Two Anti-Vax Straw Men

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Two of the arguments that pro-vax proponents make against anti-vax proponents are quite weak. I dislike when a position I support makes weak arguments so here they are parsed…

1. Anti-vaxxer’s fear of autism is evidence that they prioritise their risks wrongly. They believe the potential loss in some social skills or empathy is far worse that the risk of illness and death from measles.

This is a straw man because that is not at all how the anti-vaxxers assess the situation. They believe the trade-offs are between:

  • a mild curable childhood disease and
  • lifelong severe autism require constant care.

In fairness, many people alive today have had the experience of getting measles as kids and though it is not a nice experience, it was not life threatening… to them. It is hard for many people to take the threat seriously or take on board the idea that measles could actually kill kids in the first world.

Of course there are also those who accept that the MMR vaccine doesn’t cause autism but still fear that the risk of death due to side effects from the vaccine is higher than the risk of death due to measles. It is easy to refute this statistically for those willing to listen (deaths due to measles, even in the years shortly before introduction of the vaccine, was far high than the recorded number of deaths due to adverse reactions).


2. People who are fearful of their children getting autism are haters of autistic kids and autistic identities.

This is an interesting statement which pops up with many disabilities. It confuses the idea of “I don’t want my child to develop autism” with “I wish my child did not have autism.”

It might be easier to understand this if we stop talking about autism for a moment and talk about being gay. A person who is not holomorphic may still not want their child to be gay because they fear societal repercussions. But once that child turns out to be gay, they become fully supportive and embrace their child’s identity as a gay person.

This is distinctly different than wanting to “cure” them. To want their gay child to be straight would essentially be asking for another child. It would be cruel and unloving.

And so it is with autism.

Jim Sinclair, a prominent autism activist, said, “When parents say ‘I wish my child did not have autism,’ what they’re really saying is ‘I wish the child I have did not exist and I had a different, non-autistic child instead.'”

Or as Andrew Solomon put it, “This is what we hear when you pray for a cure — that your fondest wish for us is that someday we will cease to be and strangers you can love will move in behind our faces.”

But people saying that they want to avoid autism are not saying they would not love their autistic child or that identifying as an autistic person cannot be meaningful and allow for a full life. They are just being parents. Parents want their children’s lives to be as easy as possible. They would also like their children to be liked, popular, healthy, strong, good at school & happy.

So it is wrong to assume that the discourse on “reducing risk of autism” is a condemnation of autistic lives. And this can be applied to all distinct identities which arise from difference of ability, gender, sexuality, and physique.

The world is obviously much richer for the existence of people not conforming to the mould of a perfect child. And those parents who have such a child may discover that what they feared is in fact a gift.

It is certainly true that some of those who say, “I don’t want my child to be gay” may be homophobic or “I don’t want my child to be autistic” may be autism-phobic. But the statement itself is not enough to come to that conclusion.

Until parents can be sure that their gay or autistic children will have the same opportunities for happiness in the world as other kids, the fears they express should not automatically be interpreted as hatred.