My recent post about lying via omission to maintain the social contract and my sanity has me thinking about all the ways I have to be less honest than I’d like, specifically when it’s for the benefit of my children, who, ironically, I do want to raise to be honest people. This week, it took the form of spending two hours at the local county health department claiming a religious exemption for their vaccinations, despite being an atheist.
Of course, being an atheist (while still being Jew-“ish”) is a form of religious belief. After all, freedom of religion includes freedom from religion, and religion is really a form of organized philosophy. And philosophically, I completely and fundamentally disagree with the government telling me what to do with my body, and, as an extension, my children’s bodies. So, I suppose, an atheist claiming a religious objection to (or exemption from) something isn’t quite as ironic as it sounds at first, but then again I may simply be justifying my actions, something I often fight the impulse to do despite how much I tell myself I really don’t care what other people think.
So last Thursday, I got “the call” from our elementary school: your kids aren’t up to date on their vaccines, and we need a county religious exemption form for them to stay in school. Ok. So, off to the county health department I went. This building, well-maintained and clean as it may be, makes my skin crawl because it’s full of sick people, and I feel like I’m going to catch dysentery in the parking lot and Ebola in the waiting room. Don’t get me wrong. I’m really, really glad the building is there and that its offices are able to provide all sorts of social and medical services to our community. The Department of Health fills a very important role in our society, and I’m grateful they’re around. It’s just that, if most people’s immune systems are Honda CR-Vs, mine’s a wheelbarrow. So, walking into a building where there are definitely a lot of germy people is not my idea of a fun or intelligent way to spend my afternoon.
In order to obtain this form, I had to go to the vaccination department and have a nurse consult. That meant I had to pass through the waiting area for the free clinic (cough, sneeze), go through the Information Desk area to find a directory (cough, sneeze, itch), and then head into yet another waiting area, this one filled with kids (cough, sneeze, itch, whine). At the bullet-proof-glass window (I’m assuming here, but it was pretty thick and had that weird hole for talking as opposed to the sliding-window deal most doctors’ offices have), I told the clerk what I needed. She handed me a clipboard full of forms. Forms to obtain forms. Definitely a government building.
I filled out the basics: kids’ names, dates of birth, socials, etc. As I looked down the page, the questions got progressively more invasive and irrelevant to anyone not compiling statistical data, so I skipped a whole bunch of it and handed it back to the receptionist through her bank-teller window slot. She told me I should take a seat and wait for the nurse. I let her know I was there for a form, not an exam or a shot, but apparently, only nurses can fill out forms in that department. I suppose that wouldn’t have been such a big deal, except there was only one nurse in the whole vaccination department. For the whole city.
So I sat, thankful for Words With Friends on my iPhone. I Facebooked and played pseudo-scrabble while I waited, trying not to breathe too much and wishing I’d loaded up on Vitamin C before heading over. There was a TV there, tuned in to SpongeBob SquarePants for the kids. I won’t get into my personal feelings about how inappropriate it is to show potty-humor-based animation to a waiting room full of kids under five because frankly, there was more interesting stuff going on.
For instance, there was a prostitute getting her kid his shots. There’s something you don’t see every day. No, I didn’t actually ask if she was a prostitute, but you know, there comes a point when a woman gets dressed each day when, if it’s fairly probable more than one person might think you’re a hooker, you should change. If you don’t, I think I’m within my rights to assume your clothing (or lack thereof) is a self-employment advertisement.
Then there was this woman sitting in front of me who, in the middle of the SpongeBob episode, and to no one in particular, just randomly burst out singing the SpongeBob theme song. I thought about running out the door screaming, but that seemed like a disproportionate response, and I’d just have to go back in again to get the damn forms. The things we do for our kids.
Finally, the nurse calls me in. We do the polite handshake-and-name-exchange, and we sit. I tell her what I need. It’s my understanding that this government employee cannot ask me any personal questions about religion, so her first one throws me for a bit of a loop. “I see,” she said. “Some people do object to vaccines on religious grounds. For instance, I believe Christian Scientists object to the blah-di-blah-di-blah in the doop-de-doo-be-doo vaccine. What is your background?”
