The violent rhetoric of the antivaccine movement

I originally wasn’t going to write about this particular post, but the mass shooting in San Bernardino yesterday led me to change my mind. For those of you who either aren’t in the US or were somehow cut off from media for the last 18 hours or so, yesterday a heavily armed man and woman dressed in body armor, who turned out to be a married couple, entered a conference center at Inland Regional Center, a sprawling facility that provides services for thousands of people with disabilities. There, at an annual holiday party for the San Bernardino County Public Health Department, Syed Rizwan Farook, who had worked for five years as an environmental inspector there, and his wife killed at least 14 people, injuring at least 17 more, before hopping in a black SUV and leading the police on a manhunt that culminated in a shootout that left them both dead. Police still don’t know their motive, and it’s unclear what led to the shooting, but they were armed with .223-caliber assault rifles and semiautomatic handguns and left three explosive devices behind. No doubt we will discover more today as the police investigation continues, as this is one of the more bizarre mass shootings that have occurred.

So why did I mention this tragedy, so fresh in our minds? It’s because it reminds me of a second post, Pro Choice Pro Vax Anti Choice Anti Vax in America by Dara Berger, whose post castigating “pro-vax bullies” as the last acceptable bullies was so off-base, basically following up on the same theme but taking it to a new level. You get a flavor right from the start and, I hope, an understanding why Berger’s post reminded me of the events of yesterday, as Berger invokes last week’s Colorado Springs shooting at a Planned Parenthood facility:

The shooting in Colorado Springs this past Friday made me think about our own movement regarding vaccines. I pondered whether the pro vaccine group would ever become violent. They certainly go to extreme lengths to hurt people who don’t share the same opinion as them. The choice about vaccines in many ways is very similar to the fight about abortion. One group would like to have the legal and moral choice to decide for themselves while the other side would like to take all choice away. Sound familiar? In essence, they want choice to be illegal. Another similarity is that we are dealing with the choice to make a decision about ones own physical body. Why would another person think that they even bare the right to govern what someone does to their own body? Why would they even want to? Shouldn’t we all be created equal?

It’s always hard to read Ms. Berger’s posts because they’re so damned poorly written, and this one is no exception. If anything, it’s considerably more poorly written than the first post of hers that I discussed. Nonetheless, you can still easily get the gist of her idea in the first paragraph. The battle over reproductive rights is just like the battle over “vaccine choice,” with violent anti-abortion activists being likened to those of us who want to see children protected from infectious disease. Why would she do that? One wonders. Fear not. We’ll find out soon enough.

First, though, let’s take a look at her analogy. First, even Berger must recognize that there’s a big difference, although the difference she sees is not the difference most of us would point out:

Now if you explore the reasons behind each movement, we can see on the surface that they are driven by a different motivator. One is purely about money and profits. Pharmaceutical companies are not making vaccines out of the goodness of their heart. They make money and a lot of it! That’s the one thing that has always killed me when we talk about forced vaccinations. How can you force someone to take something made by a for profit company? Many of these companies make so much money that I forget if it is in the billions or trillions. It’s that insane. The other movement seems to be driven by religion.

Poor Ms. Berger. So close and yet so far. Yes, the anti-abortion movement is motivated by religion. That much is certain. However, when it comes to the motivation of those of us who promote vaccination, profit is not the motive. Really, it’s not. The vast majority of skeptics, scientists, and physicians who are pro-vaccine are not arguing against the antivaccine movement because we want the pharmaceutical companies to make more money, presumably so that they can pay us more. Seriously. Contrary to Ms. Berger’s belief (at one point she speculates that I must have taken 45 minutes to write my takedown of her “bullying” post and that her husband said that I must be paid), I’m not paid by pharmaceutical companies to do what I do. I do receive a small bit of income from ScienceBlogs for blogging for the company, but that income doesn’t depend in the least about my writing about vaccines or not. I can write about just about any medical topic I like. Heck, I can write about just about anything I like. I’d get my little monthly check either way, and all the amount depends upon is the traffic.

This is just a diversion, though. It’s what I like to refer to as the “pharma shill” gambit, where believers in quackery (such as antivaccinationists) resort to ad hominem attacks to try to discredit their critics by claiming that they only say what they say because they’re paid by big pharma. Whenever I see the pharma shill gambit, my sarcastic response usually goes something like this: Where is my filthy lucre? Where is my yacht? Where is my Porsche? Dammit, pharma pay masters, why am I not living in a mansion for all the service I render?

