A new homeschooling year

I like homeschooling by a schedule (that we don’t always follow exactly) and I like doing lessons rather than simply unschooling. We still do a lot of free learning but it helps for me to have some general idea about where we’re headed for the school year. I won’t bore you with the details. Instead I’ll give you a quick preview in photos.

First, I’m starting a grad program in the fall studying ecology. My thesis project is on cavity-nesting bees, so I’m making dozens of these trap nests to set out in a 900 acre pine savannah to collect species data as it relates to the burn cycle. It’s a perfect project for a homeschooling, homesteading (ish) mom because I can work with my older kid to build the trap nests (no, not free child labor. I build the nests, he builds cannons and other fun things). The days out in the field don’t take much. At some point I’ll be writing a thesis, which will require hours at the library, but at least in the meantime it’s the most family-friendly master’s program I could have devised without going the online route. (ETA: Oh yeah, I forgot I’ll also be teaching college kids for some hours each week as part of my TA job so there’s that.)

trap nest 1 trap nest 2

And second, I’ve been spiral binding free ebooks and planner pages. This is something I’ve always wanted to do when I see cute pdfs for organizing, meal planning, and all sorts of other planning but, well, I’ve never been organized enough to attempt it. Finally, I’m there! Half- a-Hundred Acre Woods is THE BEST resource for all sorts of downloadable homeschooling stuff, and that link will take you straight to the notebooking page. All the free ebooks I get are already out of copyright (old books are fun, too!) or licensed in a way that allows reproduction for personal use. I’m making that point because as a writer myself, I happily give out free copies of my ebook but it peeves me when others steal my book and put it up for free download. Licensing is also a big issue in the homeschooling community. If you aren’t aware of the rules, you need to look into it ASAP. Just be a good person.

planner craft

what todraw

A book on drawing lessons called “What to Draw and How to Draw it.” I put this one in my planner with a few other lessons, a calendar and a daily journal. It’s stuff that I think will be fun but won’t necessarily be a huge part of our schooling.

The Naugler Family: A cautionary tale

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A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about the minimum sufficient level of care that the state expects to be provided for children. I started volunteering as a CASA and being exposed to truly awful situations of abuse and neglect. One thing that bothered me at the time was the fact that having no electricity or running water were factors for neglect. At the same time we were expected to have a degree of cultural sensitivity as CASA volunteers that would serve to keep us from imposing our own cultural views on the families we encountered. There’s a bit of nuance for true poverty situations, but society in general has an expectation that everyone should be able to access the resources they need to maintain adequate shelter (read: a barrier from the elements, running water and electricity) and basic needs. Without those things, the state  can remove your children.

It was particularly difficult for me as an idealist, fond of backcountry camping, to navigate the fine line between simplicity and neglect. For my family I had to rule out some of the backcountry-style habits that I might have adopted if it were just me. Those are things like the DIY solar water, solar oven, rainwater catchment and a few other things I wanted to do. Not saying those things would have led to neglect, but the time and effort required to maintain those kinds of systems would have drawn me away from my family and impaired our ability to have reliable infrastructure. Having dealt with a few serious staph infections and other health problems in my house, I can say now that I have a huge appreciation for abundant, reliable amenities like hot water and air conditioning. Luxuries, absolutely, but basic luxuries like these makes the burden of life so much lighter.

I didn’t grow up with air conditioning myself. I also spent part of my childhood raised by an aunt who served in the Peace Corps in a small village in Kenya where people used only a few liters of water a day. She ingrained in me some basic ideas about true necessities that leave my standards quite a bit lower than many of my peers. As an adult I’ve had plenty of experience with housing that would probably be considered substandard to most, so, I do see things like a/c and on-demand hot water as privileges. With that comes a little bit of guilt for indulging.

All of this is to say that I think I have some knowledge of the off-the-grid prepper culture and the intensity of these fairly radical views about lifestyle. At least, I’m familiar enough to speak to a few points in a recent story that has been getting a lot of attention. To state it briefly, 10 kids were removed from their parents’ homestead because of unsafe living conditions. The parents practiced an off-the-grid lifestyle, ‘unschooled’ the kids, had unassisted homebirths, refused vaccinations, raised animals and veggies, and aspired to a vision that is so fondly familiar to me that it makes me queasy. And it breaks my heart that this has happened.

