The vaccination debate has officially become heated, and I’ve noticed that the pro-vaccine side, at least, has gotten ugly. This frustrates me for two reasons. First, it is needlessly cruel: most people who do not vaccinate their children came to that decision because they truly thought it was the best decision they could make with the information they had. Calling them cruel and accusing them of causing harm they did not intend will not have any impact other than more hurt. Second, it is not even effective: When in the history of disagreements has calling someone stupid ever convinced them to agree with you? Never.
So I want to say, as a person who is pro-vaccine, that I understand where some of you anti-vaxxers are coming from, and that I can see how I could have easily reached the same conclusions you have.
We live in a very complicated time, information-wise. As parents, every decision we face can be googled, and expert opinions found. If the question has two opposing answers, there can be educated, informed answers found on BOTH sides. So, for lack of an obvious best choice, we tend to agree with the side that makes the most sense to us, based on our own knowledge, experiences, and—here’s the biggie—our intuition.
We are told over and over, especially if we are mothers, to trust our intuition, our instincts, our feelings. If the doctor tells us there is nothing wrong with our baby but we are sure that there is, we keep pressing for answers. If our child says something that seems harmless but sets off alarm bells in our heads, we follow up and get more information. As parents, we have learned to trust our intuition, mostly because it’s usually right.
So I get why it “feels wrong” to inject your perfectly healthy child with something that you know little about and have heard convincing arguments against. In the absence of certainty we tend to trust our intuition, and I can see how someone could feel very uncertain about vaccines. I’ve heard the anti-vaxxers called selfish and stubborn, but I just don’t think that’s usually the case. A mother who is called names and made to feel stupid, but who still sticks to what she believes for the sake of what she thinks will be best for her child, does not seem selfish to me. And there is a lot of gray area between stubborn and strong—in fact, they often appear to be exactly the same.
But here’s the problem, and it’s something we don’t hear very often: sometimes our intuition is wrong. For an example of this, I’d like to tell you about my niece. And no, she was not affected by any of the formerly eradicated diseases—maybe the fact that the anti-vax movement hasn’t personally impacted me is why I’m able to empathize with both sides. No, I want to tell you about my niece who had leukemia as a baby.
She was diagnosed on her first birthday, and my sister and her husband were suddenly faced with the daunting task of caring for their daughter while learning—very quickly—about how this terrible cancer is typically treated. This little girl was the first grandchild in our family, and she was adored and doted on as much as any baby ever has been. We would have done anything for her, and that was especially true of my organic-eating, vegetable-growing, toxin-avoiding sister.
One of the treatment protocols, in the middle of the overwhelming and exhausting treatment process, was a medication that required the person administering it to wear gloves while handling it, because it was essentially poisonous for a healthy person to touch. My sister would tell me about how difficult it was to put on those gloves, pick up the poison, and feed it to her precious baby daughter. Her intuition was telling her to take that medicine and dump it down the drain, to pick up her baby and cuddle with her in bed, staying far, far away from the hospital, with its constant needles and x-rays and poisonous medications and tears.
Now, I understand that giving your sick child medical treatment is different than giving your healthy child preventative vaccines, so my point is not about comparing the two kinds of treatment. My point is simply to observe that both treatments are likely to “feel” wrong and put the parent in the position of needing to decide what to do with that feeling.
In the case of vaccines, I can say from personal experience that it is, indeed, incredibly counter-intuitive to inject your child with something they don’t even need at that moment, and then have to watch them cry about something they don’t understand and that you could have prevented. I have four fully vaccinated children, and I have hated every single one of those damn appointments. Perhaps I should have taken a strong but gentle friend with me to the appointments, so that I could have listened to the public health nurse and nodded along, signing where appropriate, and then I could have given my child to my loving friend while I plugged my ears, closed my eyes, and hummed loudly to myself.
Because, here’s the thing: I am smarter than my intuition. It is a helpful instinct, for sure. It is a voice deep inside each of us that screams, “SOMETHING IS WRONG” until we pay attention. And we need to listen to that voice, because it’s so often right. But we also need to be able to say, “Hey, intuition. I HEAR you. You feel like something is wrong, but I know what it is, this time. So I am going to ignore you, just this once. Please try again when my kid hints that something weird happened on a playdate.”
And because I know that—because I have the confidence to admit that my instincts are not always wiser than the experts, even when it comes to my own child—I got my kids vaccinated and I would have done the same thing my sister did and given my child the poisonous medication. These medical experts often come up with solutions that are “counter-intuitive,” but that’s precisely why the solutions work, and why the experts are working so hard to find them.
My niece is thirteen years old, now. She is healthy, and funny, and beautiful, and smart as a whip. When I googled “homeopathic remedies for leukemia,” there were 120,000 results. I’m so glad my sister ignored those voices, and her own intuition, and trusted the medical professionals instead. Because, you see, I need a babysitter next week and I know just the teenager for the job.