Ms. Berger then tries to be a little more precise in her attribution of parallels between violent anti-abortion extremists and “pro-vaxers”:

The real driving factor behind all the chaos surrounding both movements is that one side wants to control the other. One side has definitively decided that they know best and theirs is the only opinion that matters.

Which is, of course, nonsense. It’s not about control. It’s about protecting children and society from infectious disease. It’s clear that Ms. Berger doesn’t seem to understand this when later she rants:

I would never take a vaccine but I do think the option should be available for other people to take any and all the vaccines that they want. I just wish the more extreme pro vaccine people would respect my decision and not try so hard to strip me of my basic human rights to govern my own body.

Here’s a hint. No one, not Paul Offit, not the most ardent “pro-vaxer,” not even Orac, is trying to force Ms. Berger to take a vaccine against her will. No one. Adults are free to choose to be vaccinated or to choose not to be vaccinated, with only very limited exceptions (such as being in the military). Indeed, as I’ve said more generally more times than I can remember, competent adults can choose to refuse any treatment they want in favor of even rank quackery.

However, we’re not talking about adults here. We’re talking about children, and children rely on their parents to make medical decisions for them. In addition, no one, not Paul Offit, not the most ardent “pro-vaxer,” not even Orac, will “force” Ms. Berger’s children to be vaccinated against her will. There will be no jackbooted brownshirts kicking her door in, followed by nurses with syringes who will vaccinate her children while the brownshirts hold guns on Ms. Berger and her husband. That doesn’t happen, even though Ms. Berger’s rhetoric (and that of a lot of antivaccine activists) seems to suggest that that’s what is going on. What Ms. Berger doesn’t like is that her “choice” not to vaccinate will have consequences. If she chooses not to vaccinate her children, then they will not have access to public schools and day care because of the risk to other children that unvaccinated children pose.

All of this is prologue, however, to why I chose to write about Ms. Berger’s rather muddled views again on this day. Here is the key passage that disturbed me:

So getting back to the question of will they [pro-vaxers] ever become violent. Well I think in an indirect way they already have become violent. They are trying to force our children to take vaccinations against our will. They are trying to get our previously vaccine injured children to take more vaccines and don’t care that we feel it will put them in grave danger. They are also trying to force the siblings of this vaccine injured child to get vaccines, even though they may have the same genetic makeup and susceptibilities. Where did this all start? A couple years ago Paul Offit said that he wanted to do away with the religious exemption. He wanted the small percent of unvaccinated children to be vaccinated. Why? So he could make millions of dollars! So what did he do? He wrote a book on the subject that didn’t happen to garner the best reviews. He worked tirelessly with pharmaceutical companies and lobbyists to pay off senators and other lawmakers to get them to introduce bills such as SB 277 in California that stripped away a parents right to decide, by using their child’s education as leverage. In California, you now have to vaccinate your child in order to be able to attend a public school in 2016. Unfortunately, many families need a dual-income and may have to succumb to giving vaccines in order for their children to go to school. They may not have the ability to leave their job and move to another state. And not everybody has the ability or can afford to home school their child. Some of these children may become injured as a result. Vaccine injury is a violent act against a child especially if it is forced and without consent. Vaccine injury can leave a child with permanent brain damage. Anyone who lives with a vaccine injured child knows how absolutely devastating life after vaccine injury can be. And the pharmaceutical company who produced the vaccine offers no help and is nowhere to be found.

Whether she knows it or not, here Ms. Berger has directly invoked the rationale used by violent anti-abortion protesters for their actions. They believe that abortion is murder and that stopping murder justifies the use of extreme measures, up to and including violence. Ms. Berger likens vaccination to a violent assault on children. She even states that “vaccine injury is a violent act against a child.” Whether Ms. Berger realizes it or not, it’s only a short jump from this sort of rhetoric about how vaccination is “violence” against children, causing brain damage and even death, to justifying doing anything to stop it, including a little pre-emptive violence, if necessary, just as some radical anti-abortion terrorists have concluded.

Indeed, some antivaccine activists have made essentially the same leap. Australian antivaccine activist Tristan Wells, for instance, has in response to the passage of No Jab No Pay legislation said this:

Disgusting fascist policy. And the people who support it are all child abusers.