Apparently this story has been in the news for several weeks now and the internet is abuzz with people who are condemning all aspects of this family’s life. The first thing that I thought when I looked at the pictures was… cool projects! Cool tent! Briefly, from the outside, the homestead looks like a sprawling backcountry camp. Something admirable, perhaps, until you pause to consider the daily burden of raising 10 kids, a mismatch flock of livestock, gardens, and planning/building off-the-grid infrastructure from the ground up… and then it must become desperately clear that the conditions are the way that they are because this family has barely managed to scrape along.

Photographs now scattered across the internet show the private lives of this family in stark honesty– a scummy green pond, bare dirt, children and animals mingling, unrestrained, an open fire for daily cooking, piles of dirty laundry, trash strewn about, dirty, deeply dented cans of food.

This is where the family of 12 lived 24/7, through all types of weather, in a makeshift tent made from tarps, 2×4’s, wooden pallets and small trees or limbs.

There is enough in photographs and documentation on the internet (Facebook, the family blog, etc) to demonstrate serious safety concerns for the children.  RL Stollar at homeschooler’s anonymous has posted a guest post by someone going by the pseudonym “Gary”, who has written quite eloquently about why the environmental conditions on this specific homestead are unsafe for children.

The situation at the homestead, based off the photos and posts available, seems to be getting worse. There are several reasons for this, and they have to do with the effects of animals (goats, chickens, dogs, etc.) and human habitation on a spot of land. In the beginning the pond appears to be a real pond (turtles and fish are pictured), by the (apparently) latest photos, the pond has turned into a filthy mud pit devoid of most life. This is the natural consequence of animal dung running off the surrounding landscape with the rain and melting snow, the traffic of people, animals, etc.

This same trend can be seen in the yards and areas surrounding the shack. At first the dirt is held down by plant roots, but as the small trees were killed by the goats or chopped down to form fences, the dirt turned to mud. This mud gets mixed with the animal dung (goat, chicken and dog) and gets tracked by the bare feet of the children over every surface of the homestead. This state of affairs is clearly visible in the photos.

With this comes water from rain running straight off into the pond, carrying with it animal dung and any and all other forms of filth, from oil and gasoline from the generator, to cooking and food waste. This means that any photos taken at the beginning of this homestead experience simply can not be relied on to show the true living conditions of the current day.

We do see some photos of a shallow ditch covered by a few muddy boards, that was dug in an attempt to keep this filthy rain run off from flooding the shack.

Farms are rarely neat and tidy. They can be quite a mess and environmental degradation to some extent is to be expected on many farms. The environmental conditions, as awful as they are, might be overlooked if the children actually lived in a shelter that could serve as a barrier between them and these hazards. They don’t have a proper shelter, though. “Gary” astutely points out.

This family isn’t “homesteading”, they are, for all practical purposes, homeless.

This is really the crux of the problem, from what I understand.

I don’t get the sense from the family or from any other sources that this is an issue of poverty. In an interview with Off The Grid News, the father explains that the tent living was a temporary setup while they put their money into getting the wife’s business started. I have no clue how much money he’s talking about, but this statement makes me furious. There is no way that a business endeavor should take priority over proper, safe housing of children. Neither should political idealism get in the way of seeking government assistance when finances are an issue– but that’s another matter. Where I keep finding myself drawn to sympathize with this family, these conscious choices to reject assistance for their kids, and the choice to invest in their own business endeavors instead of a stable structure for 10 children to live in, undermines any feelings of support I might extend to this family.

They are living this way by choice and subjecting their children to filthy, unsafe conditions. In the same interview, the mother attempts to explain away the scum in the pond by saying that they’re letting it revert to it’s natural condition, unable to recognize the eutrophication and erosion that will not just spontaneously recover by letting it go “natural.” This kind of ignorance seems to be at the root of the family’s crisis. The health and safety hazards can’t just be dismissed or, worse, embraced as mere lifestyle choices. This is truly tragic.

Since their children were removed from the home, the family has received almost $45k in gifts from people all over the country to help out with these most basic of requirements, like providing a decent shelter, needed to have the children returned. Apparently some other legal issues have come up for them but since those are unrelated to homesteading and pertain to actual allegations of abuse, I’m not going to get into that right now.

It’s surprising to me just how many people are coming to the defense of this family, and not just the parents but their living conditions! Every topic now leaves my head spinning with the justification of things that not long ago might have been regarded as clearly unacceptable. At the end of the day, I am just grieved over this situation. There is not much else to say. The conditions speak for themselves. What’s left, I suppose, is for outsiders– deeply divided– to bicker over the details.

