SALT LAKE CITY — As a measles outbreak makes its way through Washington state, the children of anti-vaccination parents are taking to the internet to ask how they can get vaccinations without their parents’ permission.
The website Reddit, in particular, has seen at least half a dozen posts in the past two months from unvaccinated teenagers asking what rights they, as minors, have to go against their parents’ health care beliefs.
The fight for vaccinations
The fear that vaccines cause autism has taken a stronghold in this country. Nearly one-in-ten Americans believe that at least some vaccines are unsafe, according to the Pew Research Center, with another 7 percent of Americans unsure whether they’re healthy or not.
Health experts insist that these worries are unfounded. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in fact, has dedicated a whole section of their website to debunking the idea that vaccines cause autism.
Still, the belief has been slow to shake from the nation’s collective consciousness. The recent outbreak of measles in Washington is a direct consequence of that belief, many health experts say, which holds a particularly strong sway in that state. In some Washington school districts, a quarter of all kindergarten students are not properly vaccinated.
Recently, however, their children have been taking matters into their own hands.
Five months ago, a 15-year-old took to the Reddit community r/legaladvice, asking for advice on how to get vaccinations without parental consent.
“I have spent the last 4 years trying to convince my mother that vaccines are safe. I haven’t succeeded,” the teen wrote. “What legal consequences can I face if I fake my parent’s signature giving me consent to vaccinations?”
Others soon followed in his footsteps. Three months later, the 18-year-old son of an anti-vaxxer asked: “Now that I’m 18, where do I go to get vaccinated?” And just 15 days ago, another teenager asked: “I’m a minor who wishes to get vaccinated. What are my options?”
We were able to find more than half-a-dozen other examples of teens taking to the site looking for a way out.
Some were pointed to laws in their states allowing minors to get vaccinated without parental consent. Most states, however, don’t give children that right until the age of 18, leaving most of the teenagers with no choice but to try to talk their parents into giving them the OK.
If their parents say no, it can lead to major consequences. In another thread, the child of an anti-vaxxer shared his experience being raised without vaccines and the pain of contracting measles at the age of 22.
The vaccination of Ethan Lindenberger
Of all the stories of teenagers in search of vaccines, none have spread as far as that of 18-year-old Ethan Lindenberger.
Lindenberger’s story has been chronicled step-by-step in the media since he posted on Reddit two months ago asking how, now that he was of legal age, he could get vaccinated.
“God knows how I’m still alive,” Lindenberger wrote in the post.
His mother, Lindenberger says, refused to let him get vaccinated on the belief that they cause autism. She held on to that belief even when he showed her scientific documents refuting that belief, telling her son that those documents were just what an unspecified “they” want people to think.
“I was just blown away that, you know, the largest health organization in the entire world would be written off with a kind of conspiracy theory-like statement like that,” Lindenberger told NPR.
As the story spread, however, another angle came into play. Lindenberger’s mother voiced her own side of the story, telling Undark, “I did not immunize him because I felt it was the best way to protect him and keep him safe.”
She compared her son’s decision to a slap in the face, saying: “It was like him spitting on me, saying, ‘You don’t know anything, I don’t trust you with anything. You don’t know what you’re talking about. You did make a bad decision and I’m gonna go fix it.’”
Her son has since said he feels sorry for how he has talked about his mother and how she has been portrayed in the media as a result. In an interview with the BBC, he said: “I had to apologize for some of the stuff I said on Reddit, where I said she was irrational, crazy, dumb — because I was upset, I didn’t expect to be in the public eye and having to protect my mum. It’s not fair to her.”
Mother and son alike, however, have both refused to change their positions. Ethan Lindenberger is in the process of getting his vaccinations, while his mother has become more staunch than ever in her stance against them.
The experience, she says, has convinced her that she needs to “better educate” her children on the dangers she perceives in vaccines.
“I need to start educating my 16-year-old and my 14-year-old now,” she said, "saying this is why I don’t believe in it.”
More to the story
KSL Newsradio’s Dave & Dujanovic talked about this story on the air and, while at first, they celebrated their children’s choice, co-host Dave Noriega admitted that, if he was in these parents’ shoes, this would be hard to handle.
“It would be hard. It would be very difficult,” Noriega said, admitting that he might only have cheered these kids on because he shares their belief that vaccines do not cause autism. He compared, however, the experience to having a child tell you they want to break away from the religion. “It would be very difficult to hear them say they want to break away from something that I hold very dear. For me, it’s religion. For this mother, it’s vaccines.”
If you missed the show live, you can still catch their whole conversation on the Dave & Dujanovic podcast.