The anti-vaxxer movement is at its lowest point in a decade. So, in 2016, Jonnie Roberts, a self-described ‘parent educator,’ tried to force school-age children in her non-vaccinated Knoxville neighborhood to speak with her while they awaited their vaccinations. Roberts claimed on Facebook that the teens would have the choice to hang out with her, play for a $100 donation to the Vaccines for Children program and listen to her rants about how vaccines are dangerous.
Subsequent research shows that vaccines have no effect on asthma. Still, it’s not difficult to imagine why Roberts encouraged families to oppose childhood vaccinations. Recent studies have found that the U.S. childhood vaccine schedule puts 9 to 10 million children and adolescents at risk of food allergies. In addition, the newer vaccine schedules don’t contain any of the attenuated (or weakened) polio or human papillomavirus vaccines, which could prevent the kind of meningitis that Roberts claims led to the death of a 9-year-old in the 1990s.
That’s why Roberts is in court. After the TBI’s Children’s Advocacy Center filed suit, a jury initially awarded TBI’s Children $2.5 million in damages. But a judge later reduced the award by $500,000. A group of angry parents said they wouldn’t donate the $100 to Evans School, the primary school near which the incidents occurred, and cited the jury’s ruling as the reason for not paying the money. District and county officials removed any mention of vaccines from Evans’ website, implying that vaccines are a ‘death sentence.’
The court is set to hear evidence and make a ruling, but the real victory for families in this case may not be the dollar amount on the ultimate verdict, but by reducing an anti-vaxxer’s power to exert themselves on families. Graziello, Roberts’ lawyer, told The Tennessean in April that the case is about ‘reaffirming that speech has consequences.’ Her urging of kids to attend her life-affirming anti-vaccine seminars with her crossroads free of charge appears to be a statement of these consequences.
Roberts was created as an ideal father-in-law to parents worried about childhood vaccinations. She posted her own rantings on Facebook — ‘How do you socialize your kids when you haven’t been vaccinated?’ — after her son was diagnosed with health complications that allowed the American Academy of Pediatrics to air her concerns in a later post. Then, she expressed real outrage to the ADP and the TBI’s Children.
It’s not enough for parents who worry about childhood vaccines to express their disquiet to state and local leaders. Parents must also publicly engage in a form of civil discourse in which they hear concerns from an opposing viewpoint and respect the facts on both sides.
As we get older, we try to “earn” our opinions. But only a truly dedicated agnostic tries to give her theory a rational, public airing, like a scientific exploration of its worthiness. A professional doesn’t drive around researching a topic on which she has no faith. The person who attempts to be a supportive but impartial listener also shouldn’t try to dominate the other person.
Those who are wary of vaccines must know what they’re arguing about. If Roberts tries to silence them, their message will be seen as hopelessly uneducated. Ultimately, the anti-vaxxer movement needs to prove that it deserves a place on the world stage and to get real answers about the need for vaccines.
What family-centered family, after all, would sponsor someone who claims that vaccines are dangerous?
Federic Seta is a contributing writer at The Washington Post.