Middle class mothers and MMR


Those who have ventured onto any mothers’ forums will know that the two topics most likely to end in tears, tend to be those surrounding maternal choices, such as breast versus bottle, methods of childbirth and whether or not to vaccinate.

It’s hardly surprising as these are all choices that every parent has to face at some point or another, we are emotionally invested in our side of the debate, we’ve given the matter considerable thought and are convinced that our choices are the right ones, that have been taken in the best interests of our child. Part of the nature of the human condition is that we all too often seek validation in the opinions and actions of other people and are therefore unable to cope when disagreement rears its head. A decision that runs contrary to our own, implicitly undermines our own judgement – what could be more emotive than the question of whether or not we have done the right thing by our children?

Before I go any further, I’ll set my stall out, in order  to invite condemnation/approbation on myself as necessary. All of my children have been vaccinated according to the NHS schedule of immunisations.

The issue of whether or not to vaccinate one’s children, is related to that of the pro-life cause. Rubella in pregnant women can cause miscarriage, stillbirth as well as the following birth defects – hearing loss, brain damage, cataracts and heart problems. Measles can prove equally dangerous. Mumps can cause a higher risk of miscarriage. Furthermore the MMR II Vaccine used in the UK was derived and developed from foetal tissue. Whilst the vaccine itself does not contain foetal tissue, we are not unwittingly injecting children with cells from aborted babies, the cell lines used to create the vaccines were derived from two aborted babies. This is, therefore morally problematic. This does not mean that Catholics should not have their children vaccinated, the Pontifical Academy for Life issued a statement to the effect that innocent children must not be put at risk, particularly in the case of a disease such as rubella, and thus vaccines can be used if there is no available alternative, however parents have a moral responsibility to use these where possible and also to continue to put pressure on the pharmaceutical industry. Here is a link to a website containing a list of which vaccines are derived from aborted foetal tissue and alternatives, most of which are not available in the UK. Sadly I was only made aware of the ethical difficulties involved in the manufacture of the vaccine, a few months ago, the day after my third child had received her MMR shot.

Cristina Odone wrote a particularly irksome piece yesterday, which discussed the current measles outbreak in Swansea, Wales and laid the blame squarely at the door of the middle-classes who, Odone argues, believe that their offspring are more precious and special than everyone else’s and so don’t vaccinate. The article displayed, to my mind, some unacceptable class prejudice, lampooning middle-class consumer choices as springing from a sense that they are somehow special and stating that the middle-classes secretly loved the MMR/autism scare as it validated their sense that their offspring are better than everyone else’s.

The article particularly stung for a number of reasons, not only did I recognise some of my preferred consumer choices listed, but also I was one of the parents who agonised over the decision over whether or not to vaccinate. Actually I think Cristina was entirely misguided, the reason that if I could afford to, I would shop at John Lewis, or buy the childrens’ clothes from Boden or Joules, is not because I think their products are particularly special or luxurious, they don’t pander to narcissism, but put simply, those brands tend to be understated, not especially flashy (although in the case of children’s clothes, distinctive) but mainly because they are of good quality and so last. One knows that John Lewis’ customer service is of a consistently high standard, they stand by their guarantees and treat customers well; likewise with the children’s clothes retailers, products tend to have a much longer shelf-life than their cheaper alternatives. So in the case of the children, a piece of clothing bought 9 years ago, is still in pristine condition on its 4th baby. Nothing to do with whether or not I feel my children to be special, it’s more a question of economy.

There were other unfair generalisations (both to middle and working classes) such as stating that the middle class tend to prevent their children from taking risks, and they were more likely to read or talk to their children and nurture them intellectually or feed them the requisite 5 a day portions of fruit and veg. Whilst its true that income can sometimes be a barrier to eating healthily, it doesn’t automatically follow that those on low incomes do not give their children a good diet or neglect to read or talk to them. Having money is no indicator of ability to be a good parent, this is an attitude that should be challenged.

Most parents, regardless of social class, believe their children to be special and wish to protect them from harm. All of us were alarmed by the MMR scare, which received widespread national publicity. Whilst every activity in life carries innate risks, in the case of immunisations, one is having to actively undertake a risk balancing exercise – taking one’s child to be injected requires one to be pro-active, in the sense of having to make the appointment and undertake the journey to the doctors. I suggest that this is one of the reasons behind the decline in the vaccine uptake, particularly in Swansea which isn’t noted for being an affluent middle-class area. Parents need to be wholly convinced that this is the right decision for their child, the newborn baby jabs are scheduled between the ages of 8 and 16 weeks, when one is in the post-natal baby haze, checking the baby every 2 minutes and it’s easy enough for the health visitor or midwife to jolly one off to the clinic, especially when the diseases vaccinated against are as serious as meningitis. It’s every parent’s instinct to want to protect their child from harm and thus most people don’t need much persuasion when it comes to vaccinating their fragile little newborn.