We Shall Remain and Edward Winslow’s Thanksgiving account

The account of the Thanksgiving holiday in the US is based on this paragraph from the journal of Edward Winslow, an Anglo-American pilgrim in Massachusetts.

Our harvest being gotten in, our governor sent four men on fowling, that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labors. They four in one day killed as much fowl as, with a little help beside, served the company almost a week. At which time, amongst other recreation, we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king, Massasoit, with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer, which they brought to the plantation and bestowed on our governor, and upon the captain and others. And although it be not always so plentiful as it was at this time with us, yet by the goodness of God, we are so far from want that we often wish you partakers of our plenty.”

Yesterday we watched the first of the 5 part series “We Shall Remain” by PBS as part of our Thanksgiving homeschooling lesson. There were a few side discussions about plague and salvation, but the video kept the attention of my almost-6-year-old for at least 20 minutes. I’m not going to quiz him on it or anything, but I just wanted to expose him to the backstory.

Several months ago we watched a dramatic retelling of Operation Auca, a missionary operation in Ecuador, in the movie End of the Spear.  I noticed that after we watched the missionary story, my son had a very strong notion of American Indians as bad people. I was looking for something that might be more neutral. The views of Indigenous people and Christian missionaries presented in this drama are quite different from We Shall Remain, but the latter documentary is crafted with another set of values and assumptions.

There are plenty of dramatic war and culture narratives about the relations between whites and American Indians in pop culture, like Dances with Wolves and Little Big Man. Unlike these other stories that perpetuate the myth of the noble savage, in the End of the Spear the notions of the redeemed savage or “white savior” and white cultural superiority come across without a hint of self-consciousness. We Shall Remain isn’t quite as stereotyped, but there’s something else. Maybe just so much foreshadowing. The story isn’t being told in its own time.

In We Shall Remain there’s a sense of the pilgrims as uniquely bad people–especially when they are pictured forcing the natives to adapt to their customs. It clearly fits with modern view of the white invaders, who accepted the help and friendship of natives as a form of trickery until they became more self-sufficient and then only sought to control their former allies. There is a scene that appears to take place in a church, where the native men are filing in and sitting in front of a possible clergyman (reminscent of prison or bootcamp buzz cut scenes in other films), and having their long braids cut. Their braids are swept away with an old corn broom, and as they walk off, each of the Indian men return powerful, condemning glares toward the man who cut their hair. The glares suggest that they already know the future that awaits.

The filmmakers clearly want to convey the distrust between these two peoples, but the distrust from the natives comes across as more justified defiance (because of their later subjugation?) whereas an earlier scene of women interacting shows the pilgrim women’s distrust of a cheerful Wampanoag woman as needlessly suspicious, even panicky.

Not long after the hair cutting scene, it’s portrayed as incredulous that Indigenous people at that time could have had any authentic experience of conversion and salvation by Christ. A narrator reads from a collection of testimonies by natives who had converted to the Christian faith. One man mourns the loss of his hair, sees this as idol worship and asks for repentance. There is not much discussion of these “praying Indians” except as subjects in a dramatic and definitive shift of power. Of note, historical evidence seems to suggest that the women were more accepting of Christianity than the men, and the women’s story is not being told in this narrative. That is remarkable, since the Wampanoag are known to be matrilineal, but even in this historical revision the focus is the same as most cultural histories: men, power and war.

This is where End of the Spear is more charitable in its treatment of individual experiences, in my opinion. It shows the very real conflict between an indigenous women, Dayuma, whose convictions puts her at odds with her own people. There is a struggle within the family. They believe she is dead, and have trouble accepting her when she returns. Eventually she succeeds in converting them and it becomes a missionary success story.

I suspect that the reality of native peoples converting to the Anglo traditions, as with all things, is more nuanced than the broader tale we tell of cultural assimilation and power struggles. I don’t doubt the power struggle was influential in this history. Power differences always are. But this was just one area of Wampanoag history where the narrative seems to match modern views so much that it comes across as a polemic revision, rather than a full and fair re-examination of that time. Perhaps it is simply too biased towards the modern view of the conflict… because we all know what happens next.

This is a lesson in how people, their beliefs, and their culture, can be simplistically portrayed as either good or bad, depending on who is telling the story. History, like science, is always vulnerable to subjective interpretations.

I am looking forward to finishing the series, anyway.

