by Ben Sharvy
luvnpeas99 [at] yahoo [dot] com
Obviously, you have the right to harm others.
Competition provides the classic case. You may open your coffee shop next to mine, and “steal” my customers without regard for how much it harms me. That’s a capitalist example, but non-economic competition has winners and losers too. You have the right to “steal” lovers, compete for status and parking spots, and generally pursue your self-interest.
Most people are a little bit libertarian, albeit inconsistently. We believe in the right to make mistakes, yet they may harm our kids and others who depend on us. Self-destructive risks like alcoholism, double-bacon-cheeseburger consumption, and free solo rock-climbing are all natural parts of a free society. Taking foolish risks also harms anyone who benefits from a social safety net (which is everyone). Nonetheless, our libertarian principles defend the right to be a fool, even in parents and even when it weakens safety nets.
Most people are a little bit socialist—albeit inconsistently—and socialist government harms people by design. Principles such as “the greatest good for the greatest number” and “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” imply a right to harm minorities.
Examples of legal freedoms that harm others abound. Having more than roughly two children in an overpopulated world and paying less tax than average are two ways people can take more from society than they give. Automobiles impose risks of lung disease and environmental damage on everyone, presumably without the consent of some.
Enter (stage left, or something): the public debate about vaccines and “anti-vaxxers.” Should children have to be vaccinated in order to attend school?
The usual argument for banning unvaccinated kids from school is that they harm others, by needlessly increasing risk. It’s like drunk driving: wrong even if it doesn’t hurt anyone. It’s playing Russian Roulette with someone else’s health.
- It’s not necessarily wrong to harm others.
- Driving is a legal privilege. Controlling your own body is a natural right.
- Needless driving violates all the same principles as needless non-vaccination.
- Most people consider education a right.
- Children are innocent.
Driving needlessly, or driving needlessly large vehicles, is no different in principle from driving drunk. Intoxication merely amplifies the risk of driving; it doesn’t originate the risk. So, the argument used against anti-vaxxers applies to unnecessary driving as well, but even more strongly, since driving is a far weaker freedom than bodily autonomy. Why don’t we punish needless driving?
The last two points, that children are innocent and have a right to education, would make it wrong to deprive children of a free education because they’re unvaccinated, even granting the point that they should be vaccinated. Government must find remedies that don’t punish the innocent.
Why do people still think rights are surrendered when they harm others? Harming differs from wronging, and the distinction is ancient. Aristotle, possibly Socrates, discuss it. It’s older than Jesus, and most people know his morals.
Why pick on anti-vaxxers (part one)?
What do the SUV epidemic and vaccine hesitancy have in common? Both needlessly risk injuring others. Anything else?
Sport utility vehicles (SUVs) and light trucks caused over 1,500 excess pedestrian fatalities in 2016, according to the Detroit Free Press. These are fatalities that wouldn’t have occurred had the pedestrians been hit by a car. A recent update found the trend is steepening due to a spike in SUV sales. In 2019, SUVs could easily kill 2,000 pedestrians who would have survived the same impact with a car.
Meanwhile, the measles has caused three deaths since 2000. That’s 0.17 deaths per year due to measles, and 2,000 pedestrian deaths due to the SUV.
You are approximately 12,000 times more likely to die because Americans just have to drive two tons of bling to the grocery store than you are because of measles.
What if no one got the measles vaccine? The next zombie apocalypse would promptly ensue, if you believe the media and anti-anti-vaxxers, but are they right? Roughly 450 people died of measles the year before the vaccine was invented, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Factoring in the population increase, measles would now kill about 800 Americans per year if no one were vaccinated.
The CDC reports that about 800 people died by falling out of bed in 2017.
If the entire country were unvaccinated, measles would be as likely to kill you as a fall from bed. Admittedly, falling out of bed isn’t harm done to another (unless you were hogging or pushed them), but it’s not a scene from Night of the Living Dead either. The excess fatalities caused by our cultural addiction to Grand Cherokees would still be more than double the fatalities caused by measles, if there were no vaccine at all.