My background? Part of me wishes I had said something too outrageous to be honestly believable only to see whether she’d go so far as to question my ridiculous answer to her inappropriate nosiness, but I just didn’t think of it at the moment, and frankly, even if I had, I probably wouldn’t have had either a straight enough face or a good enough lie to pull it off. And autism isn’t a recognized religion, no matter how strictly we adhere to its rules in our house, so that was out. So I was as honest as I could be under the circumstances, and I smiled (which always helps) while I said quite directly, “With all due respect to you and to your position here, that’s really none of your business.”
If she’d been on a unicycle, she’d have been the funniest back-peddler you’ve ever seen. But as it was, she was seated on one of those rolling doctor stools in what felt like a 3×3-foot room, so she just fluttered her hands and did a verbal reversal, seeming rather surprised that I knew she didn’t have any business asking. “Oh, no, of course not. You’re quite right. It’s none of my business whatsoever. It’s just, you know, easier to speak to your concerns if I know what they are.” And there you have it, between the lines a bit, but there nonetheless: I am here to convince you that you need to completely vaccinate your kids in accordance with the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines, and if I know what it is you object to, I can adjust my spiel accordingly.
I thanked this kind nurse for her concern, and made it clear that I am an informed, educated, concerned parent who just wants the damn form already. She informed me that it is her duty to review this fact sheet with me so I know what it is I’m objecting to and what the risks are. She held up the fact sheet which read, in part, “…if you don’t immunize … your child will be a threat to others.” Seriously? What is this? A bad remake of 1984? Am I in some Ray Bradbury novel? Did they hire Margaret Atwood to write this thing? Half of the flyer was dedicated to guilt-provoking information about how “unvaccinated people can pass diseases on to babies who are too young to be fully immunized,” and “…can infect the small percentage of children whose immunizations did not ‘take.’”
Let me stop here for a second. People don’t go through the gigantic pain in the ass of obtaining these forms, and getting flack from health care providers, calls from schools, and attitude from other parents because they’re too lazy to get their kids’ their shots. It takes a hell of a lot more effort to opt out of shots these days than it does to vaccinate on schedule. People claim religious exemptions for two reasons: 1) They adhere to a religion so vehemently that they feel they cannot, in good conscience and in accordance with their spiritual beliefs, vaccinate their kids. This is most often due to something like being opposed to abortion and knowing that some vaccines are developed using fetal stem cells or tissues. 2) They have a kid like mine.
When you have a kid like mine, vaccines are a hot-button issue. A lot of people ask me, especially pregnant people, what I think about vaccines. Should we or shouldn’t we? Do they cause autism? Are they safe? What’s the deal with mercury? I tell them all the same thing: I can’t tell you what to do. I can tell you that I know way more about vaccines than I care to. And yes, I’ll tell you what I know.
Here’s the background: When Will was a baby, we spent a lot of time finding a trustworthy, well-informed pediatrician. We asked what shots Will needed, got the doctor’s opinion, and we went with it. What is a good pediatrician for, if not in part to provide sound advice? But then, while I was pregnant with Julia, Will was diagnosed with autism, and all of my pre-conceived notions about the medical establishment seemed to vanish out the window along with whatever air was in my lungs.
The first things I read about autism seemed to indicate that there was a connection between vaccines and the diagnosis. I asked our pediatrician about it, and he basically blew me off when I voiced my concerns. And why wouldn’t he? He gives kids those shots every day, and he’s seen first-hand what happens to kids who get polio and whooping cough and measles. And he’s seen hundreds and maybe thousands of kids pass through his office, get their shots, and grow up to be completely typical, functioning members of society. What evidence does he have that vaccines do anything but protect children?
So, I needed a less biased opinion, or at least one biased in the other direction so I could weigh the data myself. I researched online, read medical journal articles, and spoke with several physicians specializing in autism. In this, the “autism community,” I found much more grey area surrounding the vaccine issue. These people were more prone to the “you can’t prove a negative correlation,” philosophy. That is, we can only prove what does exist, not what doesn’t. So, it’s possible autism and vaccines are somehow connected, but by that rationale, it’s possible there are nargles and elder wands and horcruxes too, and maybe they cause autism. So, after all my conversations and research and reading, I was exactly … nowhere.
