Vaccine Skepticism as a Feminist Stance?

October 7, 2013 Karie Youngdahl

The Historical Medical Library of The College of Physicians of PhiladelphiaElena Conis published a recent essay in the Bulletin of the History of Medicine, entitled “A Mother’s Responsibility: Women, Medicine, and the Rise of Contemporary Vaccine Skepticism in the United States.” I had heard Conis give a talk on this same topic at a conference a few years earlier, and some her claims didn’t sit well with me.

In the BHM piece, she looks at vaccine resistance beginning in the 1970s and 1980s and traces its origins to second-wave feminism and its critical view of the medical establishment. Her argument is that at a time when women were still being asked to be guardians of their children’s health – uniquely in a position to protect and care for their children in what was still an almost Victorian model of motherhood – feminist notions of self-care and self-empowerment conflicted with medical practice around vaccination. Parents, particularly mothers, began to question received medical notions about vaccination – that benefits of disease prevention almost always outweighed the risks of vaccination. In publications as extremely back-to-nature as Mothering and as conventional as Dear Abby columns, women discussed the need for vaccination and worried about medical side effects.

I don’t agree with parts of Conis’s argument, nor do I support the underpinnings of her piece, which is to repeat her subjects’ claims of vaccine injury without looking at the medical context of them. We need to look farther back, I think, than second-wave feminism to understand contemporary anti-vaccine activism. I've written previously about how familiar some of those early 20th-century arguments sound today. Many of the leaders of the older anti-vaccine movement were women, such as Lora Little, and they and others used arguments very similar to today's anti-vaccine activists, such as Jenny McCarthy and Barbara Loe Fisher.

Barbara Loe Fisher, head of the egregiously misnamed National Vaccine Information Center, in fact emerges as the inheritor of second-wave feminism’s standard in Conis’s essay. I and many others see Fisher as a purveyor of misinformation and conspiracy theories. This excerpt below from her blog is a typical argument about the dangers of vaccines and state power:

… HPV vaccine is a vaccine the CDC is telling doctors in 2006 to give to all little girls and boys for a disease that is sexually transmitted. And what is the ultimate sexually transmitted disease now plaguing mankind? That's right: HIV. AIDS. The big one. The one that drug companies are using billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer money to develop an HIV vaccine that governments of the world will pay more money to force every citizen to use.

Every year the Vaccine Machine grows stronger while educated citizens in developed nations, who should know better, are led like ignorant sheep to slaughter, barely uttering a wimper [sic]. When the experimental AIDS vaccine is trotted out in the not to distant future and rushed to market with calls for world mandates, we will have been softened up to accept our fate without too much fuss by the masterful marketing of hepatitis B vaccination at birth and HPV vaccination in pre-adolescence.

And when we or our husbands, wives, brothers, sisters, sons or daughters get sick after being injected with just a little bit of the HIV virus, we will have been carefully taught to believe it is all just a coincidence: the vaccine had nothing to do with it. No one, including Merck and other HIV vaccine marketeers, or the government will take responsibility for what happens. We allowed ourselves to be victimized a long time ago when we let our politicians weaken the FDA's regulatory authority and take away our right to seek justice in the civil court system for vaccine injuries.

The expedited injection of HPV vaccine into everyone in the world is just a trial run for how easy it will be to expedite the injection of HIV vaccine into everyone in the world. And when we all test positive for HIV after that future forced vaccination experiment on humanity, we will have only ourselves to blame for failing to stand up now and say no to forced use of HPV vaccine.

Fisher's views verge on the bizarre, and it's hard for more level-headed people to take her seriously. Conis acknowledges that it’s difficult to politically classify Fisher and her supporters and that some maternalist ideas apply to their stance. I would argue – with no proof, really, but I’m not writing for a journal – that Fisher is much more a biological determinist than feminist when it comes to ideas about mothers and children, even though she told Conis that she was an original subscriber to Ms. magazine.

