Not all feminists distrust science, but it’s a common enough theme that it’s become a major pet peeve of mine. I ran into another example reading a blogger I usually love, Lena Chen (who’s also one of More Magazine’s up and coming young feminists). So Lena, I apologize ahead of time for making an example out of you, but this issue is very important.

One of Lena’s readers commented that vaccination seemed a lot like circumcision in that it lacked consent, and asked for Lena’s opinion. Here’s the bulk of her post:

I’m against mandatory vaccinations, but that doesn’t mean that I’m against vaccinations. […] Invasive or not, vaccinations are something that individuals should be able to decide on themselves. Requiring them means that the government is essentially making health decisions for its citizens, without taking into account what they (or their parents) may want. (Most girls getting the vaccine are at an age when they can be informed about the benefits and risks of the procedure.) I got the HPV vaccine myself, and I’d recommend it to anyone, but I would never be able to justify mandating it, because I value personal freedom and think that choice should be left up to the patient.

And while, of course, it makes sense — in theory — to say that a modicum of personal freedom is a rather minor sacrifice for the “greater good”, it’s not like this line of reasoning hasn’t been abused in the past. Women — especially women of color and poor women — have more than just cause to be wary of a medical establishment that has historically profited from the coercion of marginalized groups. Forced sterilization of Black women threatened with the loss of welfare benefits, forced sterilization of individuals deemed “mentally defective”, electroshock aversion therapy to cure homosexuality … all of these things occurred in this country in the last fifty years. Frankly, I could give less of a damn about “public health” if it means that I get to live in a slightly more civilized society where no one is told what to do with their bodies anymore.

I commented:

Sorry, but I’m going to have to disagree. The way vaccinations work is through herd immunity. If the vast majority of people don’t get vaccinated, it puts those who can’t get vaccinated for medical reasons (newborns, the elderly, immunocompromised individuals) at even higher risk. If the government didn’t require vaccinations, they would be effectively worthless.

Thanks to vaccination fear mongering by people like Jenny McCarthy and people who make it into a personal freedom issue instead of a scientific issue, we’ve seen a sharp rise in diseases that were thought to have been eradicated. See: Whooping cough in California.

This isn’t some nebulous “for the greater good” ideology like forced sterilizations. The mechanics of herd immunity are pretty cut and dry.

Lena replied:

I think that one can definitely make a case for vaccinations being a good thing that benefits society and people’s health, which is why I don’t see a lot of folks opting out of vaccinations just because they’re no longer mandatory. I do think that a lot of anti-vaccination advocates spout arguments that sound like conspiracy theories (I’ve even seen 9/11 comparisons made), but I have to agree that there’s no reason why the government should be able to make decisions about their citizens’ bodies. This isn’t even something I would necessarily call fear-mongering, since there’s a historical precedence for this concern.

Me:

Except that people do opt out of vaccinations when they’re not mandatory. That’s precisely the reason why we’ve seen a sudden whooping cough epidemic. This is especially true when you have people like Jenny McCarthy going around lying about how vaccines are dangerous and cause autism. Not to mention that she’s well publicized by people like Oprah.

To say the government should not be able to make decisions about their citizen’s bodies is nice in theory, but ludicrous in practice. Do we want disease epidemics spreading across the country? Do we want children dying of genetic disorders that could have easily been treated if tested at birth? Do we want food and drugs we put into our bodies to become dangerous because the government shouldn’t regulate what’s safe or not?

There’s a point where historical precedence becomes antiquated distrust for science in general. We shouldn’t forget the past, but we shouldn’t be paralyzed by it either.

This could be worse. She obviously accepts that vaccine works and rejects the completely anti-science loonies. But at the same time, this is a perfect example of when ideology, specifically liberal and feminist ideology, supplants science and reason. And I say that as a liberal feminist. People have abused science in the past, but that doesn’t mean science itself is forever evil. It’s something that needs to be closely scrutinized, not ignored.

From my personal experience, I have a hypotheses as to why you see this sort of distrust in the feminist community. So many vocal feminist aren’t scientists by training, but rather come from liberal arts educations like English, Political Science, Sociology, or Woman’s studies. And when you consider most liberal arts majors probably only had to take one or two introductory science classes in college, it’s understandable why they might not fully grasp how vaccinations are effective or why not all evolutionary psychology is bunk (though some is). If I tried to give my opinion about economics based on one class I took senior year of high school, I’m sure I’d be wrong about a lot of things.

Now, plenty of scientists are feminists – we sort of have to be in a traditionally male dominated field – but there’s usually not much overlap between our studies and our feminism. That is, a political scientist can use their expertise to focus on women’s issues, but a chemist can’t really weave feminist philosophy into her next paper. Since we have less overlap, we can get busy in our geeky scientific jobs and forget to be vocal about other issues we care about. That’s why I personally try to be an outspoken scientific voice for feminism whenever I can.

And that’s why I’m going to give a damn about about public health – because it means I get to live in a civilized society, instead of dying from preventable whooping cough, measles, rubella, or polio.