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When a Co-Parent Is Anti-Vax, the Other Pro-Vax

“I thought you might be interested,” the e-mail read, attached to a Change.org petition that I did, in fact, find quite interesting.

The petition was composed by Christa Johnson, a mother from Manistee, Mich. She was calling for support as she fought against the forced vaccination of her son, now nearly 4 years old. A recent court ruling had declared she would have to get him up-to-date on all vaccinations, including an annual flu shot. She had been anti-vaccination since before her son’s birth, stating:

“The questions of risks, the vaccine injury compensation program paying out millions per year, the use of 47 aborted tissue harvested from fetuses, the injecting numerous known toxins, the violation of my Biblical beliefs about vaccination had always been anti-vaccination.”

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With the recent measles outbreak, and aggression against anti-vaxxers seeming to be at an all-time high, it is easy to brush Johnson’s proclamations off as being the rantings of just one more (crazy/stupid/uneducated/insert your preferred hateful adjective here) anti-vaxxer. But as a mother, this still should have been her choice to make. And as up in arms as people have been getting lately about anti-vaxxers, when you put yourself in her shoes and imagine the court intervening in terms of a major parenting decision that should otherwise be yours to make, it’s also hard not to have at least a modicum of sympathy for her.

How many of us would just stand by, unaffected, if a judge stepped in and disregarded our carefully calculated parenting decisions?

The reality is, in most cases, the court can’t step in and force vaccination. Because there are risks involved (risks which are clearly outlined on the CDC website and vaccine inserts, for anyone to read) and because vaccinations are a matter of preventative medicine—they cannot be forced. And for good reason. Allowing something like vaccinations to be made mandatory opens the doors for a lot of other personal parenting decision to be taken into the hands of the government.

Think breastfeeding vs. formula. Circumcision. Working vs. staying home.

What happens when two people with equal parenting rights simply can’t find even ground?

As pro-vax as you may be, the second you start calling for legal intervention into that parental decision, you had better be ready to give up a lot of your own parenting rights, as well.

So why was the court able to intervene here? Well, because the issue extended beyond just one mother’s personal choice; it included a father (and co-parent) who didn’t agree.

Johnson was extremely anti-vaccination. Her son’s father, whom she had never been married to, was a surgeon and pro-vaccine. He had conceded to her feelings for several years before deciding, for whatever reason, that he was no longer comfortable with allowing his son to remain vaccination-free. And because feelings were so strong on both sides, with no room for compromise either way, a court case ensued.

Fast-forward to now: Johnson lost and has been ordered to get her son up-to-date on all vaccinations and to comply with a schedule including annual flu shots from this point forward. Thus the Change.org petition.

I will admit to not loving how she has gone about waging her war. At every step in the petition, she seems to be discounting her son’s father. He has eight children, she has only one. He only visited briefly at the hospital when her son was born. He just wants control. She is the committed parent.

It is easy to see that these two have a contentious relationship, which is likely exactly how they ended up in court. It is a reminder, if nothing else, that having a child with someone really does work best if you are able to get along with that person. So often, we like to pretend that co-parenting is just a matter of compromise. But how many other big issues are there for which there is no compromise? And what happens when two people with equal parenting rights simply can’t find even ground?

What if a couple that is no longer together has a baby and he wants equal custody from the very start? What does that mean for her ability to breastfeed if she is away from her newborn for up to a week at a time?

The second you invite the court into that decision making process, it is important to understand they will be relying almost exclusively on the scientific data. Not on personal feelings and concerns.

As I posed these questions in the midst of a very interesting Facebook discussion, I was contacted by a lawyer who was able to fill in the blanks for me.

Henry Gornbein practices family law in Michigan. He has also recently released his first book, "Divorce Demystified." And not too long ago, he represented a man involved in a case very similar to the breastfeeding case I had conjured up.

In that case, the child was over the age of 1 and the mom was practicing extended breastfeeding. The father was supportive of this, to an extent, except for the fact that she was using the extended breastfeeding as an excuse for why he should not have equal visitation rights. An expert on breastfeeding was brought in and evidence was presented on both cultural norms and the importance of children having bonds with both parents.

Ultimately, he won that case; the father’s rights are currently being phased in, and he will eventually have his daughter six out of every 14 nights. Vaccinations were also an issue in that case, with the father being pro and the mother being against. She eventually conceded on that issue, but Gornbein told me that if she had not, the case likely would have turned out exactly as Johnson’s case had. The law requires the court to rule in the best interest of the child, and in determining what that is, they have to give a heavy weight to medical opinions and the scientific data, which unequivocally support vaccination. So while this is a personal choice most parents have to make, the second you invite the court into that decision-making process, it is important to understand they will be relying almost exclusively on the scientific data. Not on personal feelings and concerns.

I asked Gornbein what options co-parents have when they just can’t come to a compromise on these issues. He told me that in Michigan, mediators or parenting coordinators are often used to resolve disputes. When that doesn’t work, a trial commences, and parents often spend up to $15,000 (sometimes over $100,000) to have their day in court.

That’s a lot of money to spend, especially when the outcome could very easily wind up in the other person’s favor.

You are letting a stranger in a black robe who does not know you make some of the most important decisions that will impact your family for many years.

I questioned on Facebook how far Johnson might take this. It can’t possibly be healthy for her son to have his parents fighting so contentiously, can it? And with a case like this, where it doesn’t seem as though she has much legal leg to stand on, at what point does she just accept defeat? I mean, they are only vaccinations after all, right?

But then someone brought up a very good point. What if it was something you truly believed had the potential to harm your child? Forget whether or not that belief is justified: Just focus on your own gut feelings. Let’s say she truly believed her son’s father was harming him, and the court disagreed. Should she “just give up” in that case? Would any of you?

One of the last comments Gornbein made to me really stuck:

“Trials are expensive, both emotionally and economically. Once you go to court, you lose control of your life and your children's, as well as your finances. You are letting a stranger in a black robe who does not know you make some of the most important decisions that will impact your family for many years. In addition, when you go to trial you are forced to say things that are very hurtful and nasty in open court, on the record. Things that will often leave scars and wounds that take years to heal.”

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My personal takeaway is, sometimes there are real benefits to being a single mom by choice and not having to meet someone else halfway when it comes to these big parenting decisions. Reading Johnson’s tale and talking to Gornbein about similar case just made me glad I am the only one in charge of determining how to raise my daughter. I think it would probably be extremely difficult to manage the rigors of parenting with someone you don’t share similar parenting philosophies with.

I’m not sure what I would do if I were in Johnson’s shoes. I consider myself vaccine-wary, and I am sympathetic to the fears and concerns of anti-vaxxers. But the truth is, I don’t feel strongly enough about any of it to fight to the extent Johnson has on this issue. My daughter gets all her vaccinations, albeit on an extended schedule, and I am grateful for the right to educate myself and make that choice.

Image via Christa Johnson, change.org

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