By the time the child has reached 13 months, the age at which MMR is administered, equilibrium has been recovered. People need active encouragement that there is an imperative to vaccinate. For people of my generation, who remember having mumps and German Measles as children, these diseases seem of little consequence, despite the fact we are told, that they have now mutated into something much nastier. The success of the MMR vaccine hinges solely on the fear of measles, which can have devastating effects, especially if one’s immune system is already compromised in some way. My sister had measles as a child and almost died by all accounts. For most parents it’s the risk of measles, versus the risk of the MMR and so passivity or procrastination often seems the best option.

With the withdrawal of the patents for the single vaccines, parents now have very little option, it’s either all or nothing. Whilst the arguments against the single vaccines are valid, i.e. it requires mutliple appointments which most parents don’t attend and there is the risk that a child could catch one of the diseases between vaccinations, to my mind, the government’s decision to remove this choice seems authoritarian and spiteful. No-one is demanding that the NHS gives single jabs, but there was no need to remove the option for private patients. For those who might argue about the difficulties of multiple appointments, I would argue that anyone who is concerned enough to seek out the option of single jabs, will not be taking a slapdash attitude towards their child’s health. Single jabs might well have reduced the severity of the outbreak – we’ll never know.

Andrew Wakefield has been thoroughly humiliated and discredited, but that does not mean that parents who decide against MMR should be vilified as selfish or ignorant. There are still legitimate concerns about MMR, in that many parents have horrifying testimony of the immediate effects of the vaccination upon their child, such as temporary paralysis. From my perspective, all of my children have been absolutely fine in the long-term, but they have all been extremely fractious and ill-tempered in the aftermath. But then again, when the MMR is administered, it’s not on its own. They get the MMR in one thigh and the Hib,  Pneumococcal (PCV), and Meningitis C in the other. So that’s 6 doses of vaccine all in one dose. No-one is suggesting that it’s not safe, however all vaccination is counter-intuitive and it seems a heck of a lot to inject into a little 12 or 13 month old child, who may not even be walking. When my eldest had her MMR booster, aged 5, she described how it stung and burned as it went into her. Apparently that’s a common sensation. So it’s pretty tough on parents who have to watch their child receiving a painful injection, hoping that its going to protect them from a much worse evil, and yet knowing that many people believe this to be harmful. Most of us pray that it’s going to be alright and not cause them any ill-effects in the short term, though it’s hard when your child is spiking a temperature as a direct result of their immunisations.

As Catholics, we are not statists, we don’t believe that the government or state can dictate the precise healthcare or education of our chidden. The story of my eldest’s vaccinations is a cautionary tale. Shortly before they were due to be administered I read about the thiomersal scare, in one of the newspapers. Thiomersal being the mercury based preservative, which was being linked to nerve damage and autism. (This has since been discounted in a study). I therefore specifically requested that my child received Thiomersal free injections. The Health Visitor agreed and made note, informing that since I had requested this, then my daughter would receive the vaccines. What would have happened had I not requested, I asked. “She would have received the version with the thiomersal in”, said the Health Visitor. “This is being phased out, we are switching to the new Thiomersal free vaccine, but we need to use up our stocks, so we are only giving out the new version to those who specifically ask”.  Furthermore, when my eldest was vaccinated as a baby, she was given a 3-in-1 injection. This has now been ramped up to a 5-in-1, together with a separate dose of PCV. As I said, it seems like a lot of pathogens to be loading onto a delicate 8 week old immune system, especially when babies can vary so much in terms of size and weight.

Understandably, the authorities charged with public health take a utilitarian attitude towards the population. Most children will be alright as a result of their vaccinations and they stress that we have a civic duty to protect the weakest. That’s all very well and good, but what when it’s your child who is the one affected, as people claim they have been?

We shouldn’t rush to pillory those who don’t vaccinate their children, or try to label them (I’m guilty of this, I live in Green Brighton which has a very low uptake) because though passivity is often the easiest course of action when faced with a dilemma (it’s easier to do nothing), I know of many highly intelligent, well educated and medically literate folk who have not vaccinated. It is impossible to make a fully informed choice because as @battlementclare, a qualified midwife notes, “there have been no rigorous long term studies into the effects of hyper stimulating the immature neonatal immune system with multiple foreign antigens & adjuvants known to be neurotoxic. I have to wonder whether, in protecting children against some diseases, we are increasing their likelihood of developing auto immune disorders later.” This is all true, the decision to vaccinate centres around a balancing of risks, with the additional factor that there are ethical problems inherent for Catholics in using vaccines derived from aborted foetal cell lines.

