In 2008, actress Jenny McCarthy created a media frenzy when she rejected the use of vaccines for children, citing what she believed to be a link between vaccines and her son’s autism. She asserted that providing a healthy diet and safe, clean environment for her son would protect his health as well as any vaccine. Apparently, a lot of middle- and upper-class parents agree.
The majority of parents who seek and obtain vaccine exemptions for their children in the U.S. are White and middle- and upper-class. Writing in Gender & Society, Jennifer Reich describes vaccine-refusing mothers as displaying “neoliberal mothering.” They assert their individual choice to manage their children independently of the influence of medical institutions and government. For these mothers, good parenting rests on the ability to intervene between children and external institutions.
Reich thus suggests that vaccine refusal is an elite process in which mothers embrace and replicate privilege in order to advocate for their children against state public health standards.
She interviewed 25 mothers who obtained vaccine exemptions for their children. The majority of the women were married, heterosexual, White, and middle- to upper-class. The interviews uncovered the three factors that contributed to the mother’s decisions: the perception of vaccine risk and necessity, feeding as health promotion, and the management of risk from imagined gated communities. These women demonstrate neoliberal mothering by investing primarily in their own children’s health, whose non-immunity comes at the expense of other children, who are exposed to more pathogens when fewer children are vaccinated. Ultimately, neoliberal mothers exercise their own agency regarding their child’s health, while poor mothers experience constraints because they lack similar resources.