Vaccine refusers, and sympathizers, need to remember government’s role

I recently received a notice from my children’s school informing me of a change to the rules on how Michigan will be processing “non-medical waivers for immunizations” for school programs.

I was alerted to the notice by buzz on the internet among some of my Catholic, conservative and natural-food fellow travelers. The notice informs parents that Michigan’s liberal vaccine waiver law remains in place. It does, however, establish a new process for obtaining such waivers. Whereas in the past parents requesting a non-medical waiver could file them directly with the school – and even cross out parts of the form – they now must first contact their county health department to set up an appointment with a medical educator to discuss vaccines. After the meeting, parents can still obtain the waiver.

The new Michigan rule for waivers undoubtedly stems in large part from the fact that Michigan has, according to the Grand Rapids Press “the fourth-highest vaccine waiver rate in the country for kindergarteners.” It also comes as sicknesses such as measles and whooping cough, which were once considered eliminated in the United States, have cropped up again, here in Michigan and around the country.

The reaction from some bloggers has been strong and furious. One wrote that with the rule change, “freedoms have been tightened, perhaps even violated.” Another believes the change is an example of the state attempting to “strip us of our parental rights once again, instead of letting us choose what is best for our families.”

Let me first state that I am broadly sympathetic to those who have reacted with vehemence against this new requirement. I have an expansive view of parental rights (and duties). We overmedicate as a society. I try to avoid as much as possible chemicals and additives in my food. Beyond my conviction that artificial contraceptives are morally problematic, I think natural family planning rather than artificial contraceptives is the sane way to regulate child birth. I am baffled by people who want their beef organic but have no trouble ingesting or injecting themselves with artificial hormones to prevent their bodies’ natural functions. To read the CDC’s list of what vaccines contain is, to put it mildly, unsettling.

But – and you knew there was one coming – I also find myself unsettled by the view of government that seems embedded in the reaction against Michigan’s new vaccine waiver requirements. It points to a failure of imagination on the part of conservatives and Catholics. As the conservative philosopher Roger Scruton has written, “Government is not only natural to the human condition, but an expression of those extended loyalties over time, which bind generation to generation in a relation of mutual commitment.”

Catholics unequivocally do not believe government is a necessary evil. Rather they believe every “human community needs an authority to govern it” and that government exists “to ensure as far as possible the common good of the society.” Certainly, to be legitimate government must aim at the good. But assuming such legitimacy, in order to move society towards that good, government must coordinate our diverse and varied society.

In my mind, the new vaccine requirement is an action that follows from a government’s necessary coordinating function. While many parents are well-informed about vaccines and have made an informed choice not to vaccinate their children – or at least to slow down the vaccination schedule – others haven’t. And, it seems indisputable that as the percentage of the vaccinated goes down, the herd immunity which protects everyone in society is lessened.

This may not affect your child, but undeniably it could affect others,especially those who for medical reasons cannot be immunized or have compromised immune systems. And government must look out for them too. Indeed, conservatives who are quick to support informed consent laws for abortions – an imperfect comparison for sure – should understand that government can never be neutral and sometimes for the good of all must put its thumb on one side of the scale to help prevent choices that harm the common good.

This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t question whether the state’s new waiver rule is the best way of coordinating and fostering the common good. It doesn’t mean we should avoid asking what exactly the content of the education being given to parents will be. It doesn’t mean we should put aside fears of a state that encroaches upon the family. It does however give us an opportunity to think through what government is and what it is for.

Facts matter. Trust matters. Journalism matters.

