01/23/2015 11:39 am ET Updated Mar 25, 2015

Deniers of Science: The Anti-Vaccination and Anti-Abortion Movements

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In December 2014, the "Happiest Place on Earth" was linked to preventable sadness. One non-immunized visitor to Disneyland or Disney California Adventure Park infected at least 26 others with measles; the epidemic spread to Washington, Utah, and Colorado. The common risk factor for those infected was lack of immunization. Measles is highly contagious, and complications in children include ear infection, pneumonia, encephalitis, and death. A disease declared eradicated in the U.S. in 2000 has now returned. Why? Science denial, celebrity endorsements, and apathy.

The anti-vaccination movement

Before 1963, when the measles vaccine was first licensed, an estimated 3-4 million cases and 500 deaths occurred annually in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In the first 11 months of 2014, 610 measles cases were reported to the CDC. As in the California outbreak, most of those infected had not been vaccinated. As the number of non-immunized persons rises, the risk of widespread measles grows. Parents who fail to immunize their children threaten their children's health. This is not just a theoretical problem: measles killed an estimated 122,000 persons worldwide in 2012. Using CDC data, the Anti-Vaccine Body Count web site has tallied more than 6,200 vaccine-preventable deaths in the U.S. since 2007.

Fraud, celebrity, and apathy
The anti-vaccination movement has been fueled by fraudulent science (the Wakefield vaccination-autism link scandal), celebrity claims of causality (e.g., Jenny McCarthy and Aidan Quinn), and apathy. Apathy derives from naiveté; many parents of young children today did not live through the "bad old days" before immunization. Vaccination has become a victim of its own success, and our nation has become complacent as a result. An entire generation of Americans has grown up unaware of the danger of measles.

The anti-abortion movement
In the first week of Congress this year, Republicans introduced five anti-abortion bills. Republican-dominated state legislatures enacted more anti-abortion laws from 2011 to 2013 than were passed in the entire prior decade. Because of difficulty in accessing abortion care, desperate women are once again attempting self-abortion.

Before Roe v. Wade in 1973, an estimated 200,000 to 1.2 million illegal abortions occurred annually in the U.S. The carnage was terrible. Incomplete abortion was a leading cause of admission to gynecology wards across America. In the year when I was born, more than 700 women died this way. Around the world today, unsafe abortion kills an estimated 47,000 women each year. After the legalization of abortion in the U.S., the risk of death promptly fell to less than that from an injection of penicillin.

Junk science, patriarchal dogma, and apathy
The anti-abortion movement has been fueled by junk science, dogma from a few patriarchal religious groups, and apathy. Again, apathy derives from naiveté; many adults today did not live through the "bad old days" of unsafe abortion. Legal abortion has become a victim of its own success, and our nation has become complacent as a result. An entire generation of Americans has grown up unaware of the danger of unsafe abortion.

The scientific foundation for safe, legal abortion is incontrovertible. Within two years of Roe v. Wade, the Institute of Medicine had concluded that legal abortion improved the health of women. All major medical and public health organizations today affirm the health benefits of legal abortion; these include the World Health Organization, American Public Health Organization, American Medical Association, American Medical Women's Association, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Psychological Association, and American Psychiatric Association.

Backsliding into medieval ignorance
As noted by the Los Angeles Times, "the anti-vaccination movement is a corner of the United States that is backsliding into medieval ignorance." The same holds true for the science deniers of safe, legal abortion. When historians look back on the 20th century, immunization and the legalization of abortion will stand out as public health triumphs.

Whether the public health threat is viral or political, medical science should guide health decisions. The alternative to public health policy based on science is "backsliding into medieval ignorance" and reversing decades of medical progress.