Autism and the Anti-Vaccination Movement: A Straw Man?

Speaking of the skeptical movement, and one of its favorite bugbears: a talk last week by Yvonne Villanueva-Russell, associate professor of sociology at Texas A&M-Commerce, challenged some conventional thinking on why parents don’t vaccinate their children. In short, she says: it’s not about Jenny McCarthy, and it’s hardly about autism.

Based on early findings from her interviews with 67 parents, Villanueva-Russell divides non-vaccinators into four groups, based on their motivation (and excluding those who simply can’t afford or have no access to vaccines):

Rational vaccinators: These parents believe in the efficacy of vaccines and want to fully vaccinate their children – but they want to do it on a delayed schedule. Nearly all are in the armed forces, or married to members of the military. Many have children with a medically documented vaccine reaction, as well as children with other, serious health issues. 

Nonvaccinators by default: These parents put off making a decision… which eventually turned into a de-facto decision not to vaccinate. They may be lazy, scared, uninformed, or blocked by legal or religious barriers. One mom wanted to vaccinate against whooping cough and polio but not chicken pox, but found herself blocked by an all-or-nothing mandate in her state – and went with nothing, Villanueva-Russell says. Parents in this category eventually become vaccinators, ideologues or crunchy mommas.

Ideologues: These parents have strong religious or political views. Some don’t vaccinate because they’ve heard that the shots use aborted fetal tissue; others don’t want to feel they are putting a doctor before God. They are fiercely protective of their freedoms, and most feel vaccinations are an intrusion by government. The most extreme are conspiracy theorists.

Crunchy mommas: These, the largest group, are part of a “natural” parenting culture and do everything outside the mainstream: home birthing, attachment parenting, breastfeeding into the toddler years, and so on. They don’t take their children for preventative doctors’ visits, and some of their teenage children have never seen a physician or taken Tylenol. They believe a naturally acquired immune system is superior, and key to health.

Overall, Villanueva-Russell says parents’ concerns are many: ingredients, the method of administration, efficacy, risks, necessity (or lack thereof), lack of information, physician authority, and the profit motive. None cited autism as their top concern. People who ascribe the decline in vaccination to erroneous autism research such as the infamous Wakefield studies, Villanueva-Russell says, are essentially confusing correlation with causation.

One clear message, she said, is these parents don’t want to be associated with the Jenny McCarthy stigma. They tend to say things like, “You think I’d let a Playboy Playmate make my parenting decisions?” Of course no one is seriously suggesting that is how celebrity influence works; the process is much more subtle and subconscious. But it’s notable how fiercely these parents reject association with the country’s most famous anti-vaccer.

Another clear implication, Villanueva-Russell says, is that current pro-vaccination campaigns are not effective. Many parents think they are already performing their moral duty, for example, and won’t be influenced by ads trying to play on that sense of obligation. Those whose children have previously reacted to vaccinations are now motivated by fear to avoid further vaccination, so they won’t fall for ads designed to prey on their fear of disease. Crunchy mommas don’t go to the doctor or read Parenting, so they won’t see many of the ads. Parents also resent the ads’ attempt to influence their lives, and see non-vaccination as a way of asserting control and declaring themselves immune to coercion.

But I came away wondering more about what the findings mean for Skeptics’ dissection of the anti-vaccination movement. When we talk about autism and Jenny McCarthy, are we fighting a straw man? Or is there another explanation for Villanueva-Russell’s findings – perhaps parents misrepresenting their motivations, or a non-representative sample? It would be interesting to see if a larger study into these motivations could replicate what she found in this research.

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