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Fri, 02/13/2015 - 4:16pm
Two problems with vaccines; their toxicity and their ineffectiveness. I've written about the disasters that Jenner's smallpox and Koch's tuberculosis vaccines engendered. 700,000 US soldiers were exposed to hepatitis B and C when they got the yellow fever vaccines during WW2. The 1976 swine flu vaccine was crowned by neurological complications. The original measles vaccine in 1962-65 was a killed virus that was not all that effective and led to a bizarre "atypical measles" when infection actually occurred (I published the first case in an adult in 1975 in JAMA, and was written up in the National Inquirer some weeks later; I'm not a complete vegetable.) The current vaccine is more effective, but no one knows how long it provides immunity. THing could get ugly if a bunch of 50 or 60 year olds got measles; we just don't know. The herd immunity thing is the main public health claim, but it's also full of holes. Everyone knows that some will not be immunized and that not everyone who is immunized, protected. There are introductions of measles into the USA all the time as kids infected in third world foreign countries enter during incubation-as when 60k Central American kids infected with tuberculosis, lice, leprosy and ?measles? stormed our southern borders this summer after hearing about our Dream act. There was the original whooping cough vaccine developed in Grand Rapids in the 1930s and 40s that was almost completely effective, but rather toxic and so was abandoned. The current one is effective for only about 3 years and has allowed a huge number of adults to be chronically infected and contagious, hardly the paradigm of herd immunity. We immunized our kids to protect them, and suggest that others do so. But there should be some recognition that the confidence and convenience of being protected from a usually benign childhood illness could come at the cost of a massive public health disaster if delayed immunologic reactions or loss of immunity appear after decades. And I don't understand the screed about government; it's not my messiah but I can respect others' reverence if that be their form of worship.
Sat, 02/14/2015 - 8:50am
I don't know how anyone could be well-informed and not vaccinate their children.
Brian Urbancic
Sun, 02/15/2015 - 2:05pm
Great point, Jonathan. Unfortunately, when people make their decisions based on personal beliefs and ideologies, it doesn't matter how well informed they are. They will find a way to interpret any number of facts to support their biases.
john hargenrader
Sun, 02/15/2015 - 6:17am
The entire commentary is undermined, when an opinion on the morality of birth control is mixed with a discussion on vaccines. It shows the author is driven by religious extremism, and a rational discussion would be pointless.
Sun, 02/15/2015 - 7:50am
@ Erwin, you lost all credibility by spinning the tail of 60k Central American children. Your true bias has been revealed. Is the world still flat and the sun the center of the universe?
Mon, 02/16/2015 - 7:40am
Then whence the spark that starts these outbreaks? The US was free mostly of measles during the 2000s, recently there have been outbreaks, all traced to foreign sources..... Except this one that started in Disneyworld. Yeah. Spontaneous generation along side your flat earth?
Sun, 02/15/2015 - 8:24am
I am disappointed that Mr. Dugan opened his article with a political attack using his stereotyping of people who have concerns on such a personal issue, their children. Mr. Dugan would rather blindly support the government without taking a moment to ask questions and listen to those who are raising personal concerns for their children. In a nation of over 300 million people he is making a judgment to deny personal rights over a matter of a few hundred cases by claiming it is to protect the exceptions of those to vaccinations. He presumes that the government is always right without asking any questions, he believes in the government without wonder what the numbers are driven by, he believes that the government program will always be right independent of a changing environment; he simply has blind faith in the government. I doubt Mr. Dugan would have such blind faith in a private company that would so easily ignore the exceptions to their product so why is he so quick to place such faith in a government and people who have no accountability for their actions or impact of their actions? I have so much about how a foreign molecule introduced to a child’s system during develop creates a risk of disrupting their healthy development, I wonder why Mr. Dugan doesn’t think that can happen to one of these children whose parents are trying to manage such risk. I wonder why Mr. Dugan places government expediency over taking time to ask a few questions and listening to the answers. So you don't discount me as one of Mr. Dugan's stereotypes, I remember before the Salk vaccine, Polio wasn't few hundred cases that could be isolated, a single case change the lives of a whole commuity. Our daughters were vaccinated without government intimidation.
Sun, 02/15/2015 - 10:26am
Duane, well said. As an informed parent, we chose to quit the immunization process we had begun when we researched heavily the content of today's vaccines. You are right, to blindly trust our government is, in my opinion, disastrous.
Sun, 02/15/2015 - 11:41am
Betty, As a parent we had doubts and we were commmitted to our children, so we questons and tried to learn. I wonder why and who are so willing to defer to those without a committment to other people's children. It seems people should be asking you and others why they are not comfortable with the program and then try to address those concers.
Brian Urbancic
Sun, 02/15/2015 - 2:30pm
Conor, I almost stopped reading before I made it to the essence of your article. I'm glad I continued. But even though I agree with your basic conclusion, the path you took to get there hit on numerous logical fallacies. Perhaps the most apparent was your appeal to nature. It's not possible to avoid chemicals in food: everything is made up 100% of chemicals. But even if you were referring to "synthetic" or "artificial" chemicals, it's still a meaningless point. Whether a chemical is natural (whatever that means) or not has bearing on neither its toxicity nor its wholesomeness. There are countless "natural" chemicals which are incredibly toxic, just as there are countless synthetic ones that are virtually harmless, even healthful. Here is one of dozens of sites I can share with examples: here is a link to probably the best-known study of natural vs synthetic pesticides: light of this, your contention that the list of vaccine ingredients is "unsettling" simply points to a lack of understanding of basic science. Even "all-natural" blueberries are unsettling when viewed in this same way: Brian
Charles Richards
Sun, 02/15/2015 - 4:15pm
Evolution has created various traits and ethical norms in an effort to promote cooperation between individuals in order to promote the welfare of the community at large and thus ultimately the individual members of that community. (See Joshua Greene's book "Moral Tribes") Government is another mechanism for promoting the common good. It is essentially enforcing cooperation between members of the community. It is certainly not the case that the optimum balance between the interests of the group and its members is always achieved. But I think that in the case of vaccines it has achieved the proper balance. The costs that non vaccinating parents externalize to their fellow citizens are not compensated for by the benefits realized by those parents.
Sun, 02/15/2015 - 6:08pm
The irony in this initiative is that when presented with evidence, many vaccine-refusing parents become MORE entrenched in their anti-vaccine position. I hope that there will be enough parents who haven't done their (Internet, non-peer-reviewed, anecdotal, non-scientific) "research" that they will be moved to the side of sanity, for their own kids' sakes and for everyone else's.
Barbara Fitzgerald
Wed, 03/04/2015 - 10:07pm
Shameful, especially coming from you Mr. Dugan, a so-called conservative and catholic. I thought better of you and I am disgusted. Requiring certain classes of people who lawfully refuse a medical procedure, vaccination in this case, to report to the Department of Health for "education" is an outrageous violation of personal rights. The "educational" literature provided violates the most basic tenets of informed consent in that it fails to include the risks of vaccination (all risks of vaccination) and requires that one signs a waiver which states that you are putting your children at risk as well as the community by not vaccinating. Of course you put your children at risk by vaccinating but that is never acknowledged nor are those that choose to vaccinate required to sign such a document. We have arrived--1984. Mr. Dugan you are proof. Let me guess, your practice now involves some level of goverment compensation?
Fri, 05/06/2016 - 8:24pm
I'm shocked to see so many post in opposition to vaccinations. As to government intervention, it seems perfectly reasonable to expect that children attending public institutions, like school activities, meet basic requirements, designed and proven, to keep the whole community safer.