Let’s review: What everyone gets wrong about anti-vaccine parents


We told them this would happen.

We told them that it was only a matter of time before a childhood disease that had nearly been eliminated from the US would come roaring back if they failed to vaccinate their children. And that’s precisely what has happened. Measles has come roaring back, but not simply because a child incubating measles visited Disneyland.

Twenty years ago, if the same child had visited Disneyland, the measles would have stopped with him or her. Everyone else was protected — not because everyone was vaccinated — but because of herd immunity. When a high enough proportion of the population is vaccinated, the disease simply can’t spread because the odds of one unvaccinated person coming in contact with another are very low.

Of course, we told them that. We patiently explained herd immunity, debunked claims of an association between vaccines and autism, demolished accusations of “toxins” in vaccines, but they didn’t listen. Why? Because we thought the problem was that anti-vax parents didn’t understand science. That’s undoubtedly true, but the anti-vax movement is NOT about science and never was.

The anti-vax movement has never been about children, and it hasn’t really been about vaccines. It’s about privileged parents and how they wish to view themselves.

1. Privilege

Nothing screams “privilege” louder than ostentatiously refusing something that those less privileged wish to have.

Each and every anti-vax parent is privileged in having easy and inexpensive access to life saving vaccines. It is the sine qua non of the anti-vax movement. In a world where the underprivileged may trudge miles to the nearest clinic, desperate to save their babies from infectious scourges, nothing communicates the unbelievable wealth, ease and selfishness of modern American life like refusing the very same vaccines.

2. Unreflective defiance of authority

There are countless societal ills that stem from the fact that previous generations were raised to unreflective acceptance of authority. It’s not hard to argue that unreflective acceptance of authority, whether that authority is the government or industry, is a bad thing. BUT that doesn’t make the converse true. Unreflective defiance is really no different from unreflective acceptance. Oftentimes, the government, or industry, is right about a particular set of claims.

Experts in a particular topic, such as vaccines, really are experts. They really know things that the lay public does not. Moreover, it is not common to get a tremendous consensus among experts from different fields. Experts in immunology, pediatrics, public health and just about everything else you can think of have weighed in on the side of vaccines. Experts in immunology, pediatrics and public health give vaccines to their OWN children, rendering claims that they are engaged in a conspiracy to hide the dangers of vaccines to be nothing short of ludicrous.

Unfortunately, most anti-vax parents consider defiance of authority to be a source of pride, whether that defiance is objectively beneficial or not.

3. The need to feel “empowered”

This is what is comes down to for most anti-vax parents: it’s a source of self-esteem for them. In their minds, they have “educated” themselves. How do they know they are “educated”? Because they’ve chosen to disregard experts (who appear to them as authority figures) in favor of quacks and charlatans, whom they admire for their own defiance of authority. The combination of self-education and defiance of authority is viewed by anti-vax parents as an empowering form of rugged individualism, marking out their own superiority from those pathetic “sheeple” who aren’t self-educated and who follow authority.

Where does that leave us?

First, it explains why efforts to educate anti-vax parents about the science of immunology has been such a spectacular failure. It is not, and has never been, about the science.

Second, it suggests how we must change our approach. Simply put, we have to hit anti-vax parents where they live: in their unmerited sense of superiority.

How? By pointing out to them, and critiquing, their own motivations.

Anti-vax parents are anxious to see themselves in a positive light. They would almost certainly be horrified to find that others regard them as so incredibly privileged that they can’t even see their own privilege.

We need to highlight the fact that unreflective defiance is just the flip side of unreflective acceptance. There’s nothing praiseworthy about it. Only teenagers think that refusing to do what authority figures recommend marks them as independent. Adults know that doing the exact opposite of what authority figures recommend is a sign of immaturity, not deliberation, and certainly not education.

Finally, we need to emphasize to parents that parenting is not about them and their feelings. It’s about their children and THEIR health and well being. It’s one thing to decline to follow a medical recommendation. Most of us do that all the time. It’s another thing entirely to join groups defined by defiance, buy their products, and preach to others about your superiority in defying medical recommendations. That’s a sign of the need to bolster their own self-esteem, not their “education.”

We have to confront anti-vax parents where they live — in their egos. When refusing to vaccinate your children is widely viewed as selfish, irresponsible, and the hallmark of being UNeducated, anti-vax advocacy will lose its appeal.


This piece first appeared in January 2015.