“Parents own the children. And it is an issue of freedom.” So speaks Libertarian-leaning Kentucky Senator Rand Paul when asked about the push to make vaccinations mandatory for childhood diseases, such as measles. New Jersey governor Chris Christie offered similar sentiments earlier this week, noting that parents need to have “some measure of choice” in whether or not to vaccinate their children.
Christie and Paul certain represent a certain pervasive political mindset which asserts individual autonomy over the public good, or in this case, public health. But it must be said that deeply self-serving and uniformed opinions with regard to vaccination is a bi-partisan issue. The measles outbreak that has sparked so much public debate on the subject is indeed likely the cause of affluent, liberal communities in California refusing to trust “big pharma” and vaccinate their children. While the represent widely different perspectives, both sides base their positions on the same basis premise: no one can tell me what to do with my own body, or the bodies of my children. I have FREEDOM. Personal freedom and autonomy is, after all, one of our highest western ideals, right?
And, lest one think that the vaccination debate is a purely American issue, we are on the brink of a measles outbreak here in Toronto as well. We do well to emphasize the benefits of vaccines.
There is so much to be said on the foolishness of anti-vaccine activists, whatever end of the political spectrum they fall on. Most of it has already been said, whether to assert the scientifically-proven safety and effectiveness of vaccines, or the need for the healthy to be vaccinated in order to protect those who (for a variety of reasons) simply cannot. Don’t take my word for it — listen to the wisdom of Dr. Sydnee McElroy from one of my favourite podcasts Sawbones.
But I write this blog from a faith-based perspective. And I want to tackle this idea of stressing personal freedom above and beyond seemingly any other virtue. Especially for those of us within the Christian tradition. When we think of the ideal Christian virtues identified as part of our faith–they are not “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” They are “faith, hope, and love … and the greatest of these is love.”
It is so, so easy to fall into the trap of saying–I should be able to make any decision I want about my body and my health. We life in a “free” country, after all. And, to a certain degree, yes, that is true. We do have a right to take risks with respect to our own lives and make the decisions that seem right for our own families, no matter how ill-advised they might be. I did, after all, decide to have a home birth. I took a not insignificant amount of criticism for that choice (not least from my family doctor). But I stand by it–it was the right choice for me, even if I did ultimately end up needing to transfer to a hospital.
The question we have to ask ourselves, though, is which is actually the virtue which most reflects the ideals of the Christian life–is it personal autonomy and freedom, or is a self-giving love that looks primarily not to our own good but the good of others. I try not to get polemical or overly “preachy” in my pastoral life. But this is one of those moments where I will unequivocally state that love, not freedom, is the Christian virtue that should shape our lives. Taking Amanda to get her shots every few months, is not just about protecting her. It is about protecting the 4-month old baby or the person undergoing cancer treatments we encounter literally every day in this city who do not have the capacity to protect themselves from diseases. Diseases whose deadly potential we are so privileged to have forgotten in the western world.
Currently, the government neither here in Canada or in the States has the power to force any individuals to vaccinate their children. But I would suggest that if there is a role of personal freedom in the Christian life, it is in the exercise of our free choice to love our neighbour as ourselves, or as our children. Lets share our world with one another. Lets not share formerly eradicated diseases. Let love trump freedom.