Why I chose to delay vaccines with my first, and why I won’t do that again

When I was expecting my first child, I was introduced to the anti-vaccine movement. I was intrigued by the information I was reading, especially the speculations that there wasn’t sufficient science on disease ecology and the assertion that we were somehow cheating nature in a way that would come back to bite us. I was an undergraduate student in biology, and I had plenty of curiosity, but very little knowledge to evaluate these claims.

Yet, I knew that there were benefits to vaccination. I wanted my kids to have these benefits. After all, everyone I knew had been vaccinated as children and as a result we were not getting the illnesses that vaccines were designed to prevent. I found a book at my library by Dr. Robert F. Sears, “Dr.Bob,” called The Vaccine Book. This book offered a compromise between what seemed to be two conflicting positions. Since I read it in 2008, it has been criticized and many of the points he made have been refuted. Dr. Bob has agreed with most of the criticism, but he still stands by his alternative schedule.

I wasn’t aware of the criticism, so the book influenced my thinking about vaccines for the first 5 years of my son’s life. The thing that most appealed to me in Dr. Bob’s alternative schedule was the reassurance that I could vaccinate my child on a slow schedule and it would maximize safety with no significant, added risks. I thought Dr. Bob was using good evidence to support his schedule. His discussion about diseases and the statistical likelihood of a child suffering a complication from a disease vs. suffering an adverse reaction to a vaccine supported my ultimate decision to delay my first child’s vaccines. After all, Dr. Bob insisted that as long as a child stays home (out of daycare) for the first two years and breastfeeds during that time, the child will probably not need to be vaccinated. Not only did I take this into account in choosing whether to vaccinate, and when, but I also altered my lifestyle to meet this important 2-year mark, making sure my child would never have to go to daycare or even to a babysitter.

On paper, the alternative or delayed schedule looks very neat and practical. It appears as carefully designed as the normal schedule. And it’s customizable! You can pick and choose, and spread out the vaccines as you’d like. This is very appealing and it is compatible with this insistence among the anti-vaccine movement that “not one size fits all” and you, the parent, can maximize benefits and minimize risk by looking at the data for yourself.

In practice, I’ve found the alternative, customizable schedule to be needlessly frustrating. It’s difficult to follow if you aren’t one of Dr. Bob’s own patients. Delaying some vaccines has actually been shown to increase risks without increasing benefits. Vaccines are meant to be given as early as possible to protect children at ages when they’re most vulnerable to certain germs. His schedule does not maximize safety, and it’s not supported by evidence. Instead it is an emotional compromise that he claims is meant to encourage distrusting, or in his own words “non-compliant parents,” to vaccinate their children in a way that suits them, as opposed to leaving their children unvaccinated. His presentation of the risks of disease vs. adverse effects of vaccines is flawed. He has since admitted that he shouldn’t have used VAERS data to point out the risks of vaccines, because that data is voluntarily reported and not always reliable. Safety studies are required to assess the frequency of side effects, and the latest comprehensive safety study found “few health problems are caused or clearly associated with vaccines.”

Even though the most recent version of his alternative schedule looks much like the recommended schedule, except with twice as many visits to the pediatrician’s office, many people I know still adhere to a pick-and-choose method. These parents, like myself, study available information about the vaccines and diseases, individually, to make their choices. I don’t know anyone who actually follows Dr. Bob’s alternative schedule. The important point to make is that delaying vaccines for any reason that’s not medically indicated simply isn’t supported by any evidence. This article sums up 5 reasons to avoid “spreading out” vaccines, which include lack of evidence, increased risk of errors, additional trauma, more exposure to germs in the doctor’s office, and prolonged vulnerability.
The Vaccine Book has misled many parents. It misled me. Continue reading Why I chose to delay vaccines with my first, and why I won’t do that again

Bones and suicide and darker thoughts.

This post will be disturbing, especially for my family members. I am going to talk about suicide and violent death.

I used to collect skulls and bones and odd little things that I’d find on my walks around the property. One time I spotted a coyote on the side of the road, roadkill. It was a busy rural highway with no shoulder, but I devised a plan to collect its corpse to bring home and set out in the yard for the fire ants to clean up for me so I’d have a nice skeleton to add to my stash. I had a biology professor who would do the same thing, because she was working on a study of carrion insects at different levels of decay. I tried to reassure myself that this wasn’t that weird, thinking of her bold project, as jacked up trucks flew by me on the highway, their drivers craning their necks to see why I was maneuvering a stinky roadside corpse into a plastic bag. I had done this before with stinkier things.