Other pathologies of driving
The study by the Detroit Free Press only looks at pedestrian deaths. It doesn’t include excess deaths caused by collision with a smaller vehicle. Occupants of passenger cars are seven times more likely to die in a head-on crash with an SUV than with identical cars, according to a report from the University at Buffalo.
The SUV’s size causes crashes around it, by obstructing lines of sight. The sedan approaching a crosswalk alongside an SUV cannot see the pedestrian crossing in front of the SUV, and the pedestrian cannot see the sedan. Similar dynamics hold for bikes. Reducing the field of vision of other people increases the risk they pose to each other.
Air pollution kills, and the SUV epidemic is causing more of it. The damage done includes lower life expectancy, higher risk of asthma, higher risk of cancer, and a higher rate of low birth-weight babies.
Sport utility vehicles kill.
Why pick on anti-vaxxers (part two)?
Did you know anti-vaxxer belief in America is the work of Russian spies? Here’s a typical headline from the Oregonian: “Anti-vaccination misinformation fueled by Russian propagandists.” Another headline warned: “Russian trolls spreading vaccine misinformation.” The Western media is full of depictions of Vladimir Putin as trying to “win a second Cold War” with disinformation on social media.
If you want to blame government (and who doesn’t?), you don’t have to cross an ocean. Many states and the federal government actively promote fringe medicine. What’s true of anti- vaxxer belief is equally true of naturopathy, and many states license naturopathic doctors.
Consider, for example, Portland physician Dr. Hillary Andrews, N.D. She is licensed by the State Board of Naturopathic Medicine. The Board is authorized by the legislature and its members are appointed by the Governor. She can practice as a primary care physician in Oregon.
Dr. Andrews takes a “reasonable people can disagree” approach to vaccines. She promises vaccine-free prevention of the flu, whooping cough and tetanus. She claims that the standard approach to vaccines “is archaic and may be unsafe”. She links autism and vaccines, offering a test for genes that “may be linked to autism and other potential negative effects of immunization.” (Note, since this essay was begun last winter, Dr. Andrews has announced a sabbatical and suspended her two Web sites.)
Dr. Andrews is a mainstream naturopathic physician. The Oregon Association of Naturopathic Physicians (OANP) features her on its Web site. Skepticism of medical science is a standard part of naturopathy, as established by the Oregon legislature and governor.
The American Association of Naturopathic Physicians (AANP) takes the same, ambivalent stance on vaccines. Its official position statement says: “some of the current and past immunizing agents have been associated with significant morbidity and are of variable efficacy and varying necessity.” Translation: Some vaccines may cause disease or be useless.
Notice that the OANP and AANP deploy the terms “Oregon” and “American,” not “Russian.”
Multiple peer-reviewed studies report vaccine-hesitancy among naturopathic doctors. One investigation found that children treated at the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine had lower rates of vaccination than average. Research on American practitioners reaches similar conclusions: “Most practitioners reported that they did not actively recommend immunizations and fewer than half of the nonphysician practitioners reported that they would refer a 2-week-old neonate with a fever to a medical doctor or emergency medical facility.”
A peer-reviewed study of naturopathic medical students found: “anti-vaccination attitudes were more prevalent in the later years of the programs.”
Skepticism of vaccines sits squarely within the spirit and praxis of naturopathic medicine. Simultaneous antipathy toward anti-vaxxers and support of naturopaths is utterly contradictory. The government’s simultaneous attacks on anti-vaxxers and licensing of naturopathic doctors is discriminatory.
What’s true of Oregon is true of most of states and Canadian provinces. New York, which has had outbreaks resulting in over 300 cases of measles in 2019, is considering approving naturopaths to practice as physicians.
