The annals of “I’m not antivaccine,” part 28: New York S2994 and the disappeared

Yesterday, I came across a series of Tweets by Gwynne Hogan, who noted a large line outside of a the New York state courthouse in Albany. They were there to see a legal challenge to S2994, a law recently signed into law by Governor Andrew Cuomo that eliminates nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine mandates. Curiously, many were wearing white:

The courtroom was, as she said, packed to the gills:

Why were so many antivaxers wearing white? What was going on? First, a little background.

As I mentioned yesterday, the measles outbreak of 2019 continues to rage on. True, it’s slowed down considerably, but we’re not out of the woods yet. As Dr. Paul Offit explained at NECSS, measles tends to have seasonal peaks, with summer being the low point, whether due to less contact (most children are not in school) or for the other reasons why various infectious diseases show seasonal variation in incidence. In any case, we won’t know whether we’re out of the woods yet as far as this outbreak goes until well into fall. I feel as though, whenever I write about this, I should remind you that, as of August 8, the CDC has confirmed 1,182 cases of measles. The CDC also notes that 124 of the people infected with measles had to be hospitalized, and that 64 had complications, including pneumonia and encephalitis. Measles can be serious. Indeed, measles suppresses the immune system for up to three years or even more, leaving children more susceptible to other diseases. The CDC also notes that more than 75% of the cases this year are linked to outbreaks in New York and New York City. This epicenter of the outbreaks was among Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Rockland, fueled by a targeted campaign to spread antivaccine misinformation and an incursion of antivaxers, much as the measles outbreak among Somali immigrants in Minnesota was.

As a result, in June, lawmakers in New York passed s2994. Governor Andrew Cuomo then signed S2994 into law. This did not sit well with antivaxers, who brought suit against the state in July arguing that school vaccine mandates without religious exemptions, such as what S2994 requires, violate the First Amendment right to religious freedom. The hearing over a preliminary injunction in the case to stay the law and allow children who currently have personal believe exemptions to start school next month.

Which brings us to the white clothing. As explained in the subsequent article by Gwynne Hogan:

Many who stand to be affected by the new law gathered outside the State Supreme Court on Wednesday dressed in white. Organizers said their uniform harkened back to Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo, a group of Argentinian women who protested the murder and disappearance of their children during their country’s military dictatorship.

Here’s a Facebook post by the New York Alliance for Vaccine Rights:

Here’s the key passage about Las Madres:

PLEASE WEAR WHITE (avoid t-shirts)- we are rolling out a campaign inspired by the “Mothers of the Disappeared.” Back in the 70s, the Argentinian government “disappeared” (kidnapped and killed) 30,000 mostly young activists who spoke out against the dictatorship. Their mothers donned white scarves and stood vigil in their honor every Thursday in the Plaza de Mayo in front of the presidential palace in Buenos Aries. The Madres de la Plaza de Mayo did this for decades to protest the denial of their children’s existence. They demanded answers and held their government accountable. Like the children of these women, our children have “disappeared” in a different way. They have already been, or may soon be “disappeared” from school. In denying that vaccine-injury occurs, the truth of the health problem afflicting many of our children is “disappeared.” Religious beliefs at odds with the marketing needs of the vaccine industry must “disappear.” And the overall goal of the vaccine industry is to “disappear” any population that does not consume their products without question.

Our government has sent a message that our kids should not exist, don’t count, our kids are not wanted, our kids are somehow dangerous, dirty and inherently diseased. Like the mothers from Argentina, we cannot allow our children to be forgotten and cast aside by an industry based on lies, avarice and deceit, and a government based on arrogance, ignorance and corruption.

I see what antivaxers did there.

Of course, I’ve written many times about antivaxers who claim they’re “not antivaccine.” There’s always a “but.” That but could be, “but, I’m a vaccine safety advocate”; “but I’m for parental rights”; “but I’m for religious freedom”; or “but I’m suspicious of big pharma.” Then, after the “but” almost always follows the antivaccine tropes. Sometimes, those tropes include some comparisons that give the game away. I even have a whole series of posts about some of these comparisons, such as to the Holocaust (more examples than I can remember); to rape; to human trafficking; and now to this. I never would have thought that S2994 would provoke the 28th installment in this series of posts

Of course, Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo were courageous women. They represented 30,000 people who disappeared during the wave of kidnappings and killings that took place in Argentina during the government’s “Dirty War” against left wing “subversives,” most of whom were young students, active, idealistic and uncharged. During the 1970s, roughly 30,000 people, whose bodies were “disappeared,” became the “desaparecidos,” or “the disappeared.” The disappeared were erased from the public record, with no government traces of arrests or evidence of charges against them. Those whose bodies were found often had been tortured and killed, with their bodies disposed of in unmarked graves in rural areas. For nearly 30 years, the mothers of the disappeared waged a campaign to hold the government accountable at great personal risk.