I pieced together old, disintegrating cow bones from the fields and delighted in the tiny, fragile little skulls of mice and rats that I’d sometimes find, perfectly intact, on one of my walking trails. At times, my sweet husband would even collect freshly roadkilled oddities for me, a barred owl, a black snake, a baby oppossum. If we left them outside for less than a week, the fire ants cleaned them to the bones. I’d find dried lizards, dried up frogs, and perfectly preserved shells of insects that all became part of my menagerie. It wasn’t for witchcraft, but for science– that’s how I justified my curious habit.

The skulls were the most fascinating. I had a cat skull that I sold on Etsy to an artist. It was an angry looking thing with a deformed eye socket– the bones didn’t fully fuse together to make the orbit of the eye. The raccoon and oppossum skulls were similar in many ways, except where the brain was housed. The oppossum’s cranium was a compact little bulb of dense bone, and the raccoon’s looked unrealistically inflated by comparison– with swollen, thinned cranial bones, as if it was a balloon pumped full of air and stretched taut.

After my son grew older, the habit wore off and I had to tuck away my little creatures, or what was left of them, so that they wouldn’t get broken and lost. The last set of bones I added were the bones of my dad’s old German Shepherd, Jake. I took my girls (dogs), Ginny and Bitsy, on a walk through the woods one evening and they came home delighted that they had plundered his relatively fresh burial site. Ginny is Jake’s sister, and the enthusiasm with which she crunched on his bones irked me. I snatched a hip bone away from her. He had bad hip dysplasia by the time he died, and his bones told the story of it. The hip sockets looked melted, worn away, with bubbly deposits of bone erupting nearby. It wasn’t like osteoporosis, where the bone was just weaker, but it was a disease process that removed bone where it should have been and built bone up where it shouldn’t be. No wonder he had so much trouble. Poor thing.

This fall, I reluctantly decided to take some courses toward a nursing degree. I’ve always wanted to be a nurse, but I’ve always avoided it. It’s a long story. In Anatomy and Physiology we are studying bones and muscles. To most people bones are probably boring. I’ve seen pre-nursing students complain about it. They are dry and hard, a lot like rocks. But if you’ve ever studied rocks, geology specifically, then you must know that the chemical history of rock is very fascinating. I’ve noticed the same thing with bones. Bones go through an incredible process of building, tearing down and rebuilding. They are constructed by these little bone-building cells that excrete minerals until they end up locked in a little pocket within the bone, surrounded by their own waste (the calcium — hydroxyapatite– that makes up the hard mineral bone.) Other cells are activated to resorb bone and release the calcium into the bloodstream, where it performs necessary functions of life, like causing muscle contractions. Building, disintegrating, rebuilding. Living bones are very different from dead, dried bones.

At first I was not prepared to spend hours looking at human skulls. Even more than cadavers, skulls have an ominous reputation. I remember a friend of mine, when were in high school, telling me about an older woman she knew who claimed to be a practicing Satanist and had a human skull in her house, but it was supposed to be a secret. People who have skulls lying around are weirdos or criminals (or both). Unless they are scientists. Wenceslas

Continue reading Bones and suicide and darker thoughts.

The Art of Managing Longleaf

I’ve been using the website Goodreads lately to keep track of my reading list. It is chaotic at times, since I keep adding new books when I’m only about one-quarter through the books on my “currently reading” list. For that reason, I’ve decided it’s a good time to pause and sum up my thoughts so far about a very special book I am reading called The Art of Managing Longleaf: A Personal History of the Stoddard-Neel Approach by Leon Neel, Paul S. Stutter and Albert G. Way.

indexI started reading this book as a guide for longleaf pine management, but the personal history part of the story, which takes up the first one-third of the book, has captivated me. It begins with the story of Leon Neel’s childhood in the Red Hills of Georgia. The hilly topography and erodible soils forced farmers to compensate by farming in patches, rather than broad swaths as they did in the prairies further west. He illustrates lessons learned with  his memories of dove hunting. His father turned the pigs loose on the peanut fields after harvest and they would messily break apart the peanuts, leaving plenty of leftovers for the doves. Then his father turned the boys loose on the doves, with shotguns frustratingly ill-equipped for the chore, he speculates, as his father’s way of having him improve his aim. Neel explains that was “…the way we learned about nature and land use through the experience of hunting.”

The narrative reads very much like the beloved land ethics classic, A Sand County Almanac by Aldo Leopold, and Wendell Berry’s essays pondering the history of his native Kentucky.

Another recollection that piqued my curiosity may be of more practical use for today’s hopeful homesteaders. The southern families in Neel’s community grew sweet potatoes primarily for family use, rarely would they sell the sweet potatoes. The potatoes for home use were stored in sweet potato banks.