One can’t actually do right for doing wrong on this issue, my feeling has been to vaccinate, not least due to living in areas which have experienced measles outbreaks, but every time it has been with a heavy heart. After all no-one, regardless of their social class, (I suspect many of Cristina’s middle class stereotypes would probably fall into the new ‘precariat ‘ in any event) wants to inject their child with something that they have heard on the news or read in the newspapers, or anecdotally from a friend, could do their child harm. This is what Andrew Wakefield tapped into quite so successfully.

But on another note, Cristina’s article, irritating as it was, carries lessons for those of us fighting to get our point of view acknowledged and acted upon, in areas such as pro-life or the defence of marriage. It initially made me very angry as I perceived myself to be the object of undisguised scorn and contempt, identifying a little with some of her use of consumer brands, and having once being described as “all white teeth and Boden”. I guess I experienced some of what same sex couples feel when they read various pieces of unkind polemic, such as that written by notorious journalists or unkind bloggers, attacking people and their motivations, by virtue of their lifestyle. It’s a reminder to us all to play the ball, not the man, if we’re talking about why marriage shouldn’t need to change, there is no need to launch into a personal attack upon people of goodwill.

The same applies with abortion. Whilst we should always condemn the act, we need to understand and engage with the reasons behind abortion, as well as exercise understanding and compassion to those women who have aborted, instead of casting scorn, doubt and shame upon their motivations or lifestyle, particularly if we wish them to engage and have a conversion of heart. Just like Cristina’s piece on MMR, instead of considering the very good reasons that exist when it comes to vaccination, I was left feeling defensive for having worried about it, angry and not inclined to think well of Odone. It was highly counter-productive.

Ultimately every single parent is well aware of their child’s flaws or shortcomings, but we still love them fiercely and protectively no matter what and want to keep them safe from harm, whether we are members of the royal family, or on the very margins of society. Every parent is entitled to think their child is special, it’s called love and is what keeps the world turning. I’m sure there’s a metaphor about God in there somewhere.

All white teeth, Boden and middle class, but not a piece of rocket in sight... "The Vicar's Wife give her kids fruit shoots"!
All white teeth, Boden and ‘middle class’, but not a piece of rocket in sight…
“The Vicar’s Wife gives her kids fruit shoots”!

Theology and evolution

Cristina Odone had an interesting conversation with Richard Dawkins in last week’s Guardian.

There’s quite a lot to pick out, Cristina seems to be on a mission to please Richard Dawkins, no mean feat and whilst I would agree that an aggressive approach is counter-productive when engaging in dialogue with non-Christians, I think we all need to learn that affability should not supersede doctrine. In Cristina’s attempt to appear reasonable and open-minded she overlooked a few key points.

Whilst alluding to the creation myths, Odone states that our children are now being taught about religion in a metaphorical way. Actually this way of thinking is not particularly new, in the forth century, St Augustine of Hippo, one of the great doctors of the Church, held that Genesis must be read allegorically or figuratively and was not a literal account. He even wrote a book, The Literal Interpretation of Genesis, in which he expounded the theory that the six days laid out in Genesis was a logical framework, not a specific passage of time. According Augustine we should remain open-minded about the creation story and prepared to change our interpretation as new information became available. One can surmise that Augustine probably would not have had much time for the literal creationists who seem to be prominent in American politics.

“It not infrequently happens that something about the earth, about the sky, about other elements of this world, about the motion and rotation or even the magnitude and distances of the stars, about definite eclipses of the sun and moon, about the passage of years and seasons, about the nature of animals, of fruits, of stones, and of other such things, may be known with the greatest certainty by reasoning or by experience, even by one who is not a Christian. It is too disgraceful and ruinous, though, and greatly to be avoided, that he [the non-Christian] should hear a Christian speaking so idiotically on these matters, and as if in accord with Christian writings, that he might say that he could scarcely keep from laughing when he saw how totally in error they are. In view of this and in keeping it in mind constantly while dealing with the book of Genesis, I have, insofar as I was able, explained in detail and set forth for consideration the meanings of obscure passages, taking care not to affirm rashly some one meaning to the prejudice of another and perhaps better explanation.”

Writing to the Pontifical Academy in 1981, the Blessed Pope John Paul II wrote the following:

“Cosmogony and cosmology have always aroused great interest among peoples and religions. The Bible itself speaks to us of the origin of the universe and its make-up, not in order to provide us with a scientific treatise, but in order to state the correct relationships of man with God and with the universe. Sacred Scripture wishes simply to declare that the world was created by God, and in order to teach this truth it expresses itself in the terms of the cosmology in use at the time of the writer. The Sacred Book likewise wishes to tell men that the world was not created as the seat of the gods, as was taught by other cosmogonies and cosmologies, but was rather created for the service of man and the glory of God. Any other teaching about the origin and make-up of the universe is alien to the intentions of the Bible, which does not wish to teach how heaven was made but how one goes to heaven.

