Joanna Colwell: I didn't vaccinate my child ... and then I did

It’s a little embarrassing to write this column. It would be easier to keep my head down, and keep my medical decisions private. But with all the recent news about the measles outbreak, and concerns about the high numbers of unvaccinated children in Vermont, I feel I must tell my story.

It begins long before my child was even a twinkle in my eye. Before I met my husband, even. I was working on an organic farm on the north shore of the island Kauai. The woman who owned the farm had two radiant children and a bookshelf full of everything you would ever want to know about natural childbirth and midwifery. When I wasn’t setting up drip irrigation or planting papaya trees I could usually be found reading one of these books. I’m not sure why I found them so fascinating, but I loved the photos and stories of women bearing their children without medical interventions.

Maybe it was because my own birth, in 1967, was quite the opposite of this. My mom was only 21, and had no wise older person to reassure her that she could have the natural childbirth she wanted. The doctors administered anesthesia, I was delivered with forceps, and my mom woke up three days later!

When I became pregnant at age 34 I wished for a very different kind of childbirth than the one my mom experienced. I subscribed to Mothering magazine, which advocated home birth, breastfeeding, attachment parenting, and you guessed it, no vaccines. We had an amazing, empowering home birth, and our daughter was healthy and happy.

When it came to deciding about vaccination, I can’t say I gave it a ton of thought. We had made a very different choice around birth, and it worked out well for us. We distrusted the pharmaceutical companies, and worried that injecting our baby with vaccines would be more harmful to her health than, say, contracting chicken pox.

My pediatrician sister-in-law was horrified, and sent us terrifying photos of kids with the diseases we were choosing not to vaccinate against. It did nothing to change my mind. I was just sure that I was making the right choice. My mind was made up.

Fast-forward 10 years. The state of Vermont tried to get rid of the philosophical exemption, the rule that allows parents to send their kids to school unvaccinated, if they have a nonreligious objection to immunizations. Parents who didn’t believe in vaccinating stormed the Statehouse, and the philosophical exemption was allowed to stand. I got a lot of emails urging me to join the lobbying effort, but somehow I just couldn’t muster up the enthusiasm.

A short time after this, my good friend Regan, a documentary filmmaker, posted a question on Facebook, asking her online community to weigh in on vaccines. I was really interested to read their responses, because a lot of her friends are scientists. The ensuing discussion was fascinating, and weighed heavily in favor of vaccines.

But some of the comments, from Regan’s friends who are disability rights activists, pierced my heart. “Do you realize,” one of the comments read, “that many babies and children cannot be vaccinated, no matter how much their parents wish they could be, due to different immune issues such as cancer. These children depend on herd immunity. In other words, they depend on the healthy individuals in the community receiving the vaccines, to prevent outbreaks of the diseases that can be so life threatening.”

Reading these comments, I realized that I was putting the extremely slim chance that a vaccine could harm our child ahead of the reality that someone else’s child’s life could be endangered. Suddenly I felt I had been unspeakably selfish. I spoke to my husband about it, and we made an appointment with the pediatrician the very next day.

Just as there is scientific consensus that climate change is real, there is overwhelming scientific consensus that vaccines keep the whole community healthy. You are unlikely to find scientists who do not believe in climate change, and you are unlikely to find scientists who do not vaccinate their own children. As Neil deGrasse Tyson said, “The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.”

I am an outspoken advocate for natural childbirth. I have had the incredible honor of attending six births, besides my own child’s. I’ve helped my friends navigate the challenges of breastfeeding, co-sleeping, attachment parenting and other holistic ways of mothering. And after one last appointment, my child will be all caught up on her immunizations.

Joanna Colwell is the director of Otter Creek Yoga in Middlebury’s Marble Works District. She lives in East Middlebury with her family.


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