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To Vaccine, or Not to Vaccine

There’s been a spate of news stories about vaccinations lately, and we’re not sure why. It seems to have something to do with an outbreak of measles that started in California and has since spread to seven other states, Mexico, and the bloodstream of the nation’s politics as far away as New Jersey, as the press has avidly pressed all the prominent public figures about their stands on mandatory vaccinations. Most of the brouhaha seems to involve two of the more prominent potential Republican presidential candidates, rather than what the people who actually make current policy are doing, so we suspect all the coverage might have more to do with partisanship rather than the public health.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul have both been pilloried for offering the opinion that perhaps in some cases vaccinations should be voluntary, with many pundits extrapolating that such anti-science craziness is running amok in the Republican party, but the storyline might lead to conclusions that the press does not intend.
Although we’re not inclined to support the presidential candidacies of either Christie or Paul their comments don’t seem so very extreme, and to the extent they are it’s hardly a craziness unique to the Republican party. Christie reportedly called for “balance” between individual rights and community health and “some measure of choice” before clarifying the comments by saying “there is no question that children should be vaccinated.” Paul waded into deeper waters by claiming vaccinations should be voluntary as they have been associated with mental disorders and saying that parents “should have some input,” which led to the resurrection of earlier quotes likening mandatory vaccinations to martial law, but he’s also done some clarifying by saying that he didn’t mean to find a causation rather than just a correlation between vaccination and mental disorders and the demonstrating his acceptance of vaccination as a medical practice by “tweeting” a photograph of himself getting a booster shot. Both men might be mistaken even in their most carefully clarified opinions, but neither seem to be on the lunatic fringe.
We have no expertise in any medical field that would entitle us to comment on the matter, but our general experience of civilization has inoculated in us a belief that individual liberty and parental rights should not weigh lightly on the scale counter-balancing communal concerns. Nor do we trust blindly in scientific expertise, which has never been infallible and lately seems more fallible than ever. If the people who truly do know what they’re talking about are verifiably correct that such coercive measures as barring un-vaccinated children from school are required to protect the reset of the population from outbreaks of deadly disease we have no problem with those policies, but that conclusion can only be verified by the most skeptical analysis. There’s a long history of public policy and jurisprudence on the question of mandatory vaccinations, with public debate pushing the scales on both sides at various times, and one can only hope that if the debate isn’t shut down prematurely it will lead to the most beneficial outcome this time around.
Skeptical analysis will strike some as a superstitious and anti-scientific attitude, and this may well be one of those occasions when skepticism is overcome by scientific proof, but it is by no means unique to any particular party or political philosophy. The eminently conservative National Review makes an eminently conservative case for mandatory vaccinations, while the anti-vaccination groups are largely funded by liberal donors. Such an influential pundit as Jon Stewart let Robert Kennedy Jr. go on about his anti-vaccination views,  and fellow agitprop comic Bill Maher voiced opinions that go beyond what Christie or Paul ever while said  token Republican guest former Republican Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist was calling him “crazy.” For as long as we can remember the pretty face of the anti-vaccination movement has been former Playboy model and reality television star Jenny McCarthy, and although we’re not sure of her political views on any other topic we doubt she’s a doctrinaire Republican. An instinctive distrust of the medical establishment is now more common among the holistic and homeopathic sort of liberals than it is among those simple rural Republican folk who used to fall for goat-gland quackery but now sign up for insurance that will cover all the latest medical marvels, and if we all die for lack of vaccination it will be hard to pin it on the Republican party or conservatism generally.
This all started in California, as we recall from a few paragraphs ago, and there’s no plausible way to blame the Republicans for anything that happens there. After several giddy stories about Christie’s and Paul’s apparent missteps The Washington Post got around to reporting that even presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton might take a mistaken step in the “political minefield” of vaccination politics, but in her case they worry that her past advocacy of mandatory vaccinations will be a liability and that her brief flirtation with the now-assumed-debunked theory that vaccinations cause autism will also be a problem. Given that Clinton is more likely to be the Democratic nominee than either Christie or Paul are to be the Republican standard-bearer, that story might stick around longer.
In case you’re wondering where the current president stands on this, be assured that a grand total of three reporters among the ravenous pack at the latest press conference put the question to the White House spokesman. It took all three tries and more than an hour, but at they at last elicited the answer that parents certainly should have their children vaccinated, and that therefore every parent will do so,  so the federal government need not force them to do so. This strikes us as very similar to the more controversial remarks by Christie and Paul, and just as incoherent, but it comes from the White House and is therefore assumed to be a very centrist and reasonable position. There were no question regarding the $50 million that Obama’s budget proposes cutting from vaccination programs for the uninsured, but we would have enjoyed hearing the response.
Having no children we don’t have to reach any decisions concerning pediatric inoculations, and unless any of our personal problems can be somehow attributed to some previously undetected form of autism we are grateful that our parents chose to follow the prevailing medical advice of decades past, although we’ve forgone any shots for many years now without any apparent ill effects, but we offer no advice to anyone regarding vaccinations. Whatever you might be forced to choose, you’ll probably make as good a guess as any politician.

— Bud Norman

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