The Right to Question: The Vaccine War

photo (19) I didn't think much about vaccinations until I had a baby. However, my research on natural childbirth had also brought up questions about vaccines that became much more concrete when I held my newborn son.

I read the fact sheet, and my son was given his first vaccination in the hospital. But after that, I hesitated. I researched constantly and came away more than a little confused. For one thing, it wasn't just a question of whether to vaccinate or not. If I did decide to vaccinate, I needed to decide whether delays or spacing were important.

In the end, I appreciate vaccinations, and my son receives his. But I also appreciate the complexity surrounding the issue.

I recently read (listened to) On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss. Biss presents new ways of looking at vaccinations, focusing almost less on the science and more on language and literature, which makes for a fascinating discussion (although there is plenty of science, too!).


I especially loved how Biss makes us reconsider the word, "natural," how she shows the relationship between vaccinations and literature, and her tactful discussion of our communal responsibility to vaccinate.

1) Redefining "natural": Generally anti-vaccinators are associated with babywearing, organic, attachment parenting type people (like myself!) who are scared to ruin their perfectly natural baby with foreign substances. However, Biss shows that disease itself is natural, and we can't equate "natural" with "good" or "the way things should be."

This helped me realize the importance of a word like "natural." It has come to mean unsullied or pure, but those are not correct definitions. Much of the natural world is dangerous to humans, and safety precautions may seem unnatural, but that does not mean they are bad.

2) Vaccines and language and literature: The English teacher side of me loved this aspect of the book. From the myth of Achilles to Dracula to Silent Spring, Biss shows how literature has influenced how we look at vaccinations and disease and conversely, how vaccinations have played into literature. She weaves this throughout the book.

Language shapes how we view vaccinating our kids and ourselves. Do we call vaccinations "shots" or "jabs"? Do we see germs as invaders that our bodies need to fight? How do we refer to our body's cellular work--do cells have minds and brains?  Is it a war or an intellectual work? Our language--both spoken and mental--shapes our beliefs, usually more than even science does.

 3) The community responsibility: I understand that people take this too far. But Biss also shows that we do have a community responsibility. I was especially fascinated by her section on vaccinations and "the other"--how people equate certain diseases with "them" and not "us," labeling other groups "dirty" or "impure." Biss weaves her own story in here, speaking about her decision to vaccinate her newborn even for diseases not part of his immediate community.

We can't neglect the fact that we are part of a community in considering our own--or our children's--health.

It never feels as though Biss is trying to persuade--or even take part in the vaccination war. But she ultimately does convince the reader to look at vaccinations from a new standpoint.

Biss talks about the history of forced (often at gunpoint!) vaccination. Obviously the right to question--and even refuse--vaccinations is important. This is why we need to rethink how we talk about and view vaccines.

Too often, groups on either side of the vaccine war try to convince using worst case scenarios or terrifying stories. This is not helpful. It is also not helpful to portray the other side as ignorant. Angry, hate-filled articles pop up often on my Facebook, talking about how irresponsible it is to even consider not vaccinating your child. This doesn't make it a dialogue, nor does it honor the complexity. In my experience, most medical professionals also make it hard to ask questions. But the right to question and research must be protected. The more we can make sure facts are responsibly presented, the better.

I was finally convinced by seeing the vaccine sheets--the part where it shows the common or potential results of the shots side by side with the side effects of the disease itself. This made me willing to expose my son to potential vaccine side effects rather than the disease side effects (which were often death).

It also helped me to read articles that showed the true effects of diseases like Polio and hear from older people who would have been thrilled to have the option of vaccinating. Their stories helped me appreciate something that, to me, seems scary.

The dialogue and freedom are what made me finally decide and reach contentment with my decision.

It's important that mothers be content with their decision. If they feel forced or peer-pressured into vaccines, how will they feel if their baby does experience the small percentage of negative side effects? I needed to know I was making a responsible decision, and that I was willing to accept the consequences.

It's scary to bring a beautiful, seemingly-perfect baby into the world and then inject that baby with "harmful" substances. The thought of disease itself is utterly terrifying to mothers. We need to acknowledge that the choice of vaccines is what makes the responsibility so heavy. Finding new ways to look at vaccines and their history, as Biss does, is a huge step in the right direction.

P.S. I read the audio version of On Immunity on Audible and loved the narration.