The Ethics Of… Vaccinations and Autism

Y’know, life never fails to amaze me. Here I am, having spent the last 15 years exploring some of the fundamental questions of human existence, snuggling into a nice deep nest of cynicism and then BAM! Massive controversy from the one source I’d never in a million years have predicted.

People are opposing vaccinations now?! In a time when the benefits of vaccines were considered so blindingly obvious that they’re just a normal part of life, the idea that they might be harmful for you was pretty damn shocking to say the least. And the idea that they might be so dangerous that they’re not worth the benefits, was like waking up and being told that ‘exercise is bad for your health and we should all be getting fat instead’.

But despite (or perhaps because of) this massive shock-value, the anti-vaccination movement has grown from a fringe idea to a massive international campaign with thousands of followers. The claims of this movement tend to be pretty broad, blaming vaccines for everything from SIDS to ADHD on vaccination, but by far the most consistent claim is that vaccines like the MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccine causes autism in some children.

Based on this claim, members of the anti-vaccination movement have prevented their own children from getting vaccinated, encouraged other to do the same, and campaigned for the health risks to be better researched, publicised and managed. In some cases the movement is so convinced of the dangers that they just want vaccines banned completely for use on children, claiming that the harm they cause isn’t worth the protection against disease they provide.

Now usually at this point I go into detail the arguments both sides of the debate bring to the table, and discuss the pros and cons of each argument, but this topic is slightly different: it’s not an ethical debate at all.

“But of course it’s an ethical issue!” you might say, “it’s the same as abortion or the death penalty – two sides opposing each other based on different values, that can be resolved by a rational analysis of the issue! How is this any different?”. And you’d be totally right; there are indeed two opposing groups, and a lot of the arguments for and against vaccinations are based on the values of those people:

Anti-vaxers argue that they are protecting the health of children. They argue that the modern blind acceptance of vaccines ignores the potential dangers of such an invasive and common medical procedure. They argue that no one, least of all children, should be coerced to have a medical procedure done without fully informed consent. Ultimately they argue for the rights of individuals to make their own choices.

Pro-vaxers on the other hand argue that vaccinations are critical to protect society against the dangers of infectious diseases. They argue that any harm vaccines may pose are tiny compared to the ancient horrors of smallpox, whooping cough and measles. And they argue that making vaccines optional exposes those who cannot have vaccinations to diseases for the selfish needs of a few. Ultimately they argue for the needs of the many over the desires of the few.

But you know what these value-based arguments completely miss in this grand debate? The very simply question of whether vaccines actually cause autism in the first place. This is not a question of right or wrong, it’s a question of fact, and when it comes to facts, the first source you should be concerned with is science.

So, is there any scientific evidence linking vaccines to autism?

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The irony of this entire debate is that it was indeed started by a scientific paper published in a highly reputable journal, The Lancet, in 1998. Naturally the entire scientific community shat itself, because this sort of finding would (if proven correct) be a major catastrophe for the manufacture and use of vaccines – literally every treatment on the market would need to be re-tested to check whether it did indeed cause autism, costing millions and taking years of work. Which is exactly what the author of the paper, a Mr Andrew Wakefield, was planning when he wrote it.

See, Mr Wakefield, the author of the only piece of published scientific research supporting the link between the MMR vaccine and autism (or vaccines and ANY previously unknown health disorder), made the whole thing up. And when I say ‘made the whole thing up’, I mean he deliberately fudged the data to support the link, was subsequently found out, charged with fraud, had his paper retracted from The Lancet, and lost his medical license.

Why did he do all this you ask? Simple!

Remember how I mentioned all the testing that Mr Wakefield’s paper would demand to ensure vaccines really were safe? Well guess what business venture Mr Wakefield was planning to launch even before his paper was released? That’s right, testing for the new health condition he’d just made up!