So whilst Odone is correct in terms of creation being taught metaphorically, this certainly isn’t a new or modern development, and one might hope that in a Catholic or Church of England school, religion is not taught metaphorically per se. Jesus is a verified historical figure and not a literary metaphor.

Dawkins remains unconvinced, stating that one has to decide which bits of the bible are metaphorical and that he would like to consult further with a catholic theologian. He has been invited to debate with Dr William Lane Craig on several occasions, most recently at the “Is God a Delusion” lecture at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford on 25 October, but has so far refused the invitation. I am sure that there are plenty of Catholic theologians with both a small and a capital C who would be only too pleased to answer his questions nonetheless, so do feel free to invite them to contact Professor Dawkins.

The aspect of the conversation that concerned me the most was Odone’s pronouncement on birth control.

Look at birth control. The pope has said there are no ifs or buts, this is doctrine – we must never use birth control. But how many Catholics do you think go to confession and say, “I’m sorry, I’ve used birth control”? Well here we are, and this is part of the evolution of theology.

Though I sometimes find myself agreeing with Cristina, I found this remark incredibly disappointing. On a technical note, whilst attempting to engage with Dawkins and use his terminology, she applies the concept of evolution to theology. Actually evolution is an erroneous term when discussing theology, as evolution implies that a doctrine becomes obsolete or defunct and is replaced by something superior. A more accurate way of conceptualising how theology may change, would be to think about organic growth, not replacement. One of the things that attracted me back to the Catholic Church is the fact that doctrine is always intellectually coherent and logical – never contradictory. Doctrine is not policy and subject to changes on the whim of public opinion. Doctrine is never replaced with something completely contrary, rather it grows organically as our scientific understanding increases. Changes are always consistent with what has gone before.

Odone implies that Catholics are using birth control and not confessing it, therefore the theology has changed or evolved. I’m not quite sure that I understand her thinking. Disobedience is not the same as organic growth is it? Either fewer instances of that sin are occurring, or as Odone suggests, more people are considering that it is no longer a sin to use birth control. Sorry Cristina, but it is. Doctrine doesn’t change along with public opinion. One cannot assume Cristina is correct, and I would doubt that she is, after all how does she know, has she conducted a study of penitents or is she judging by social chatter? She has absolutely no way of gauging what people are saying in the confessional unless she has somehow managed to persuade confessors to break the seal for her back of an envelope calculations, so this is pure speculation. Supposing her assumptions are correct then this does not mean that the doctrine is misguided, simply that people need a reminder. Fewer people may be confessing all sorts of different things, I might not think that coveting my friend’s gorgeous new Mulberry handbag constitutes a sin, after all it is beautifully soft leather, highly on trend and just well, gorgeous, it’s perfectly natural that I would want one too, but it’s still every bit as unhelpful spiritually, no matter how normal or understandable.

Comments like this are incredibly unhelpful to normal Catholic women like myself. Although the physical practicalities of Catholic family planning take a little getting to grips with, the teaching itself is wonderful. We need to hear more women advocating NFP, shouting out the benefits, of which there are many, talking about how chastity (behaving in a sexually appropriate manner towards another, not to be confused with celibacy) within a marriage is a great thing. We need women to be honest about NFP, to extol its virtues, not buy into the whole contraceptive mentality which is fundamentally misogynist in nature. When Cristina Odone and her ilk makes comments such as this, it sells out ordinary catholic women trying to live lives of faith and witness. When I was having difficulty with getting to grips with it last year, so many people attempted to claim that catholics don’t really use it, are not expected to use it and its only extreme fundamentalists who attempt to observe church teaching. The reality is different; all the catholic women I know could not be described as fundamentalists or even traditional catholics and they find far from detracting, NFP enhances and improves communication and intimacy within a marriage.

As a high profile and influential Catholic, Cristina Odone risks reinforcing existing error as well as leading people into sin. Sometimes I wish we could have more authentic female catholic voices in the media and not just the privileged catholic aristocracy. As a mother juggling three young children with a full-time degree and recovering from 2 cesarians in as many years, we are not able to consider adding to our family at this time and yet I am able to manage perfectly well with NFP. Furthermore I am not ruling out adding to my family in a few years time, despite the fact that our household income is under half what Cristina spends on school fees. It’s called being open to life.

This could have been a great opportunity for apologetics, but in an attempt to placate the implacable, she ended up reinforcing the same old negative perceptions. I’m sorry she finds the teaching on birth control unacceptable. Perhaps, like Dawkins she needs to consult with a catholic theologian, as well as a passionate advocate of NFP. Can someone give her my number?