Attack the mothership, not the drones
Naturopathy is the mothership of pseudo-science. Few controlled, unbiased clinical trials support any of its claims, particularly the claims that differ from conventional medicine. For example, one major naturopathic college recommends treating HIV-positive patients with St. John’s wort and garlic.
The pseudoscience has yet to be invented that doesn’t rely on dishonesty and hoaky claims about “energy”. Sure enough, the government tells us: Naturopathic doctors are educated in conventional medical sciences, attend medical schools with admission requirements like those of conventional medical schools, and learn the standard medical curriculum. And, sure enough, our tax dollars also tell us that naturopathy “works on a subtle yet powerful electromagnetic level.” That’s a direct quote from the State Oregon.
In fact, a license to practice naturopathy requires no medical residency, and is acquired in roughly half the time of a medical license. The state of Oregon’s website misleads the public. (Everything you’ve ever experienced, except gravity, works on a “powerful electromagnetic level.”)
Former naturopathic doctor Britt Hermes regularly debunks her former profession on her site naturopathicdiaries.com. Her clinic classes at an accredited naturopathic university entailed almost no direct patient contact. Hermes says of the training in general: “naturopathic clinical training is not on par with medical or osteopathic doctors and is in fact far less, in terms of quantity and quality — and also less than nurse practitioners and physician’s assistants.”
Hermes goes on to say “naturopathic education exists in a bubble without critical oversight.” The professional associations have no transparency or accountability, and routinely misrepresent the rigor of the discipline. In words all state legislatures should heed, she says: “the AANP disseminates false information to lawmakers.”
Naturopath Jeremy Appleton represents the science of his discipline, whatever that may be. Appleton earned his doctorate from the National College of Natural Medicine and taught at Bastyr University, both top-ranked naturopathic institutions. He has held a number of scientific positions, and is currently the “Vice President of Scientific and Regulatory Affairs” for a supplement manufacturer. He is licensed to practice medicine. So, what does government-approved, naturopathic science look like? Dr. Appleton reports that:
- Pomegranates have “great power to heal and prevent disease” including cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. (Source: his book on the pomegranate which he’ll sell you for $22.95)
- The acai berry has “great promise in helping to….prevent cancer” (Source: his book on the acai berry, which he’ll sell you for $22.95)
- Creatine helps treat chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, asthma, emphysema, stress, high cholesterol, heart attacks, muscular dystrophy, and neuromuscular disorders. (Source: his book on creatine, which he’ll sell you for $22.95)
- A supplement called MSM can be used to treat arthritis, chronic pain, stress injuries, inflammation, scleroderma, lupus, interstitial cystitis, fibromyalgia, myasthenia gravis, allergies, cancer, and snoring. (Source: his book on MSM, which he’ll sell you for $60. His co-author was accused of bribing an FDA investigator, although the jury deadlocked, and disciplined by the State of Oregon for writing prescriptions without keeping records.)
Articles by Dr. Appleton report that “Vegetable Extract Prevents Cervical Cancer” and many other herbs and supplements prevent cancer or have “anti-cancer effects.” A random sampling of his many articles finds none that refute a naturopathic hypothesis, making the enterprise reminiscent of astrology. The scientific method requires falsifiability: the ability to make you change your mind. If there is no scientific method, there can be no standard of care, and the predictions of naturopathy are just horoscopes.
What’s the damage done? Cancer patients who forego conventional treatment and exclusively choose alternative medicine are 2.5 times more likely to die. Women with breast cancer fare the worst — with a 5.7 times higher death rate among those who choose only alternative therapies. Multiple studies agree, including a 2017 report from the National Cancer Institute: Alternative medicine kills.
Do naturopaths, like Russian troll-bots, harm others with their misinformation? Maybe that’s unfair, at least when the patients are adults and responsible for themselves. On the other hand, cancer patients are emotionally vulnerable, which sets them up for exploitation. Who’s responsible for harm to the children of the “excess deaths” due to naturopathy? What if the cancer patient is a child, subjected to parental anti-scientific views? Anti-scientific views advanced by government-licensed physicians.
