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And now the crazy #anti-vax crowd on the right

Screen Shot 2015-02-03 at 10.32.39 AMFull disclosure: Back in 1970 when the rubella shot was offered to us at school, I was opted out. Oh, I was pretty aware of what was going on. I knew that every other person in my class was going to get that shot for German Measles. I sat through the school nurse presentation on why it was so important to get the shot. This was only elementary school but it wasn’t hard to understand. A kid with rubella could accidentally infect a pregnant mother and that could lead to birth defects. Pretty simple, really. Sign me up!

Not so fast.

My mother was a Jehovah’s Witness and they are adamant about not taking products that are made with a component of human blood. Up to that point, I don’t think JWs had objections to other vaccines* but this one got their attention, perhaps because there was more information about it given to the general public.They applied the blood exclusion rule to the rubella vaccine. So, even though I was not, and decided very early on that I never was going to be, a Jehovah’s Witness, I didn’t get the shot. Minors have no right to object to what their parents decide for them, I was told. Such is the life of the kid involuntarily conscripted into an alien religious cult.

Fast forward two years, I got one of the measles in middle school. Maybe the vaccine I got for regular measles didn’t take. I might have had rubella but I can’t be sure. I was covered in a rash and was sick for about two weeks. The rash was pretty bad and was even on my eyes. This may be significant because I started to have problems with my eyes, specifically, my corneas, after my recovery. I’m not saying there is causation but no one else in my family has my specific eye condition, the timing of the symptoms is interesting, I did have lesions on my eyes and neither of my siblings was vaccinated or got rashy eyes. Occasionally, I do a casual journal search on measles and the term for my specific eye condition. Here’s a general link to measles, rubella and eye damage. Curiously, causation hasn’t been ruled out although there are plenty of very disturbing pictures of post-measles eyes demonstrating how it can lead to blindness due to scarred corneas.

The anti-vax crowd on the right has a very different objection to the components of the vaccine than the crowd on the left. The right seems to have a religious objection to the vaccines. It’s not just about all natural, gluten free, free-range attenuated viruses and protein fragments. No, to the right, it matters that the vaccine doesn’t have fetal cell components, suggesting abortions, or has been made of human blood components. I’m not sure how they justify rho-gam shots for Rh- women. They probably shouldn’t get them.

Anyway, the reason why Rand Paul and Chris Christie are talking about personal choice is because there are millions of current and future constituents out there who think they risk their personal salvation and will not go to heaven if they accept these components. It’s a religious liberty issue. I’ve heard these same people mocking Muslims for not touching pork and suggesting passengers on planes carry bacon in their purses,

Yes, yes, it is absurd. But knowing how maniacally Jehovah’s Witnesses fear blood does give one crazy notions about how to keep them from knocking on your door, doesn’t it? (BTW, I still have JW relatives who I would never avoid but we all get along much better when we don’t talk about religion.)

Given the seriousness of the diseases in question, I don’t think either side should be able to opt their children out of vaccination. Your religious liberty should not impinge on my liberty to be free of lethal or debilitating diseases. Last night, I re-watched the Frontline episode, The Vaccine War, from 2010 about the anti-vax crowd. A bioethicist made a good point about how society views medical treatment for objecting parents when it comes to potential death or disability. We don’t allow it. You can’t get away with prayer for your type I diabetic child who needs insulin. Children of JWs get a lot of pressure to refuse blood products if their lives are at risk but the law can and does intervene on their behalf. The same should go for vaccination. If it had been up to me, I would have gotten the Rubella vaccine.

