By Reed Galen
Vaccinating our children became the first issue of the New Year to get sucked into, and be magnified by, the singularity that is a presidential primary campaign. The uncomfortable shots most of us endured as children, and we now watch as our children wail when they’re getting theirs, have eradicated most of the most pernicious childhood disease from the United States.
The issue came roaring to life a few weeks ago when it was reported that a Measles outbreak had stemmed from Disneyland, the Happiest Place on Earth, and has since spread to states across the country. California, home to 38 million people (12.5% of the country’s population) has seen this before: In 2010, a whooping cough epidemic spread through the Golden State, sickening more than 9,000 and killing 10 infants.
As Autism rose among American children, some started looking for the culprit – and despite seeing nothing resembling evidence, a small but vocal crowd began blaming vaccinations, and by extension, the pharmaceutical industry for causing a difficult and heart-breaking syndrome in kids. Despite the original 1998 study being completely discredited, and its author losing his medical license, some parents have taken as gospel, that the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine is dangerous to children.
Republican presidential candidates, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, in particular, have been cautious to jump in fully on the side of the vaccinators in fear of offending their small government base. As a member of the small government club, this is ludicrous and sharpens the point: The debate over whether or not to vaccinate your children isn’t about the government mandating it. It’s about being a responsible parent, adult and citizen. If we as conservatives truly disdain the nanny state, we shouldn’t act in such a way to encourage overbearing behavior from politicians and bureaucrats.
Arguments from anti-vaccinators appear to be classic libertarianism. Unfortunately, much of it has more to do with what Jenny McCarthy, that sage of both medical and life wisdom, had to say about long-standing medical practice. In the land of the selfie-stick, we need reminders once in a while that it’s not all about us. Vaccinations provide protection both to our children and to those with whom our kids attend school and run around the playground.
Then there is the issue of “choice”. It is the “choice” of a parent to decide what is best for their child, and this choice should extend out on all other aspects of life. Indeed, I count myself and generally pro-choice and decidedly pro-gay marriage, but those are choices that individuals make for themselves – what I think about their actions is immaterial, because ultimately, it’s none of my business. But when it comes to protecting kids from long-dead diseases, the dynamics change. You’re now making a choice on behalf of you and your family that actually can have a decided effect on my family and me.
Schools today routinely go out of their way to ensure kids with potentially fatal allergies are protected from the things that would require them to use an EpiPen or worse, go to the hospital. Those families didn’t ask for their kids to be cursed with that allergy, but we go out of our way to provide safe environments for them, because it’s the right thing to do.
Ironically enough for Republican candidates, two of the most conservative states in the union, Mississippi and West Virginia, have long mandated childhood vaccinations. The result? They haven’t seen a case of measles in more than 20 years. Where do most of the outbreaks occur? Counterintuitive as it may seem, states like California and Washington State, not exactly the fountainheads of the religious freedom movement, are far more likely to see unvaccinated kids catch one of the MMR strains.
So if you’re a conservative politician and refuse to proclaim that kids should be vaccinated, congratulations, you’re in league with the fine people of Marin County, California – who are politically bluer than Papa Smurf. Believing in vaccination is not the offbeat position. It is by far the norm for the majority of Americans. Yet, for some reason, Republican politicians having found a perfectly acceptable and mainstream position on an issue, have decided to confound and confuse many people taking the more politically problematic and potentially indefensible path. Why?
As tempests go, vaccinations will soon drift to the bottom of the presidential campaign teapot. But it shows how much work Republicans have to do on answering even easy questions well. The road only gets more difficult from here – the issues will be more complicated, the answers more difficult. If we can’t figure out how to tell folks why they should keep their kids safe from communicable diseases, why should they listen to us on anything else?