We mothering vs. me mothering: neoliberalism, paranoia and vaccination

Medical vials and Syringe, Isolated on Blue background

Earlier this week I wrote about the closing of well baby nurseries as an expression of neoliberal philosophy:

Neoliberalism places a premium on individual responsibility and minimizes the value of collective action. We see this in contemporary political philosophies that venerate private industry and derogate goverment support. But we also see its impact in mothering philosophies that place a premium on individual maternal action and ignore the impact of the family and “the village.”

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]There’s no better example of the triumph of ‘me mothering’ than the anti-vaccination movement.[/pullquote]

The closing of hospital well baby nurseries is a paradigmatic expression of neoliberal philosophy. In order to “promote breastfeeding,” new mothers are being forced to room in 24/7 with their newborns. It doesn’t matter that these women are exhausted, in pain and often taking sedating medications. Promoting breastfeeding is considered to be more important and neoliberal philosophy places responsibility squarely on the mother.

In other words, neoliberalism ignores our cultural history of ‘we mothering’ in favor of ‘me mothering.’ For example when lactivists offer breastfeeding “support” they aren’t offering to share women’s mothering burdens; they are hectoring women to assume individual responsibility.

Moreover neoliberalism doesn’t merely pressure women to take on the entire burden of children’s health, wellbeing, brain function and future economic prowess; it actively attempts to discredit the value and possibility of collective action to improve children’s health. Vaccination is the archetypical example of the triumph of ‘we mothering.’ And there’s no better example of the triumph of ‘me mothering’ than the anti-vaccination movement.

Vaccination works through collective action. We cannot vaccinate 100% of the population since some are allergic or immunocompromised and infants are too young for some vaccinations. Vaccination works through herd immunity. Vaccines dramatically reducing the chance that an infected person will encounter an unprotected person.

Imagine that little Ainsley comes in close contact with 10 children per day. Now imagine that Ainsley develops diphtheria. Who is likely to catch diphtheria from Ainsley? If 99% of children are vaccinated and the vaccine is 95% effective, the odds are low that any of the 10 children she comes in contract with could get diphtheria. Thus, the outbreak of diphtheria ends with Ainsley (though it may end poor Ainsley’s life).

Now imagine that only 50% of children are vaccinated against diphtheria. That means that half the children are likely to be susceptible, and therefore diphtheria is almost certain to be transmitted. And since the children who catch diphtheria from Ainsley are going to expose additional children who aren’t vaccinated, the disease begins to spread like wild fire.

The effectiveness of vaccines depends on collective action, precisely the kind of action that is devalued in neoliberal philosophy.

But vaccines have been a spectacular success. How could anyone doubt their efficacy and safety?

To privilege individual over collective action, neoliberalism takes advantage of the paranoid style in American thinking, the belief that bad things are caused by conspiracies. Rather than acknowledge the role of chance, misunderstanding and just plain stupidity in government or industry blunders, the paranoid style leads people to believe that there is no such thing as mistakes, only deliberate, nefarious plots.

An irreducible tiny fraction of children will be harmed by vaccines. Indeed, vaccine consent forms inform parents of the rare risk of brain injury or death. Those afflicted with the paranoid style imagine that pharmaceutical companies deliberately allow injuries that could easily be prevented and have hidden the scale of those injuries. In addition, there are children who suffer from conditions, like autism, whose cause is still unknown. Those afflicted with the paranoid style look for someone to blame and vaccines, because of their ubiquity, are easy to blame.

It is hardly surprising then that neoliberal thinking, which places all responsibility for children’s health and wellbeing on individual parents, has led to the vaccination movement, which venerates individual action, especially action in defiance of authority. From the anti-vaxxer’s viewpoint, ‘we mothering’ has given us vaccine “injuries” and only ‘me mothering’ can prevent them.

Ironically, the same people who are quick to see nefarious economic motives to ‘we mothering’ projects like vaccination, are willfully blind to the economic motives of those who promote ‘me mothering.” Anti-vax is nothing if not a money making enterprise; profits are high because unlike pharmaceutical companies that have to demonstate efficacy and safety, anti-vaxxers simply monetize nonsense — books, websites, supplements, immune “boosters” and detoxes.

Anti-vax flourishes not because children are being injured by vaccines; they aren’t. It flourishes because the neoliberal mothering project derides the possibility of collection action to promote health, lays complete responsibility for child health and wellbeing on individual parents, and promotes a paranoid style of thinking.

Anti-vax advocacy dismisses ‘we mothering’ in favor of ‘me mothering.’ As a result children die, parents arrogantly trumpet ignorance and ‘me mothering’ advocates laugh all the way to the bank.