If people are still anti-vax in 2014, not only are they unswayed by strong evidence, they are also unmoved by reportage of outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses. They laugh off the risk of their children’s death. They seem unbothered by the idea that even if their children fully recover from such illnesses, they may pass it to someone who might well be more vulnerable to its dangers. In fact, the more pro-vaxxers explain the evidence, the more intransigent anti-vaxxers are in their beliefs.
It would be bad enough if the only problems with anti-vaxxers were their resistance to evidence and their endangerment of their children and members of their community. There is, however, another, less discussed problem with their movement. It’s not a factual problem, but an ethical one.
Let’s pretend for a moment that the anti-vaxxers are right—that vaccines are linked with autism. Then their repeated exhortations to avoid vaccines suggest that autism is actually a fate worse than death. That autism is the worst thing that could happen to a child—worse even than the suffering and death that can accompany measles, mumps, polio, and diphtheria.
I have no idea how an anti-vaxxer quantifies the risk of getting autism from a vaccine versus the risk of dying from a communicable disease. After all, the risk of getting autism from a vaccine is none and the risk of suffering and death from vaccine-preventable outbreaks is small but some.
For example, measles, if the sufferer is privileged to live in a developed country, has a death rate of 0.1 percent (0.3 percent if the sufferer is under 5 years old). For diphtheria, the death rate is 5-10 percent (up to 20 percent if the sufferer is under 5 years old). Currently, outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses are limited in scope. The more anti-vaxxers are successful in winning people over to their cause, though, the more likely their kids will get a vaccine-preventable illness.
Having autism is not a fate worse than death, and it is grossly offensive for anti-vaxxers to suggest it is. One of my three kids has a neurodevelopmental disability with autistic-like traits. As I’ve written before, having such a kid is an expensive proposition. It also makes daily life more difficult: going to endless therapies, getting stared at in public, having to manage and monitor your child. In some cases, autism is accompanied by extremely serious behavior problems, which can be a major stressor for the child and his or her parents.
And there’s no question my son’s life is worse for him than it might otherwise be. He will likely not have a job, or marry, or get to read Jane Austen. However, there are many other ways people’s lives can be crappy other than neurodevelopmental disability. People can be impoverished or unhealthy. They can live in a war zone. They can be abused or neglected or exploited. That doesn’t mean they’d be better off dead—and neither would my son.
When my son was first diagnosed, I never had anything more than a slight acquaintance with anyone with developmental disabilities. It did occur to me to wonder whether it was indeed a fate worse than death. I used to think people who declared their love for the neurodevelopmentally disabled child were self-deluded or in the throes of some religious passion. I didn’t know that you end up loving your kid for who he is, not what he can do.
There is a culture of fear-mongering about autism that sends the message that autism is a curse. The truth is, if your child has a diagnosis of autism, you have no idea how he or she will actually turn out. She could be entirely socially withdrawn, non-verbal, and exhibit aggressive behavior. She might be academically very successful and simply quite socially awkward. Like my kid, he might be non-verbal, stim frequently, and have sensory-processing issues—but also be very happy-go-lucky and socially interested. Or like Jenny McCarthy’s son, he might be verbal, high functioning, and spend time charming women at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion.
Jenny McCarthy once said, “If you ask a parent of an autistic child if they want the measles or the autism, we will stand in line for the f___ing measles” [redaction in original]. I don’t know. If someone offered me a medicine that might make my son typical but came saddled with a 3 in 1,000 chance of painful death, I certainly wouldn’t jump at it.
The anti-vax movement isn’t the cause of the culture of autism fear-mongering, it is just a symptom of it. Toni Braxton can say that her child with autism is God’s way of punishing her for her previous sins (that is, abortion) without anyone calling child protective services. Children, even when they are difficult, deserve not to be seen as curses or blights or punishments. They are entitled to unconditional love.
The most cynical autism fear-mongering ploy I’ve seen recently is PETA’s milk-causes-autism billboard campaign. It features cereal forming the shape of a frowning face in a bowl of milk and asks if your child has “got autism?” In smaller letters, it says, “Learn more about the link between dairy products and autism at PETA.org.” You may be forgiven for reading that sign and assuming that PETA suggests milk causes autism. But no. The “link” consists in anecdotal reports that some people think kids with autism improve on a dairy-free diet.
“It’s kind of funny to imagine how anybody in the autistic support community could take issue with a campaign that educates people to help autism,” said Bruce Friedrich, vice president of PETA. Oh, Bruce, I don’t know that it’s really all that funny. You didn’t use a forum dedicated to the autism community to inform parents that their kid’s symptoms may be improved. You slapped it on a billboard in Newark, New Jersey, phrased in such a way that would easily lead people to think milk caused autism. The goal of your organization is not to promote the health of autistic people, it’s to get as many people to stop drinking milk as possible. Oddly, an ad that threatens other people to stop drinking milk lest their kid end up like my kid just sorta rubs me the wrong way.
Let’s stop this way of talking about a group of people, ever more numerous, as victims or punishments. People with autism are people who can love and be loved, who can bring happiness and feel happiness. Autism is not the worst possible thing that can happen to a person or a family.