Does the government contribute to the damage done with the false reassurance of its licensing? Are we supposed to believe that relying on a “subtle yet powerful electromagnetic level” is less valid for measles than other conditions treated by naturopathic physicians?
Democracy is a popularity contest, and pseudo-science tells us what we want to believe. If scientific truths were easy, we wouldn’t have to discover them–we could just dream them up. So, the Deep South promotes Intelligent Design and denies global warming. Unfortunately, what’s true of the South and Creationism is equally true of the Pacific Northwest and naturopathic medicine.
The measles outbreaks have nothing to do with Facebook or the Kremlin, and a lot to do with state government. If we really want evidence-based healthcare, the government needs to stop licensing quacks.
Privacy in a shared world
The case for anti-vaxxer belief is not the same as the case for their children’s right to an education. Anti-vaxxer belief may be mostly pseudo-science, but so what? The freedom to live your life according to your own belief, including mistaken belief, is a natural right. Some points favoring the right of unvaccinated children to a free education:
- There is a right to control your own body.
- There is a right to medical privacy.
- Education is a right (some libertarians disagree).
- Rights cannot be taken from innocent people, and children are innocent.
- Rights cannot be taken because they harm society. Freedoms that can be taken away for the good of society are called “privileges.”
- The government licenses naturopaths to practice medicine, and naturopathy supports anti-vaxxer belief.
- Vaccines can cause harm, which is why many nations have a vaccine-injury compensation program. The harm is probabilisitic, and the probability doubtless much smaller than anti-vaxxers think. Nonetheless, its existence makes vaccines a matter of personal judgement about one’s own body.
It’s the glaring hypocrisy that makes the antipathy toward anti-vaxxers prejudiced. Every ethical principle claimed to refute anti-vaxxers would, if true, be more applicable in refuting SUV drivers. In addition to ignoring the SUV epidemic and licensing naturopathy, here are other examples of hypocrisy in the criticism of anti-vaxxers.
There’s a consensus among non-communists that a right isn’t forfeit when deemed contrary to the social good. For example, China used to have a “one family, one child” policy that made it illegal to have more than one child. Mandating vaccines has many similarities to regulating reproduction in an over-populated country. Both entail bodily autonomy, and clear social good in overriding that autonomy. Yet, most people regarded China’s policy as fascist.
Exxon-Mobile and other major oil companies funded a lot of research on global warming, All of it exonerated the oil companies. How rare! The tobacco industry produced scientific research proving tobacco isn’t addictive or carcinogenic. More rareness! The moral of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” is not that there are no wolves. Quite the contrary, it is that a certain little boy deserved to be eaten. Life was harsh back in the day. Now, the vaccine manufacturers have funded research proving vaccines are perfectly safe. The research may be truthful, but perhaps it still deserves to be devoured by the wolf of cynicism. Could we settle on nibbled?
The explanation for double-standards like these is always power. Anti-vaxxers have neither the numbers to swing an election nor the money to buy one. The automotive industry and its customers have both. The alternative medicine market is approaching $200 billion globally, a nice tax base to a politician.
Those who want less contagion in schools can advance their goal by ending the licensing of naturopathy, homeopathy, and pseudo-medicine generally. They can also support free and appropriate education at home, such as with a home tutor or online education. It is more justifiable to block kids from physical school when online schools can meet their needs equally well (currently, they tend to be bad). More and better at-home options would also serve students most vulnerable to contagious disease.
We are confronted with one of the great unsolved mysteries of philosophy. Is the vaccination status of someone in a public place more like: a health condition generally (nobody’s business), or whether a partner is wearing a condom (definitely somebody’s business)? An explanation of the private-public duality of being human is essential to our construction of a complete moral philosophy.
A chart of some choices that pit the individual vs. society, and their characteristics.
Ben Sharvy is a K-12 teacher in Portland, OR