As I said above, I see what antivaxers did there. Note the clever deflection, which they’ve used for plausible deniability that they were directly comparing their children to the 30,000 murdered victims of Argentina’s Dirty War, namely that it’s about how they’ll be “disappeared from school,” or about how inconvenient religious beliefs must be “disappeared,” or how the memory of their children must be disappeared. They claim that the message they’re presenting is about pharma “disappearing” any who don’t use their products. That’s some grade-A paranoid conspiracy mongering there, but it does reveal something.

Here’s what I mean. These parents are likening themselves to the parents of children who were brutally tortured and murdered by an authoritarian regime for activism against the regime. There’s no escaping one part of that analogy, as much as they try to dance around it with images of “disappearing religion” or “disappearing” the “truth” about vaccine injury. It’s hard not to wonder if these parents think of their children as dead. Here’s what I mean. Many are the times that I’ve seen parents lamenting the loss of their autistic child to vaccines and speak in the language of “recovering” them. That’s because many of them seem to have a hard time seeing their autistic child as their “real” child.

Here’s an example in the comments of an article on Left Brain/Right Brain:

I think it’s also appropriate for me to point out that the many parents that I’ve talked to whose children regressed view autism as a disease rather than a disorder or brain difference. I hope you can see why. This is why we feel like autism has “stolen” our children. This is why we “fight” autism and get offended when we are told that by fighting to get our children back, we are not accepting who they really are. Simply untrue… I am fighting to get my son back.


This is why I speak up. We are not looking for normacy. We are not looking even, for non-autistic. What we are looking for it to regain what was lost… It’s all about my son… It’s all about the absolutely HORRIBLE thing that happened to him that is currently called regressive autism based upon his Fragile X premutation and AC1298 MTHFR mutation after a fever. Dr. Hagerman, the world’s expert on Fragile X has seen my son and with her help… We are fighting to get him back.

…autism has “stolen” our children. No, the child is autistic. No one has “stolen” him.

What we are looking for it to regain what was lost…

We are fighting to get him back. Why? He’s right there in front of her!

…we…get offended when we are told that by fighting to get our children back, we are not accepting who they really are. Simply untrue… Sadly, it is true for a lot of parents of autistic children who come to blame vaccines. They blame vaccines because human beings have a hard time accepting something like autism without a cause. There must be a cause! And there is; it’s mostly genetic, but we really don’t understand it very well at all yet. We do know, however, that it’s not vaccines. However, because autistic regression sometimes happens in fairly close temporal proximity to vaccination due to the vaccine schedule calling for vaccines around the age when autism is most frequently diagnosed and the millions of children being vaccinated, it can sure appear that correlation does equal causation to individual parents, and, once they invest themselves into that belief, not all the epidemiology and science in the world can convince them that vaccines didn’t cause their child’s autism. So great is the human need for an explanation that it’s not at all uncommon for memory to stretch the correlation beyond what is reasonable. All of this is understandable, but unfortunately this need to blame something, anything, leads to analogies like comparing vaccinations the Holocaust or the disappeared or:

Attorney Michael Sussman, representing the plaintiffs, had strong metaphors too, telling the court New York State had “dropped what I consider a nuclear bomb on these families.”

Some of Wednesday’s demonstrators felt the new law effectively disappeared their children from the school system, and said they were considering homeschooling their children, even moving to a different state, if the religious exemption to vaccines isn’t reinstated.

Yes, because requiring that parents protect their children from vaccine-preventable diseases, as S2994 does, is just like dropping a nuclear bomb on them.

Then, of course, because it was outbreaks among Orthodox Jews that resulted in the passage of S2994, Sussman pulled out the “hostile to religion” trope:

“The active hostility towards religion…was a pervasive theme and it needn’t have been,” Sussman said. “[These children] are going to have nowhere to go to school…They have no idea what they are going to do with these children.”

But Helena Lynch, an attorney for New York State, disputed Sussman’s claims, saying legislators weren’t hostile; rather, they were “skeptical” about whether people were expressing religious beliefs or personal ones.

In actuality, antivaxers selling “holistic” medicine and supplements targeted the Orthodox Jewish community with antivaccine misinformation, and the success of their pseudoscientific message was far more likely due to the insularity of the community and its distrust of outsiders than to the Jewish faith. After all, Jewish authorities have consistently urged Jews to be vaccinated and to cooperate with health authorities. The “religious freedom” argument has traditionally not convinced courts.

Still, the main reason I wrote about the use of this analogy by antivaxers attending the lawsuit against S2994 was to add yet another offensive analogy used by antivaxers who claim they’re not antivaccine, that of Las Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, to compare themselves to, as they compare their children to the disappeared and vaccines to the Holocaust or rape. Anyone who uses such analogies is certainly antivaccine. They dishonor the memory of the disappeared and the legacy of Las Madres.