Of course, if it had been up to me, I would have gotten a blood transfusion to save my life if I had needed it as well. Back then, that decision might have been out of my hands. I have found that many religious fundamentalists aren’t nearly as concerned about what happens in this life as the next, and, you know, that’s fine if they’re legally adults. If you are 18 years old and you’d rather die from leukemia than get a blood transfusion, knock yourself out. But regardless of what you may think about adults choosing to die, a seven year old is incapable of making such a life changing decision. Many seven year olds still believe in Santa Claus. Religious exemptions could put a lot of children who have no choice in the matter at risk for death and disability if they’re ever infected. So, I am not in favor of granting religious liberty exemptions. Even the Amish shouldn’t get an exemption but at least they aren’t pretending to avoid the world. They actually are avoiding the world. Plus, their unique garb signals their exclusion to the rest of us until their teens go through their “running around” phase and test out the world. At that point, they could put other people at risk. On the other hand, a regular public school student whose parents are religiously zealous but not Amish may slip under the radar to the rest of his classmates and become a living vector.

In any case, when Christie talks about personal choice, it is the religious anti-vaxxer he is referring to, not the “knit your own sandals” anti-vaxxer, who he probably thinks is nuts.  Heck, he probably thinks both anti-vax sides are nuts but he’s a conservative politician so whaddayagunnado? The hypocrisy is strong with this one. It was only a few months ago that he was willing to throw a bleeding heart liberal (and embarrassingly obnoxious) nurse in quarantine for running out to West Africa to help ebola victims. I have my own issues with the way Kaci Hickox handled her luxury accommodations in Newark while Christie tried to figure out how to get her out of the state. But it just goes to show you that he has a personal bias. Nurse the sick in West Africa for a disease without a vaccine? Get the Christie yell and quarantine tent treatment. Have a hissy fit about having to give your kid a shot with something that might have come from an aborted fetus 40 years ago and, as a consequence, put a lot of vulnerable kids at risk of serious health problems? Christie is happy to coddle and speak softly to you. To top it all off, New Jersey is the densest state in the country, in more ways than one.

If you want to imagine how serious this problem can get, think of it this way: how many of the Duggars have been vaccinated? Recent evidence suggest they do not vaccinate. And there are 19 of them. And they travel all over the world. Yeah, not so cute anymore.

*It turns out that the Jehovah’s Witnesses had a long standing objection to vaccinations that stretched back to the 1930’s. Here’s some of their writings on the subject:

“Oh, yes, serums vaccines, toxins, inoculations, are all -harmless’, because the man who is selling them says so. You, my friends, believe this LIE, and continue to submit your body to these violations; then all I can say is, ‘God have mercy on your soul’. All vaccination is unphysiological, a crime against nature.” (Consolation 1939 May 31 p. 8).
‘Would it be proper to accept a vaccination or some other medical injection containing albumin derived from human blood? Witnesses have long realized that this is a matter for private decision in accord with each one’s Bible-trained conscience. Some Christians who feel that they can in good conscience accept such injections have noted that antibodies from the blood of a pregnant woman cross into the blood of the baby in her womb.” (The Watchtower, October 1, 1994).
The reason for this about turn? In 1952, when Jehovah’s Witnesses lifted the ban on vaccination, they wrote: “The matter of vaccination is one for the individual that has to face it to decide for himself. . . . And our Society cannot afford to be drawn into the affair legally or take the responsibility for the way the case turns out.” (my emphasis – The Watchtower, 15 December 1952).

So, there you go. I got vaccinated enough to get into school, right up to the Rubella shot. It must have driven JWs crazy though. Schools wouldn’t let you in if you didn’t have all your shots but rubella was a ‘choice’ vaccination back then. So, they opted out. The Watchtower Society really knows how to pour on the guilt and make you fear for your life if you don’t obey their rules to the letter. You can let your conscience be your guide but look where that lead Pinnochio. Better not take chances. Note the legal CYA copout in the last quote.

