In recent days, a measles outbreak in California has elevated an ongoing debate over childhood vaccination to the level of a public emergency. And as potential Republican presidential candidates have tried to seek advantages in the race, they have turned vaccination into a partisan issue, too, rather than a choice fueled by a number of motivations across the political spectrum. But the fight to keep vaccination rates high enough to keep us all safe from preventable disease is just one symptom of a more overarching problem.
The refusal to vaccinate your children, relying on other families to create the environment that will keep yours safe, is a rejection of state power in favor of personal preference. The choice to call the police on parents who aren’t supervising their children in the way you think they ought to be is an invocation of state power that can have dramatic consequences. But both the vaccine refusal movement and the criminalization of certain parenting strategies (or parenting economic realities) are based on misinformation. And both are expressions of our profound withdrawal from one another.
The conversation about vaccines has quickly become exceptionally polarized, which isn’t necessarily inappropriate, given the public health stakes. Those of us who see vaccination as important see ourselves on the side of science — the study that suggested a link between vaccines and autism has been thoroughly discredited, as has the man who performed it — and on the side of collective responsibility for our health. Those who don’t want to vaccinate their children, or want to space out vaccinations, perceive themselves as, among other things, skeptics who see an overbearing pharmaceutical industry more clearly than the rest of us and as good parents who are prioritizing the health of their children against peer pressure.
It’s exceptionally difficult to have a conversation across this kind of divide. Both sides are profoundly afraid of the other; that one set of fears is rooted in science, while another is rooted in cultural beliefs doesn’t make either anxiety less powerful. And both are using language that is meant to act as a trump card, rather than to start a productive conversation.
I agree with my colleague Michael Gerson, when he says that “some Americans seem to believe that the mere assertion of a right is sufficient to end a public argument. It is not, when the exercise of that right has unacceptable public consequences, or when the sum of likely choices is dangerous to a community.” But in that same column, Gerson acknowledges that parents who don’t vaccinate probably aren’t basing their objections on Kant or Mill. Simply waving social contract theory, or even hard scientific evidence, at people who aren’t vaccinating their children probably isn’t going to be enough to change their minds, either.
As frustrating as it might seem to prioritize the emotional needs of parents who are endangering other families by refusing to vaccinate, that might be the most effective thing for us who believe in vaccination to do. I reported last summer that a number of experts, even Paul Offit, who is chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases and director of the Vaccine Education Center at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, believe that to convince parents who are on the fence about vaccinations, we’ll have to grapple with their fears, rather than mock them. (Hard-core holdouts are another matter.) To convince people to stop hurting the community around them, we have to convince them that our community and its norms are worth being a part of.
The recent spate of incidents in which people call the police to report children playing alone in parks or walking alone suggests a similar level of alienation from a larger sense of community.
Take the recent case in which two Maryland parents found themselves under investigation by Child Protective Services for letting their children, ages 10 and 6, walk home together from a local park. The actions of Child Protective Services and the police officers who responded to a report that the children were on their own seem extreme, but at least they were acting in accordance with the requirements of their jobs. What is truly puzzling is the behavior of the most mysterious figure in the case: the person who called the police in the first place to report that the children were unattended, but did not appear to simply have approached them first to ask whether they were all right.
Like the belief that vaccines cause autism, the idea that children are in substantial danger from strangers is based on a deep misconception. A child is much more likely to be abducted by a member of his or her own family as part of conflict such as a family dispute than to be taken by someone else. And an overwhelming majority of abductions of children are committed by people who already know the child in some way, rather than by strangers who snatch children off the street.
Calling the police on a child who is walking or playing alone promotes the misconception that Stranger Danger is a major risk in two ways. I don’t doubt that people who call the police in these situations feel genuine fear for the children that they have observed to be alone. It would take an extraordinarily vengeful person to call down the full force of Child Protective Services on a family that he or she doesn’t know, just for the censorious fun of it. I wonder whether something else is at work: Do these people feel they would be labeled busybodies or predators if they simply approached the kids themselves and offered to take them to their parents instead of resorting to calling the cops?
The horrors of police and CPS investigations of families simply for making their own choices about how to raise their families are considerable and obvious. But our fears are costing us simpler kindnesses as well. Who have we become when we’re afraid to sit in the park until a child’s parents show up, walk a lost kid home (or simply keep a young person company, even if he seems to know where he’s going), or simply play peekaboo with a child in a crowded train station or airport to give tired parents a break?
Maybe it’s old-fashioned to lament a loss of community and the increasing inability of people to truly talk to each other. But both the California measles outbreak and families targeted by Child Protective Services for giving their children a measure of independence are illustrations of what it costs us when we don’t feel like we’re responsible to each other.