Confronting Anti-Vaxxers in the Humanist Community

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Last week the American Humanist Association posted an image on Facebook detailing the various negative impacts of religious exemptions on children. For example, forty-seven of fifty states allow individuals to utilize religious exemptions from state immunization requirements. While most humanists were outraged by the extent of these exemptions and their impact on vulnerable children, several humanists disagreed with the image and with the idea of requiring parents to provide proper healthcare to their children.

Some of the popular responses supporting exemptions from vaccines and other medical procedures were of a libertarian bent:

I’m a Free man and not owned by the United States Government….and the choices I make for my child are between me and my wife.

Others conveyed a warped understanding of human rights:

It is an affront to human rights to mandate medical treatment that carries risk of serious injury or death.

This disagreement isn’t strange in theory; as AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt has noted,  “the humanist movement itself isn’t without disagreement. Indeed, being active in local humanist communities is almost a lesson in arguing one’s position because friendly debate is so common.”

But unlike humanistic arguments over the ethics of veganism and pornography, on which a humanist viewpoint hasn’t necessarily been established, opposing vaccinations while claiming to be a humanist is inherently contradictory. That’s because humanists aim to derive their knowledge of the world through scientific data, as noted in the Humanist Manifesto III, which states that “knowledge of the world is derived by observation, experimentation, and rational analysis. Humanists find that science is the best method for determining this knowledge as well as for solving problems and developing beneficial technologies.”

The scientific data on the need for all human beings to be vaccinated is very clear. As the Center for Disease Control notes,

If one person in a community gets an infectious disease, he can spread it to others who are not immune. But a person who is immune to a disease because she has been vaccinated can’t get that disease and can’t spread it to others. The more people who are vaccinated, the fewer opportunities a disease has to spread.

The data also shows that there is no link between vaccinations and autism, contrary to misinformation by anti-vaccination advocates. This 2013 study, performed by the CDC and published in the Journal of Pediatrics, is just one of many which show that vaccines have no link to autism.

It’s important to remember that two of the central tenets of humanism are empathy for our fellow human beings and the usage of scientific information to understand the world we live in. The scientific data has shown the need for vaccinations (and the need to remove religious exemptions to vaccinations) and failing to vaccinate has been shown to fundamentally threaten the health of our fellow human beings. If humanists are unwilling to recognize the scientific consensus on this issue, and are also unconcerned about the health impacts on fellow human beings as a result of not getting vaccinated, then they must recognize that they are opposed to those two very central tenets of humanism.

Of course, there is no central body determining who is and who isn’t a humanist—nor should there be. But humanists who oppose vaccines should take a moment to consider whether such behavior is humanistic, and whether the majority of their views truly accord with the values set forth by humanism.