"MY MOM IS a very stereotypical all-natural person, and she doesn't want chemicals being put into my body," says "Ester," a 16-year-old sophomore who spoke to me from a hiding place in her bedroom closet. "I used to share all those beliefs. But with things like vaccines, you have to look at the evidence--and when I looked at the evidence, I changed my mind. I want to get vaccinated."
Ester, who asked that her real name not be used, isn't alone. In recent months, dozens of teenagers have come forward online and in the media to demand the right to get vaccinated without their parents' permission. Perhaps ironically, they use the same rhetorical appeals to self-ownership as their parents, and they raise interesting challenges to a movement that claims to champion choice. As Stacy Methvin, an activist with Texans for Vaccine Choice, a group that defends people's right not to vaccinate their children, puts it: "We, as humans, have the right to choose what to do with our bodies."
But what happens when a teenager wants to make a different choice?
IN 2000, THE Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) declared a triumph: Endemic measles, which had once claimed an estimated 400-500 lives per year and was responsible for thousands more hospitalizations, had been eliminated in the United States. But the celebration was short-lived. In the time since, measles outbreaks in the U.S. have spiked. In 2018, there were 349 reported cases, and the trend seemed poised to continue into this year. Washington state officials declared a public health emergency in January 2019 as the disease began to spread near Oregon, with 74 confirmed cases as of March 22. According to the CDC, 90 percent of reported cases in the United States are linked to people who are unvaccinated or whose vaccination status is unknown.
"Anti-vaxxers" (or "vaccine choice activists," as some prefer to be called), have been around for as long as vaccines themselves. But opposition to vaccines gained momentum in the United States in the '90s, after British doctor Andrew Wakefield released a fraudulent research paper linking the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism. That paper has since been widely debunked, and Wakefield was stripped of his medical license. Nevertheless, the percentage of unvaccinated children in the United States, while still a minority of the overall population, has quadrupled since 2001.
Although hundreds of medical studies have found that vaccines are safe and effective, the anti-vaccination movement is growing worldwide. Its rhetoric often appeals to one of the most cherished human rights: self-ownership and the...