Recently, a friend revealed that she had chosen not to get her youngest child vaccinated. She brought it up herself in conversation and claimed that she was exploring “more natural approaches to parenting.” I think this is flagrantly ignorant garbage that is dangerous and selfish. As I was flabbergasted at the time, I let it slide and the conversation moved on. Now I am wondering, should I raise it and ask her to share her thinking or leave it be. Thoughts???
Responding to this may as well be the equivalent of me pulling the pin out of a grenade, tossing it into a room and then walking away. But that’s why I’m here, right?
I want to be clear up front: vaccinations are a serious public health issue and only people who medically cannot get them should be exempt.
I support parents doing what works best for their families and their kids. I’m not going to judge a parent for choosing formula over breastfeeding or vice versa. I’m never going to say that a mother or father should or should not leave their job to stay home with their little ones. I’m not going to pick a side around baby-led weaning or the age a child should start kindergarten. Both because I’m not a parent, and also because the science around any of those things (including breastfeeding), does not, in my opinion, rise to the point where any one choice, all things considered, has the potential to gravely harm the child or society.
Vaccination, however, is a whole different ballgame. Children die from vaccine-preventable illnesses. And beyond that, non-vaccinated children can pass on diseases to people who either could not be vaccinated or whose vaccinations did not offer full protection. Not vaccinating a child teaches them that they don’t have a responsibility to their community, and that they matter more than anyone else.
One thing that is especially frustrating to me about this whole “debate” is that much of it is based on an extremely ableist attitude. Parents are so scared of their child being autistic (even though vaccines don’t cause autism) that they are willing to risk their child’s life and the lives of those around them. This is extremely insulting to those who have autism. Sarah Kurchak, a woman who has autism, wrote about this in 2015: I’m Autistic, and Believe Me, It’s A Lot Better Than Measles). I highly recommend you read it. And perhaps share it with your friend (eventually).
With all that in mind, let’s get to the heart of your question: How do you balance this interest in public health and safety with not being an asshole to your friend?
I definitely don’t think you should let it lie. We can’t afford to be silent because the people with bad information are shouting it across every corner of public life. Your friend might take your silence as approval of her opinion, and if you’re someone she trusts, you’re essentially telling her that you think she’s doing the right thing on this when you don’t speak up.
Instead, I like the idea of asking her to share more of her thinking. All she’s said is that she wants more ‘natural’ parenting, but what does that mean to her beyond eschewing vaccines? Where did this come from? Why the change from her opinion when she had her first child? Did that child have a bad reaction to a vaccine? What is your friend’s goal, and why does she think not getting vaccines will get her there? Are there other aspects of modern medicine that she will refuse?
Really listen to her concerns, and be compassionate. She may have tumbled down a rabbit hole full of impassioned speeches by Jenny McCarthy and Andrew Wakefield. She may incorrectly believe that mercury is still in non-flu vaccines. She may hold some other belief that you can help her to research with credible sources that can calm any fears she has.
But don’t be condescending. I know its hard; I’m sure I’ve come across as such throughout this post. The reality is, unless you are a medical professional or a scientist who has researched this topic, you can’t claim to be any more of an expert on this issue than she is. She may have exactly the same information as you but is choosing not to believe it. Just be open to having an honest conversation where you really listen to your friend and make space for her to feel that her concerns and opinions have been heard.
Once that has happened, if your friend says that she’s made up her mind, and there will be no vaccinations, then that’s it. You don’t have to say that you agree, or even that you understand. I don’t think you should repeatedly bring it up, but you also don’t have to shy away from sharing your opinion in other settings. Just don’t be antagonistic about it.