Anti-Vaxxers Wage Cruel War on Pregnant Women Who Get COVID Shot
They are even tormenting women who had miscarriages—spreading misinformation, conspiracy theories, and hatred.
Last week, Michelle Rockwell logged on to Facebook to see her face splashed across a post from someone she’d never met. Two months earlier, Rockwell had lost her baby in a tragic miscarriage, and the post—a collage of text and pictures from her popular Instagram—insinuated that the COVID-19 vaccine was the culprit.
“Dec. 21 she got it,” it read. “Jan. 24th, she lost her baby. Another one.”
The post was entirely inaccurate. (In her own Instagram post on the subject, Rockwell called it “bullshit.”) Rockwell, a family medicine doctor, had indeed received the vaccine on Dec. 21, but had miscarried almost a month before that. But that didn’t stop the post from spreading rapidly across social media, via pastel-tinted mommy pages and anti-vaxxer Instagram accounts like “cv19vaccinereactions.”
And it wasn’t the first time anti-vax activists had descended on a woman after her miscarriage.
Since the first days of the vaccine rollout, anti-vaxxers have targeted pregnant women and those who miscarried, shaming them for getting the vaccine despite no evidence that it has a negative effect on pregnancy. On Facebook groups, Instagram pages, and Twitter threads, they accuse the women of being bad mothers or blame them for losing their babies.
“It was heartbreaking. I definitely shed some tears over it,” Rockwell said. “To attack women who’ve gone through so much, that’s just a new low.”
“So many women right now have vaccine hesitancy, and are questioning it, and have legitimate concerns,” she added. “And I feel like whoever made this is just preying on women’s fears.”
Questions about the vaccine in pregnancy are not unwarranted: None of the COVID-19 shots have been tested on pregnant women, making the decision to be vaccinated a fraught one—especially for health-care workers like Rockwell, who are at higher risk of exposure to the virus.
The CDC says the vaccine is “unlikely to pose a specific risk for people who are pregnant,” and the World Health Organization says it knows of no specific risks that would outweigh the risks of exposure. Last week, Dr. Anthony Fauci said 20,000 pregnant women have been vaccinated against COVID-19 without complications. Pregnant women, meanwhile, are known to be more susceptible to severe illness and death if they contract COVID-19.
But anti-vaxxers are preying on the uncertainty that remains. Facebook groups specifically targeting new and expecting mothers circulate stories about people who died after getting the vaccine without the proper context. Anti-vax organizations like Vaccine Choice Canada have circulated fliers with baseless claims that the vaccines contain “genetic technology” that can put developing pregnancies at risk. In the most extreme cases, anti-vax activists directly attack women who lost their pregnancies after receiving the vaccine.
One such woman, a doctor whom The Daily Beast is not naming in order to protect her privacy, tweeted in January that she had received the vaccine when she was 14 weeks pregnant. Days later, she announced that she had miscarried. There is no evidence that the COVID-19 vaccine causes miscarriage, but anti-vaxxers leapt quickly from coincidence to causation and descended into the doctor’s mentions to accuse her of killing her child.
“She got what she deserved,” one tweeted, adding later: “Her husband needs to leave.”
“I wonder if she can be charged for what she did?” another wondered.
“Hope you don't reproduce once again,” one wrote, adding the middle finger emoji.
As the tweets spread across social media, posters screenshotted them and combined them with pictures of a different pregnant health-care worker who had received the vaccine, creating a kind of morbid anti-vax meme. (The second health-care worker’s employer told The Daily Beast that both the woman and her unborn child are healthy, and they are working to have the images removed from social media.) The story reached major anti-vax influencers like Dr. Simone Gold, a vaccine skeptic and hydroxychloroquine advocate who was recently arrested for her role in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots. The woman who miscarried was forced to set her Twitter profile to private.
The attacks didn’t stop there. Candice Cody, an anesthesiologist and former Survivor contestant, tweeted in December about her decision to get vaccinated while pregnant. In an interview with The Daily Beast, she said she felt privileged to have both the time and expertise to sift through the data, and wanted to share her conclusions with others who may not be as informed. But anti-vaxxers were not appreciative.
Overnight, commenters swarmed Cody’s Twitter and Facebook posts with comments, telling her to “enjoy your premie [sic],” and calling her a “fucking psycho.” One accused her of making her child into a medical experiment. Others filled her inbox with messages and, when she locked them down, switched to messaging her on another page she’d long forgotten.
Cody says she wasn’t fazed by the backlash—she’s a former reality TV contestant, after all—but she set her Facebook profile to private after the comments upset her friends and family.
“Really what I thought of it was, ‘How sad it would be to live in a headspace where you could say those things to another human being who you don’t even know, and to live in so much fear of something you don’t understand,’” she said.
Cody gave birth to a healthy baby in mid-January, and said she never regretted her decision to get vaccinated.
“The only regret I had was that I hope my kids never see this nastiness that was ever attached to someone in their family,” she said.
Online attacks can be particularly toxic to someone who has recently lost a pregnancy. Miscarriages are associated with higher risks of depression and anxiety, and the months directly afterward are a particularly vulnerable time period. According to perinatal psychologist Tamar Gur, the cause of a miscarriage is usually unknown, leading many women to blame themselves for something that was entirely out of their hands. Attacks from anti-vaxxers, she said, play straight into these feelings.
“There’s already this journey of self-doubt and anger directed at yourself,” she said. “For anti-vaxxers to take advantage of someone when they’re in pain, and try to make a woman feel responsible for the loss of her very wanted baby, is just the cruelest thing I could have heard.”
This kind of behavior isn’t new for anti-vaxxers, though it may have been amplified by the pandemic. Activists have long tried to claim that the flu vaccine causes miscarriages (it does not) and that babies born to mothers who get the whooping cough vaccine have higher rates of autism (they do not.) Former Bachelor contestant Ashley Spivey was hounded by anti-vaxxers last year after she received a flu shot while pregnant and later miscarried. “I just don’t know what to do anymore,” she tweeted in the aftermath. “I never want anyone else to endure this harassment after the loss of a child.”
More recently, anti-vaxx activists flooded the social media pages of a Tennessee nurse who fainted on camera after receiving the vaccine. Despite a perfectly reasonable explanation for the episode—which the nurse herself delivered on camera minutes later—commenters were convinced she was dead, and began hounding her friends, family, and employer for more information. Even the local police department saw its Facebook page overrun with comments asking for an investigation.
In an effort to stem the flow of misinformation, Facebook announced Monday that it would ban all anti-vaccine content from the platform. But anti-vax accounts are flourishing on Facebook-owned Instagram, where the cv19vaccinereactions account currently has 93,000 followers. A recent report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate found anti-vaxx accounts gained 10.1 million new followers since 2019, most of them on Instagram and YouTube.
Rockwell said she shared her experience so that people could decide for themselves what information to trust and share. In her own Instagram post, she urged social media users to think about not only the source of their information, but how sharing it could affect someone else. “Remember there is a human on the other side of the screen,” she wrote. “Who has feelings. Who feels heartache.”
“I wanted to take this experience and turn it into a teaching experience,” she told The Daily Beast. “I'm hoping that if people stop and think about what they’re doing, maybe this misinformation won’t spread so quickly.”