It took a long time, a lot of reading, many long conversations with doctors and experts and therapists and parents of special-needs children, but over time, I’ve come to this, my own personal little conclusion: First, vaccines are probably safe and effective for a solid 99% of the population. But when your kid has already shown himself to be in the 1%, that single digit seems a lot more significant. So yeah, I’m concerned about babies catching things from “unvaccinated persons or persons unknown,” but I’m a parent first and foremost, and I have to put my own kids ahead of everything, including myself and the general public.
The most modern medical thinking (and the direction of most research) indicates that autism is, like so many things, at least partially genetic. Most likely, autism is a bit like cancer. Just about everyone knows someone who smoked his whole life and never got so much as a chest cold, let alone cancer. But that doesn’t mean smoking doesn’t cause lung cancer. It just means smoking doesn’t always cause lung cancer. It’s also important to note that it also doesn’t mean that only smoking causes lung cancer. There’s an environmental component and a genetic component. Autism seems to be a lot like that. (Side note: In fact, lung cancer diagnoses among “never smokers” are more prevalent than you’d think.)
So, if it’s genetic and environmental, that means a child has to be genetically predisposed to autism and be exposed to the right (or wrong, depending on how you look at it) environmental toxin(s), or combinations thereof, most likely during a specific developmental window. That is, a 10-year-old is unlikely to appear typical his whole life and then suddenly develop autism, but a 1- or 2-year old, that’s different. So, that all brings us back to vaccines.
To me, it seems particularly noteworthy that kids today receive well over twice as many vaccines between birth and age two as my generation did between birth and age five. Our kids are also constantly exposed to way more toxins than previous generations were. Our food is radiated. Our cows and other livestock are raised with growth hormones and steroids and antibiotics and all sorts of genetically engineered garbage that distributors still don’t have to note on their labels. So our meat, milk, and animal by-products are tainted in ways we can’t fathom. Never before in human history have we as a species consumed so much stuff that’s not so much food as… food-ish. Our water, air, and soil are filled with toxins that didn’t even exist 30 years ago, let alone find their ways into our food supply. So, to me, when we bring a little 7-pound person into that environment, it just doesn’t seem like a great idea to start injecting even more stuff into their little bodies right away.
So, back at the health department, the nurse was trying to list the benefits of the Hep B vaccine. I’d been listening to her whole song and dance pretty quietly, all the more quickly to get the hell out of there, but at this, I paused. I just had to say it. “Hep B is contracted through sex and drug-needle sharing. I seriously don’t think newborns do either of those things, so I just, for the life of me, cannot see the reasoning behind giving that vaccine at 48 hours after birth. Yes, I know it’s also contracted through tainted blood transfusions, but tainted pediatric blood units are estimated to be about 1 in 4,000.” The nurse proceeded to tell me Hep B has also been linked to blood contact during sports activities like football. Again, I just don’t see a newborn playing football, but maybe that’s just me being an overprotective Jewish mother. We agreed to disagree.
Ultimately, the nurse signed my forms, and I thanked her and left. But here’s the rub. My kids ARE vaccinated, and the school does have a complete list of their shots. Will’s just had so many health issues in the last two years that his pediatrician (not the one who blew me off, but a primary care pediatrician who is also an autism specialist and a phenomenal doctor who personally answers emails, even on Sunday afternoons) wanted to hold off on his boosters for a while because he just reacts so badly to most medications. And Julia, well, we went with a delayed vaccination schedule for J. We held off in her early months, letting her grow a bit, being very careful to take her to the doctor quickly if she got sick, and, yes, keeping her away from immune-compromised people and babies. And then, slowly, we vaccinated her in order of importance: things more likely to kill you go first. But because we waited, we missed the window for some illnesses only babies get. And I’m not about to give my daughter shots for something big kids don’t get (or get sick enough from to warrant a vaccine) just so some bureaucrat can feel better about the state of my forms. So I’ll always have to claim a “religious exemption” because she’ll never be “fully vaccinated” as far as the State of Florida is concerned, and there just isn’t a form for “Doing it a little differently and getting there as quickly as we safely can.” Yes, there are medical exemption forms, but getting a school to accept those is another issue entirely, and this post is long enough already.
So, ultimately, I guess I didn’t lie, except by omission, which I’ve just about given up trying not to do. In our home, we live the tenets of Autism as strictly as the most orthodox clergyman adheres to the Ten Commandments. So, when The Book of Autism says, “You are already the 1%. Don’t push your luck,” I say, “Just give me the damn form already.”