And even if we accept that Fisher’s stance and methods emerged from feminism, we still have to address mis-statements about vaccines, medicine, and health when they occur. The Mothering crowd might really, really believe that garlic cloves in the mother's vagina will protect a newborn baby from group B strep infection, but we don’t have to treat those ideas as if they were facts. Similarly, when Conis refers to findings from the British National Childhood Encephalopathy Study (as she does when mentions William Foege’s 1982 testimony to Congress), I think she also has a responsibility to say that that study’s results were later contradicted, and that many of the medical events that spurred Fisher and others to activism were actually symptoms of a genetic seizure disorder. (See Paul Offit’s discussion of this Chapter 3 of Deadly Choices: How the Anti-Vaccine Movement Threatens Us All).

Conis also cites author Ivan Illich, author of Medical Nemesis: The Expropriation of Health (1976), writing “Deaths due to diphtheria, whooping cough, and measles, he pointed out, had declined 90 percent prior to widespread immunization.” Those of us who are familiar with antivaccine arguments recognize this strategy – to mention decline in mortality without noting that morbidity was still very high does a disservice to the effectiveness of vaccination. Yes, deaths from certain infectious diseases were going down: antibiotics, the iron lung, and diphtheria antitoxin were all available prevaccine and were in large part responsible for the decline in deaths. Lots of children still got sick though -- remember that millions of American a year were infected with measles right before the introduction of the vaccine. Not to acknowledge that is not to acknowledge the deliberate rhetorical strategies used by critics to attack vaccines. It's close to employing that same strategy oneself.

I think it’s worth examining how feminism and other 1960s/70s ideologies might have led to medical activism. When those notions conflict with the historical record, or medical evidence, let’s point them out, not repeat them.


Posted by Beth (not verified)

I read Fisher's remarks and I'm sure the look on my face was one of horror. Talk about paranoid! She's living in an alternate reality.

I really enjoyed Dr. Offit's book, and I'm currently taking his Vaccine class on Coursera. Both confirm what I already knew: anti-vaxxers do not base their claims on any sort of science.

Posted by Thomas Fekete (not verified)

I agree with this commentary, but as a side observation I have to wonder if being a subscriber to Ms. magazine is even a potential marker for feminism. The first issue in 1972 sold its 300,000 copies in 8 days and the circulation went up to nearly 1/2 million (of whom 20% were said to be men). I am sure that we could find thousands of goofy ideas in a sample of people that large, and not all of them would relate to feminism.

The observation that the people who express vaccine hesitancy are mostly mothers is also hard to interpret because mothers tend to make most day-to-day health care decisions for their kids. It is hard to find a politically consistent theme in vaccine skeptics although the quote from Barbara Loe Fisher would seem to come from a libertarian/conspiracist platform. It is telling that a vaccine for a sexually transmitted infection is being critiqued since there is ample empirical evidence that almost all people (including all biological mothers) are sexually active and thus at risk for sexually transmitted infections. It is hard to remember that there was strong objection to the hepatitis B vaccine for this very reason in the early 1980s. It is even harder to remember that the original hepatitis B vaccine was produced from samples taken from hepatitis B infected humans. Imagine the conspiracy theories that could arise from reviewing that piece of history.

Finally, it is hard to let pass the notion that the government would require acceptance of routine vaccination in settings other than a critical epidemic. Even public schools which, as a matter of policy, require evidence of vaccination often permit unvaccinated students to attend for various reasons including true medication contraindications to vaccination or parental religious objections. The notion that a highly imperfect vaccine for HIV would be forced on everyone is simply laughable.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Filtered HTML

  • Allowed HTML tags: <a href hreflang> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul type> <ol start type> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd>
  • Missing filter. All text is removed
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.
CAPTCHA This is to know if you're a human commenting or a computer-generated spam comment. Image CAPTCHA
Enter the characters shown in the image.