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Recently there have been a number of diaries here (and one tasteless comic) on the subject of childhood vaccination. The tone of these diaries is what I would call 'anti-anti-vaxxer': the primary purpose of the content is to ridicule and to villainize people who choose not to vaccinate their children or themselves. Even if one could defend some of the diaries themselves as well-intentioned and informational, there is no question about the tone of many of the comments.

I am not writing this diary to promote a particular stance on vaccination, either 'pro' or 'anti'. Rather I am writing to express my dismay and disgust that our community is so closed-minded and prejudiced when it comes to this topic. Reflexive hostility to differing points of view is not something that I generally associate with our side of the political spectrum.

Join me below the fold, and let's try to have a rational discussion about this sensitive subject.

We should be able to agree that any decision a parent makes about the health and well-being of a child is a weighty one, and a personal one. I was under the impression that we progressives generally support the right of parents to make important decisions regarding the life or death of their offspring.

For one obvious example, we support unfettered abortion rights. How is it consistent that some of us can object so vehemently to government-mandated transvaginal ultrasounds as a prerequisite for an abortion, and simultaneously support the notion that all children should be injected with government-mandated chemicals before, say, attending school?

"Well," you say, "there's a crucial difference between your two examples. We do support the idea that a woman has the right to abort her unborn child, because that decision does not affect the health of others. Whereas when a child goes unvaccinated, that puts other people --- including my child --- at risk!"

And that's where logical discourse frequently comes to a halt. No one wants to feel like the health of his children is compromised in any way, especially by the actions of other people. As progressives, we support environmental and industrial regulations, gun regulations, and all manner of health and safety regulations precisely because we believe that individual freedom stops just at the point that there is a reasonable probability that others could be harmed.

But we data-driven progressives --- I like to imagine that we are all data-driven --- tend to rely on science and statistics to decide what is a 'reasonable probability' of harm. Of course I am prohibited from driving while drunk, because statistics clearly show the increased likelihood that I injure or kill someone else while doing so. But I am not prohibited from wearing steel-toed shoes, even though I do have an increased probability of accidentally giving someone a fatal shin injury while wearing them, because the amount of the increase is statistically insignificant.

So we are faced with an important question: What is the statistical, or even logical, basis for the idea that a single unvaccinated individual increases the likelihood that other, presumably vaccinated, individuals become diseased? In other words: If you can choose to be vaccinated... how does my choice not to be vaccinated impact you negatively?

I am not going to propose an answer here. I am just going to submit my opinion that the question is valid, and that we as progressives should not be rushing to shut down the conversation with poorly understood catch phrases. "Herd immunity! Herd immunity!" has just about the same conversational function as "Drill baby drill!"

Here's a related issue. What happens when we have two risks that can't be mitigated simultaneously? For example: seat belts mitigate the risk that people are killed in collisions, but they do increase the risk that people are trapped in burning vehicles. We cannot mitigate both risks simultaneously, so what policy do we propose?

Well, if we're rational --- and I like to think that we progressives value rationality --- we measure the costs and benefits of each course of action, and we see which one is better overall. We cannot get a perfect solution; we just choose the least of evils. In the example just given, we acknowledge that yes, there is an increased risk of being trapped in a burning vehicle, but regardless we require that people wear seat belts for protection from collisions. Least of evils.

This is all simple enough. Why, then, do so many people here feel compelled to pretend that there are zero risks to getting vaccinated? That is absurd. No one --- including doctors, including the vaccine manufacturers --- seriously claims that vaccines are risk free. The rational course of action would be to compare the nonzero risk of vaccine injury with the nonzero risk of disease, and make a decision. But we don't do that here.

Instead we ridicule and criminalize people who even dare to acknowledge that vaccination entails certain risks. We set up straw man arguments: "Hey, it turns out vaccines don't cause autism; ergo, vaccines are risk-free." I would have thought that our side of the political spectrum would be a bit more averse to glaring logical fallacies like that one.

My point here is simply that we should be able to measure the risks, and make a rational decision based on those measurements. We should be able to acknowledge that either decision --- vaccinate, or don't --- would be at best a lesser of evils, and not a risk-free solution. I thought that progressives were generally better able than most to deal with shades of grey, and to understand the notion of compromise solutions.

I always believed that progressives were better able and more willing to be critical of our government. Yes, we support a larger, well-functioning government; but we also value efficiency and oversight, and data-based decision making. We respect facts. Like these facts:

Not long ago, uranium was used in dentures. Once upon a time thalidomide was an approved, state-of-the-art medical therapy. The FDA approved aspartame as a food additive. For one --- just one --- very relevant example, it turns out that the oral polio vaccine can cause polio outbreaks and paralyze people. Et cetera.

It shouldn't be controversial that some people aren't willing to believe that something is a good idea just because the current establishment says that it is. Furthermore, there is no reason to accuse someone of being a conspiracy theorist just because he has a healthy skepticism of the medical establishment. It should be clear that huge, far-reaching policy mistakes can be (and have been) made without requiring any kind of coordinated conspiracy.

As progressives we should be equipped to understand that most issues in life are complex and lack clear-cut answers. Many people believe that the question of whether to vaccinate a child is one of these complex issues. They aren't all Jenny McCarthy, and they aren't all motivated by fear of a simple vaccine-autism link. Some of them are a lot smarter than you, and have a lot more domain knowledge than you do. Cut them some slack; give them some benefit of the doubt; and treat their decisions with respect.

Or at the very least, keep your mouth shut on this topic. You sound like exactly the sort of smug, my-choices-are-right-for-everyone, big gubmint libruls that show up in right-wing parodies of us.

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