Here’s more information on vaccinations and Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s interesting to watch the Watchtower Society evolve on vaccinations. Early on, they sound remarkably similar to the left anti-vaxxers, distrustful of big business and toxins. At some point, the benefits of vaccination become too hard to ignore and the religious stand against them morphs into something different. Something about it reminds me of snake handling and the more extreme forms of religious asceticism. It becomes a way of proving yourself to be the most worthy if you are willing to put your life at risk to cling to one proscription in Leviticus. There’s not a small similarity to the extreme measures helicopter parents will take to protect their kids where nothing short of round-the-clock parental vigilance will prove that you are a “good” parent. Is this a form of scrupulosity?  Here’s a link about pathological scrupulosity in the Muslim community. Ok, I’m in full stream of consciousness mode now. I believe John Dehlin of Mormon Stories is finishing his PhD in Psychology and one of his research areas is scrupulosity and OCD behavior. So, I have a question: does the tendency towards scrupulosity lead people to more authoritarian religions and lifestyle choices such as anti-vaxxing or is it induced? That is, is it more likely that the community you spend most of your time in will cause you to become more scrupulous over time? Just curious.

9 Responses

  1. I’m so sorry that you went through that ordeal, RD.
    Is your sight okay, now?
    Has your mother ever apologized to you?

    • My sight is not as good as it could be but have adjusted. I am not disabled. I wear glasses. I tried contact lenses, which give me better visual acuity, but can’t tolerate them.
      As for my mom, for one thing, we can’t say for sure that my eye condition was caused by measles, though I wouldn’t rule it out. The timing is too close. I can’t blame her for it.
      But I think anti-vaxxers should be aware of the possibility of eye damage caused by measles because there will be cases of it if the anti-vax thing spreads.

  2. I cannot get my head around the pandering to the anti-vax crowd. I especially don’t get the supposedly educated people who belong to it.

    The people you discuss today are totally outside my experience though so your willingness to share your experiences on these issues has been very valuable to me.

    I still don’t get it though. Shouldn’t they be looking at life (and our brains/creativity) as a gift from God and be thankful for anything that extends and improves that gift?

    • Um, no.
      All that matters is the life to come. This life is just a testing ground to see if you can follow the rules.
      Not all religions are like this and I don’t condemn all religions. But I do consider myself to be an active opponent to fundamentalism and I don’t apologize for that.

      • Obviously they don’t see it that way. It just doesn’t make sense to me.

        • Like I said, if they are adults and the consequences of their actions are confined just to themselves, they can believe any damn thing they want. The problem is they have become politically active. Some of these people are fundamentalists because it’s popular. I know, I don’t get it either. And some of these people may be super scrupulous. Scrupulosity isn’t just for fundamentalists. There are quite a few Catholic saints that have been scrupulous. But that doesn’t mean they should be writing policy for the rest of us.

          • Or that the rest of us should be sacrificed for it.

          • Their “goodness” and acceptability to god depends on them sticking strictly to the rules and making sure that a.) you stick to the rules too or b.) do not lead them astray from sticking to the rules. That’s why you will find many fundamentalists rejecting their old family and friends. You provide too much of a risk to their salvation if you challenge their rules. Amish are notorious shunners. They’re anabaptists so you can’t go back once you are baptized. JW’s disfellowship, which means you are shunned for a certain period of time based on your transgression. It’s a cruel form of social ostracism. Mormons, I’ve heard, are a bit less sadistic although they do excommunicate. Catholics excommunicate and discourage divorced people or those practicing birth control from taking communion but you get the feeling with Catholics that they’re not going to check your card at the door. With some of these other fundamentalist religions, including some forms of evangelical Christianity, you spend so much time at church and are encouraged to report your transgressions (and the transgressions of others) that public censure and ostracism is a real possibility.
            So, if you are a member of some of these religions, you are taught to be on your guard and to avoid people who have other points of view. That’s difficult if you need to interact with the rest of the world. It’s somewhat easier if the rest of the world is forced to accept your rules.

      • By the way, I do think there is something pathological about the JWs reaction to blood products. The bible is full of stuff you shouldn’t do but nothing strikes genuine terror into a JW as receiving blood products. Many of them will suffer for years to avoid surgery where blood transfusions are recommended. They honestly believe that their salvation is at risk and that God will reject them if they accept blood. It’s maniacally important to them to avoid blood products at all costs.

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