This essay is for parents who are torn. They want to protect their kids from disease, but are extremely worried about the possible bad side effects of vaccines, and they are not sure whether or not to take those risks.
That was me, when my oldest kids were young. I was torn. I trusted my doctor about some things, but not others; and I knew the diseases in question were dangerous, but the possible side effects also seemed very dangerous.
Every time we went to the doctor, I had to make the choice over whether or not to vaccinate; and every time we went, I was overwhelmed by all the bad things that might happen if we did.
So we got some of the vaccines, but not all. Sometimes I would cry almost as much as the kids, when they got their shots. If I was especially torn, I would take the safer, neutral route and just decline. I couldn’t get myself to choose things that might turn out to be dangerous, so I just opted out of choosing. The choice was too awful, so I decided not to make it. It just seemed safer that way.
Now we all get all the recommended vaccines. I am still aware of the possible risks of some vaccines, and I’m not happy about them; but I’m no longer torn.
What changed? I sure wish I could remember. All I recall is that, one day, it became crystal clear to me that, no matter what I did, I was making a choice. When I said “no” to certain vaccines, I was making a choice. When I told the doctor I’d rather opt out, I was making a choice.
There was no safe, neutral middle ground in opting out. When I decided to opt out of vaccines, I wasn’t perching safely on a fence, avoiding possible dangers and perils and ruin on both sides. When I decided to opt out, I was choosing a side with very real possible dangers and perils and ruin. Opting out didn’t feel like a choice, because I wasn’t doing anything. But it was a choice all the same, because disease is real. It was a choice, and my choice had consequences for my children and for the community.
It wasn’t like piercing ears, where I could decide the risks were too great, and simply leave those ears alone. It wasn’t like going on a roller coaster, where I could decide the risks were too great, and simply step out of line and go about my day. It was more like being aware that people are occasionally injured by seat belts, and choosing to opt out of strapping my kids in when I drove. This is not a neutral act, even though I’m not doing anything. Deciding not to vaccinate meant that I was making a choice to expose my kids to serious diseases that could maim or kill them.
And I was making that choice for other people, too. My kids are, for the most part, strong and healthy, and have a very low risk of adverse reactions to vaccines. We’re not immunocompromised, we’re not getting chemo, and we don’t have allergies. We are in a group medically fragile depend on (and one of my children is now medically fragile, too). When I told myself I was taking the safe, neutral route by opting out of vaccines, I was really making a choice about the health and safety of other people — friends, family, strangers, kids at the playground, old women at Mass, the fragile child at the supermarket. Children like my child.
Now, if my doctor introduces a new vaccine, I read as much about it as I can from reputable sources, before I decide which choice to make. I talk to people whose judgment I have good reason to trust. And this includes the Pontifical Academy for Life. CNS’ Cindy Wooden reports the academy said in 2017 there is a “moral obligation to guarantee the vaccination coverage necessary for the safety of others.”
Now when I take my kids to the doctor, I consider the possible consequences of getting each vaccine, and I also consider the possible consequences of not getting it — the consequences for my kids, for my family, and for the community, especially the vulnerable — and I ask myself if I’m willing to take responsibility for making that choice.
There really isn’t any such thing as opting out from this choice. It’s our duty to take responsibility for the choice we make, to see clearly what we are choosing. If we choose not to vaccinate, we’re freely choosing to expose our kids and the wider community to diseases that can maim or kill. There isn’t such a thing as remaining neutral.
Image: CDC/ Amanda Mills acquired from Public Health Image Library (Website) (public domain)