And you know how many peer-reviewed, credibly scientific papers have linked vaccines and autism since then? Sweet fuck all! But at this point that doesn’t matter, because the movement has already been rolling for the last 17 years and, to be kinda blunt, the facts no longer matter. This is the problem with movements; when people get behind a cause or a set of values they passionately believe in, they tend to incorporating those values into their sense of self. And if new facts come to light, or the old facts the were the foundation of the movement turn out to be bullshit then suddenly you’ve got a big group of people who have invested their time, money, effort and belief in something that is suddenly (or worse, gradually) proven flawed, misguided or just flat-out wrong.

At this point some of the more critically-minded people might be able to take a step back and change their minds, but for the majority of the movement the massive threat this new information poses to their sense of self-worth is too terrifying to accept, and so they do what everyone does when their most intimate beliefs are attacked – they fight back like demons.

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EDGY!

But hold up a sec here; why is it that we’re so happy to dump ‘science’ on the table and call it a day? Why exactly is science any more reliable as proof than opinion or people’s experiences? Why is some academic working in a lab somewhere (probably never worked a day in the real world, amiright?) a more reliable source than a couple of thousand parents who’s kids were vaccinated and who’s kids now have autism? I mean yeah, academics might have studied the topic a lot, but that study is only theoretical, right? And they might have a lot more resources available to do studies, but that hardly means they’re always right, does it? There’s plenty of examples out there of scientific theories that turned out to be bullshit.

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Phrenology, anyone? How about eugenics? Or maybe that wonder chemical DDT or the miracle product Asbestos?

Even for the theories that do work, they can’t seem to go a year without revising somehow. They can’t even seem to make a decision about something as obvious as gravity, for crying out loud, so why should we trust their word when it comes to our children’s health? Aren’t arguments to ‘trust the science’ just demands that we have faith in science?

Oh, the irony.

It’s completely true of course that science is often wrong. In fact if you want to get picky about it, you could argue that science is always wrong – and that’s exactly why we should trust it. For those that are not familiar, welcome to the great human achievement that is the Scientific Method:

SCIENCE!

I’ve written before that the purpose of human life is to seek perfection. Well, the scientific method is one of those rare examples where we achieved that perfection. This is not because the process always leads us to the right answer exactly, but for precisely the opposite: it acknowledges that we will never have a perfect understanding of everything, and rather than allowing us to stick with an imperfect answer, demands that we keep improving that understanding. Science isn’t just about the evidence and the theories we build on that evidence, it’s about constantly reviewing those theories, criticising them and improving on them the second any cracks appear.

To put it simply, science knows we suck at understanding the world and demands that we never, ever, EVER stop trying to do better.

Long-time readers may remember an article I did a long time ago that argued that ethics should also be treated as a science; the things we believe in shouldn’t just be a matter of opinion, tradition or culture, but rather should reflect our best understanding of the facts at any given time. The reaction of the anti-vaccination movement when the ‘science’ their cause was built on was proven fraudulent is a perfect example of a failure to do just that; when the facts as we knew them changed, anti-vaxers were asked to strip away a part of their identity, an ideal they had been fighting to uphold for years in many cases. Many of them failed this test and instead acted to protect their sense of self by instead denying the new facts and fighting all the harder.

This may seem weak or even despicable to us, and given the human cost of these misguided campaigners, it’s hard to look on them with sympathy. But how many of us wouldn’t react exactly the same way if an idea we held just as closely was ripped away from us like that? Would you have the strength to calmly consider the arguments against you, weigh them against the evidence, and if correct, revise beliefs so core to you that they quite literally define you? Or would you simply sidestep this massive existential crisis, dig in your heels, cover your ears, label the new facts as ‘lies’, and fight all the harder? After all, now you’re not just fighting for your cause, you’re fighting to protect your who you are as well.

You may think you will never fall into such a situation. Surely you are wise enough, rational enough and informed enough that you could adapt your beliefs to the facts as they emerge? But if science tells us anything about this universe, it is that we do not and perhaps never will fully understand it. What is true today may look very different tomorrow – the question is, will you change as well? Or will you deny the painful facts and fight instead?

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9 thoughts on “The Ethics Of… Vaccinations and Autism

  1. Reblogged this on Cloak Unfurled and commented:
    An enjoyable read. Less about vaccinations and autism, but more about the value of science and the nature of belief. Also whether or not all controversy represents an ethical dilemma.

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