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The Anti-Vaxx Movement Makes Me Afraid of My Neighbors 

My ballot makes me see my community differently and trust my neighbors less.

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On March 3, voters in the state of Maine will face two decisions: who they want to be the democratic nominee for president and whether or not preventable diseases are actually pretty chill and fine. The nominee decision is, as you are no doubt aware, highly multiple choice. The preventable disease decision is a bit more black and white. Ballot Question 1 is worded thusly: “Do you want to reject the new law that removes religious and philosophical exemptions to requiring immunization against certain communicable diseases for students to attend schools and colleges and for employees of nursery schools and health care facilities?” 

That’s gonna be a hard no. I would like to uphold a law that already exists which prevents people from opting out of vaccines. That’s a good law.

There’s some comedy inherent in coming out as pro-science given that science still applies to non-believers (see: the life and time of proto-Christian Scientist Phineas Parkhurst Quimby, who traveled through Maine in the late 19th century preaching about mesmerism before giving up and pivoting to anti-medicine). But here I am, voting no on a bizarrely worded attempt to protect a variety of religious and philosophical exceptions to vaccine mandates that put the health of my 3-year-old daughter at risk. The problem isn’t just that this monstrosity of an initiative made the ballot on the back of donations from the Minnesota-based organic food non-profit (seriously), but how it makes me reconsider my community. 

I generally have a live and let live mentality, something I share with a lot of people in Maine, a state where white privilege extends to 95 percent of the population. The state motto is “Dirigo,” which means “I lead” and seems to apply to the 1.34 million residents all minding their own business. The anti-vaccine movement undermines that idyll.

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I’ll give a for instance. I had a beer with a chiropractor the other day. Normally, I wouldn’t think much of that, but a huge portion of “No on 1” campaign donations come from chiropractors, who — putting aside their job title’s Greek roots — practice a form of alternative medicine. I spent a not inconsiderably part of the conversation trying to figure out if the guy thought MMR immunizations cause autism. I’m still not entirely sure. And I’m not entirely sure about my friend of a friend who works as a holistic nurse. I’m suspicious.

I’m not even implying that these are bad people. It’s possible to be a lovely human being and fear mercury-based preservatives, which is why countries need laws. Without them, Anna the acupuncturist puts my daughter’s health at risk and, bad person or no, transforms into a very bad neighbor.

And then there’s Christians. For reasons I’m a bit unclear on — the Bible has little to say on the subject of vaccines because they hadn’t been invented at the time of Christ — anti-vaxxers are very often Christian. In a variety of places, men and women of faith have pointed this out (the same thing has happened in Jewish communities), but many religious-types continue to take issue with vaccinations at least in part because of generalized distrust of science. And the religious and philosophical exemptions at question codify that bizarre reasoning. Christians using their religion to try to be exempt from mandatory vaccinations in schools is little like me trying to avoid paying taxes because I like Star Trek (“Listen, Uncle Sam, knowledge is my only liquid assets”).

So now I’m second-guessing whether my daughter is safe around the followers of a religion that, at its core, reveres empathy and sharing. That’s grotesque and indicative of how crazy-making this whole thing is. The anti-vax mania has me thinking in terms of guilt-by-association and behaving like a paranoiac. When my daughter goes to daycare, she will share those spaces with people of all kinds of faiths, I’d like to not be paranoid about that.

Unfortunately, my default “live and let live” stance isn’t going to resolve the quandary posed by Question 1, which is not just about exemptions but about my neighbors, many of whom it seems to care more about indulging themselves in conspiracy narratives than they care about the wellness of children. Unfortunately, that’s not an abstraction. When herd immunity is lost, outbreaks follow and children die. You’d think that the vote taking place in the context of a global pandemic would underline those kinds of concerns, but the anti-science community cannot be reasoned with. Religious-based medical neglect proliferates. And the neglect extends to my child.

So I feel guilty for thinking the worst of homeopaths and churchgoers, but I’m not precisely sure what else there is to do. This is where we’re at and I’m frightened for my family. We share the same community spaces. The libraries, the parks, and yes, the daycares and the elementary schools.

All I can do is vote and I will. Hopefully, the referendum will go the way of the measles. But, like that virus, the question of what compromises we must demand from our neighbors will come back. It’s a critical question — a holistic question and, probably, Christian question, too. I know what I think. I used to think I knew what most people thought. Now, I’m not so sure.