The fact is that nobody would ever subject themselves to the equivalent (weight adjusted) dose of what babies are expected to get.

Everybody expects babies to receive a dose that they would be petrified of taking themselves. Vaccines are pure evil and all those involved in this disgusting criminal enterprise should be executed.

Indeed, of late the rhetoric from the antivaccine movement has become increasingly apocalyptic, as I pointed out in my last post about Ms. Berger’s ramblings. We see lots of invocation of the Nazis and fascism, Kent Heckenlively’s vision of himself as Aragorn facing down Sauron’s armies, and other rhetoric painting antivaccinationists as resisting tyranny to save children from a fate worse than death. There are regular antivaccine commenters who take names like White Rose, in tribute to a group that resisted Nazi policies and several of whose members paid for that resistance with their lives. Meanwhile, vaccination is frequently likened to “medical assault and even medical assault and even rape.

Then on Facebook, it’s not hard to find memes like this:

This is how some antivaccinationists view themselves. And they accuse pro-vaccine advocates as being violent?

This is how some antivaccinationists view themselves. And they accuse pro-vaccine advocates as being violent?



This one disappeared very quickly after appearing on the antivaccine crank blog Age of Autism. However, over on Thug Health, the anti-medicine, anti-vaccine loons (and, yes, they are frighteningly loony) there frequently come up with violent imagery about resisting vaccines.

For example, there’s this:


Gee, I wonder what Thuggie means by this.

Gee, I wonder what Thuggie means by this.



Then there’s the mama bear:


"Mama bear" will kill you if you try to get her to vaccinate her child.

“Mama bear” will kill you if you try to get her to vaccinate her child.



Of course, if the mom isn’t wholesome-appearing enough, then there’s always a grannie:


That's right. Grannies will resist vaccines, too, if you believe some antivaccine activists.

That’s right. Grannies will resist vaccines, too, if you believe some antivaccine activists.



Then, of course, there’s the female action hero image:


Because, apparently, there has to be eye candy for the male antivaccine activists seeing themselves as resisting tyranny.

Because, apparently, there has to be eye candy for the male antivaccine activists seeing themselves as resisting tyranny.



Then there’s just the all-purpose generic image of armed resistance:


Who's the side using violent imagery now? I mean, seriously, which side looks scarier?

Who’s the side using violent imagery now? I mean, seriously, which side looks scarier?


And, lest you think this is just one site, here’s something an antivaccine zealot posted on Neil Z. Miller’s Facebook page. You might remember Mr. Miller for some of his truly execrable “epidemiological” research (and I do use the term very loosely) relating infant mortality rates to vaccination rates that defined the term “cherry picking.” In response to a post last week complaining about Paul Offit’s advocacy of eliminating all nonmedical exemptions, someone named Brindle Markey-Molina posted this image (also found here):

Yes, it's not just Thug Health posting threatening and violent antivaccine memes.

Yes, it’s not just Thug Health posting threatening and violent antivaccine memes.


I could post a lot more of these images, but I think I’ve made my point.

It’s hard not to wonder in light of this rhetoric and violent imagery: Who’s more likely to embrace violence, “pro-vaxers” or anti-vaxers? Indeed, early on during the news coverage of the San Bernardino mass murder, I found the thought entering my mind: This is a center for the developmentally disabled that provides care for a lot of autistic children. Then, a little later, I learned that the attack was directed at the Bernardino County Public Health Department, which no doubt oversees county vaccination programs. Did this attack have anything to do with the antivaccine movement? I couldn’t help but briefly wonder. Of course, I didn’t voice that fear publicly, either on Facebook or Twitter or anywhere else, because I had learned from previous mass shootings not to jump to conclusions or even to speculate too wildly. Instead, as I have unfortunately learned to do, I waited until the authorities had the situation under control and we had learned who the killers were and what their motivations were. Now I know that this had nothing to do with antivaccine activists, but I don’t think it was too unreasonable to have at least a germ of a concern that it might have been.

After all, people like Dara Berger and Tristan Wells provide just rhetoric that made that concern bubble to the surface of my thoughts yesterday afternoon. I thought it was a far out, maybe even slightly paranoid concern when the thought first popped unbidden into my mind, but after thinking about it more I’m no longer quite so sure.