of a communal good (the high level of vaccine induced immunity) and, because of their immoral actions, the entire community is now facing a terrible risk.

In Neoliberal Mothering and Vaccine Refusal: Imagined Gated Communities and the Privilege of Choice Sociologist Jennifer Reich explains how anti-vaxxers leverage their privilege to harm other women’s children:

As privilege facilitates choice, it also potentially jeopardizes the health and well-being of other children who lack resources or whose families are more constrained in their options… [T]hese women’s “choices” about vaccines carry consequences for other women’s families as well.

Anti-vax mothers claim to be empowered by their decision:

Yet, they do so by claiming their power through dominant feminine tropes of maternal expertise over the family and by mobilizing their privilege in the symbolic gated communities in which they live and parent… They also refuse to acknowledge the role their children play in protecting or undermining systems of public health that aim to stave off infections at a community level.

But anti-vaxxers aren’t empowered protectors of their children’s well being. They are ignorant free loaders.

They imagine themselves as having a “right” to behave unethically at the expense of other women’s children … and that’s a remarkably ugly form of privilege.