Vaccines, the Fear of Autism, and the Globalization of Indifference

For those of us who have been following the debate about childhood vaccinations, we’ve heard many arguments about medical evidence, individualism versus the common good, proposed legislative changes to personal belief exemptions, and the terror of parents whose babies are too young to vaccinate. However, lost in this discussion is an analysis of the key motivating factor leading parents to not vaccinate their children—a warped vision of the value of people with autism. Somehow, the belief is that having a child with autism is so terrible that it is worth jeopardizing one of the greatest advances in all of modern medicine. A viral comment by a Facebook user identified as Miranda that appeared on a Facebook group for siblings of people with severe disabilities put it succinctly:

Even if I humor anti-vaccine activists and for a second believe that vaccines cause autism in 0.01% of children they’re administered to (spoiler alert: vaccines don’t cause autism), I am still deeply disturbed that these people are more afraid of people with disabilities than they are fatal, painful and endemic diseases. If cognitive disabilities are more threatening to you than children never getting to grow up because polio makes a comeback, you have priorities to reevaluate my friend. Shame on you for brainwashing mothers and fathers into believing that autism is the absolute worst thing that can happen to a person.

In our world, “the temporarily able-bodied” too often let their vision be clouded by their fears and refuse to see the reality in front of them. In the US, this is precisely what the Supreme Court focused on when it acknowledged the dehumanizing role that inaccurate information plays in our society in a seminal decision interpreting a precursor law to the Americans with Disabilities Act:

Society’s accumulated myths and fears about disability and disease are as handicapping as the…limitations that flow from actual impairment. –US Supreme Court. School Bd. Of Nassau County v. Arline, 480 U.S. 273, 284 (1987).

The Supreme Court rightly found that Congress intended to protect people like Gene Arline from misplaced fear. Ms. Arline was a schoolteacher who, when she was much younger, had been hospitalized for acute tuberculosis. Ten years into her teaching career, and twenty years since her bout of tuberculosis, she suffered multiple relapses and was fired on the basis of her condition, without any real assessment of whether she could do her job. The facts are not irrelevant to the current conversation. The law was enacted to prevent ignorant employers from unjustly excluding people with impairments as much as to directly help people with impairments themselves.

In light of our current situation, Pope Francis’ words to the newly installed Cardinals should be our touchstone. Discussing Jesus’ outreach to leapers, Francis doesn’t focus on the supposed inherent problems of those who have been excluded. Rather, he calls out those doing the excluding and marginalizing:

Compassion leads Jesus to concrete action: he reinstates the marginalized!  These are the three key concepts that the Church proposes in today’s liturgy of the word: the compassion of Jesus in the face of marginalization and his desire to reinstate.

Marginalization:  Moses, in his legislation regarding lepers, says that they are to be kept alone and apart from the community for the duration of their illness.  He declares them: “unclean!” (cf. Lev 13:1-2, 45-46).

Imagine how much suffering and shame lepers must have felt: physically, socially, psychologically and spiritually!  They are not only victims of disease, but they feel guilty about it, punished for their sins!  Theirs is a living death; they are like someone whose father has spit in his face (cf. Num 12:14).

In addition, lepers inspire fear, contempt and loathing, and so they are abandoned by their families, shunned by other persons, cast out by society.  Indeed, society rejects them and forces them to live apart from the healthy.  It excludes them.  So much so that if a healthy person approached a leper, he would be punished severely, and often be treated as a leper himself.

The purpose for this rule was “to safeguard the healthy”, “to protect the righteous”, and, in order to guard them from any risk, to eliminate “the peril” by treating the diseased person harshly.  As the high priest Caiaphas decreed: “It is better to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed” (Jn 11:50)…

…For Jesus, what matters above all is reaching out to save those far off, healing the wounds of the sick, restoring everyone to God’s family!  And this is scandalous to some people!

Jesus is not afraid of this kind of scandal!  He does not think of the closed-minded who are scandalized even by a work of healing, scandalized before any kind of openness, by any action outside of their mental and spiritual boxes, by any caress or sign of tenderness which does not fit into their usual thinking and their ritual purity.  He wanted to reinstate the outcast, to save those outside the camp (cf. Jn 10).

I do not suggest any intrinsic equivalence between leprosy and autism. Rather, the similarity is in the marginalization faced by people who are not considered “ideal” for any discriminatory reason (whether on account of disability, race, gender, etc.). Pope Francis does not sugarcoat the experiences of people living with disabilities, and he empathizes with their families. I’m sure that he even sympathizes with parents who are terrified of their children having autism. But I believe he would encourage us to go beyond this simple fear and ask if it is warranted. Is it the condition itself that is so terrifying, or is it also the way in which society causes so much additional unnecessary pain for people with autism and their families–by blaming parents for the person’s condition; by refusing to provide adequate parental leave; by turning a blind eye to bullying by staff and students at school; by cutting off virtually all support upon adulthood, as if a person’s needs magically disappeared upon reaching the age of majority; or by focusing so much on the “cure” that the dignity of the person living with autism is all but forgotten?

Whatever the conversation about vaccination may bring, we cannot forget that fear of people with autism is at the root of the debate. What would we prefer (assuming counterfactually that there is a risk of autism from vaccines): a world without autistic people (who are amazing contributors to our families, schools, and communities), but under the constant threat of contracting deadly diseases and seeing our children die before they can be vaccinated? Or should we rather strive for a world in which we can listen to people with autism and their families and find ways of reintegrating them fully into our society, and, finally, not exclude them in the first place?


Note: For the best resources on autism, please get to know the amazing work of the Autistic Self Advocacy Network, whose motto is “nothing about us without us.” I do not have autism, but I am privileged to collaborate with people who do.