Photo by Carol E. Davis
United States / Vaccination

The Philosophical Underpinnings of the Anti-vaccination Movement

What balance between individual freedom of choice and the common good does American democracy require? To what extent is the press entitled to free speech? How much of a role should the government play in making medical decisions for citizens? These questions add philosophical depth to the conflict between those who refuse to vaccinate themselves and their children for philosophical reasons, and those who assert the great medical importance of immunizations.

The resurgence of the anti-vaccination movement has resulted in a series of outbreaks, most recently a widely publicized measles epidemic at Disney World in California. These individuals crusade against immunizations for a variety of reasons. Surprisingly, the group of individuals who ignore the scientific evidence proving the effectiveness of vaccines tend to be wealthy and well-educated. It should be clear: failing to vaccinate children harms society, as immunizations reduce rates of disease. The creation of vaccines greatly reduced, and eventually eliminated, diseases such as polio, measles, smallpox, and pertussis that killed an enormous amount of people. In 1952, 57,879 cases of paralytic polio existed in the United States, but six years after the introduction of the vaccination, only 1,312 had the disease, and today polio no longer poses a threat to American people. The anti-vaccination movement threatens to reverse advances in eradicating diseases. Given the potentially devastating fatalities that could arise from the movement and the philosophical debates that underlie it, this movement cannot be overlooked.

The anti-vaccination debate centers on an ambitiously difficult philosophical question: what’s more important, the common good or individual choice? A variety of reasons, namely personal preference, have led individuals to refuse vaccinations. Vaccinations create what is called herd immunity, the protection provided to those individuals who cannot be vaccinated for medical or age-related reasons when vaccination rates reach above 95 percent. In other words, a safe community requires the vast majority of the population to be immunized. The question then becomes whether democracy permits citizens to make a personal decision about their medical care if scientific evidence is able to demonstrate the dangerous effects of that decision on society.

The controversy over the media’s right to freedom of speech in part fuels the anti-vaccination movement. Media portrayals of vaccines as dangerous contributes to the movement’s success. The crusaders of the anti-vaccination movement have a prominent voice on the Internet where many have written articles, blog posts, and social media posts supporting their case. Between sixty and seventy percent of Americans use the Internet to obtain health or medical information. A study by Rachel Buchanan and Robert D. Beckett found that the anti-vaccination movement gained momentum through Facebook. As of 2014, Facebook hosted 196 sites from 187 groups with 520 pages of vaccination-related content. While half of these sites argued in favor of vaccination, the sites with the most active users encouraged readers not to vaccinate their children. As a result, claims about vaccines causing autism, infections, and being both ineffective and dangerous spread easily. According to the study, only five percent of the information about vaccines was correct on anti-vaccination Facebook sites.

The media also propagates the views of celebrities, notably Jenny McCarthy, who claim that vaccines cause autism or have other deleterious effects. The media’s freedom of speech allows them to spread stories about celebrities who tell emotional tales about vaccines causing cancer while publishing an insufficient amount of material arguing for the proven benefits of vaccines. While the freedom of the press is in principle necessary for our country to maintain its democratic ideals, the media must take great caution in the information it relays to the public. Specifically, in the case of vaccines, the press must not sway public opinion towards validating the anti-vaccination movement, because this action leads directly to epidemics and fatalities.

The anti-vaccination movement also hinges on the controversy of the role of the government in making medical decisions for citizens. The growing anti-authority culture in the United States parallels a growth in the viewpoint that the federal government shouldn’t be permitted to interfere in an individual’s medical decisions, such as whether or not they receive vaccinations. The anti-vaccination movement is an anti-authority movement because it appeals to Americans who now view their government with varying levels of distrust. Opponents of vaccines view the government as the perpetrators of the push for immunizations and blame them for the harm they believe to be attributable to vaccinations. The more the government attempts to convince the population that vaccinations are not harmful, the more it raises suspicions among those already skeptical. But, in order to avoid any further erosion of the advances that have been made in eliminating disease the government needs to tighten restrictions, public education about vaccinations must be more coordinated.