They would clear a piece of well-drained ground about eight feet in diameter, and then they would lay a deep mat of longleaf pine straw down. After they dug up the sweet potatoes, they stacked them up on the pine straw bed. Folks would use slash pine or loblolly if they had to, but longleaf was the most desireable straw because it made the most durable mat… Once they got the pile of potatoes in a conical shape, they covered them with another layer of pine straw… made a teepee-like structure with… anything that would shed water.

It would all be covered in dirt and the potatoes would stay cool and dry over the winter. It functioned like an above-ground root cellar, which would have air circulation and a slide-away door or contraption to get to the potatoes without tearing down the whole pile. I found this photograph of a sweet potato bank from the Horry County Museum in South Carolina.

sweet potato bankThis book has been on my reading list for a long time but it wasn’t until my father-in-law started showing enthusiasm for my idea to plant the property in pines that I decided to go ahead and buy it. I’ve slid away from my interest in natural history and homesteading over the past year as I’ve just had so many things going through my mind. This lovely book, part memoir, part practical guide, has been a pleasant way for me to refocus and, hopefully, be drawn back toward my love for and interest in the land and the cultural and natural history of the southern US.

Christians, do not be complacent about vaccination

Pastors and religious leaders have always had an influence on public health. They are the shepherds of their congregations, and as such they would be remiss to fail in upholding basic efforts to fortify God’s people from the spread of infectious disease. Cotton_MatherThe first well-known pastor to act on the subject of innoculation was Cotton Mather. Yes, the Cotton Mather, who also directed the horrors that were the Salem Witch Trials. While his legacy in the witch trials remains fairly common knowledge, the part he played in introducing variolation into the US is lesser known. Arthur Allen has carefully documented this history in his book Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver.

During the 1721 smallpox epidemic, Mather began writing fervently to doctors in Boston to find one who would perform a procedure known as variolation. He was convinced that this procedure, uncommon in Europe and thus far unused in the US, would be the only way to stop smallpox from spreading wildly through the population. Variolation, which involved taking the fluid from the pustules of an infected person and scratching it into the skin of the person to be inoculated, was much more dangerous than modern vaccines and the science was virtually untested except in a few published cases. Mather learned of the practice from an African slave, who claimed to have been inoculated against smallpox as a boy.

As people today argue that vaccination causes harm and poisoning of the body, and undermines faith in God as Divine Healer, so did Mather’s counterparts argue in protest. Indeed, this is where the first claims were made by people opposed to inoculation, and some of these same arguments still persist today in discussions about vaccines. Nevertheless, through Cotton Mather’s persistence, his smallpox legacy is a truly victorious one. Smallpox was eradicated from the globe in 1980 through mass inoculation programs, particularly after the practice was improved and made much safer. Smallpox itself was a highly infectious disease that killed at least 1/3 of the people who fell ill. Thanks to the fiery insistence of a puritan preacher, we no longer have to worry about waves of smallpox sweeping through our communities.

Outbreaks Amish_family,_Lyndenville,_New_York The vast majority of parents in the US vaccinate their children for most illnesses. This includes parents representing most faith groups. Amish people are one group that has made news in recent decades for disease outbreaks due to low levels of vaccination in their communities. A prominent antivaccine leader once wrongly insisted that the Amish do not vaccinate and also do not have autism. While the Amish lifestyle is strict, the shunning of some technology is a community restriction meant to maintain a focus on God, and does not preclude vaccination.

A 2009 study of community member’s attitudes revealed that most Amish do vaccinate to some extent, and among those who do not, they cite the same fears and concerns as those that persist in mainstream society. It is not necessarily unique cultural or religious beliefs that lead to unvaccinated Amish children. In 1979, a polio outbreak occurred that included Amish persons from 4 different states. This was the last outbreak of wild poliovirus in the US. The CDC concluded:

The 1979 outbreak demonstrated both the tremendous progress to date in achieving protection of the U.S. population but also the fact that polio could find a way to reach the remaining pockets of susceptible persons in the country. In addition, the outbreak made clear the necessity of taking a global approach to polio…

At the heart of this issue is the fact that, if not for those pockets who resist vaccination, illnesses that spread only through human populations could potentially be eradicated by strong vaccine efforts. That would be the end of the disease, and of the need to vaccinate. Smallpox is gone. Polio and measles could be gone.

The polio-free status the United States has enjoyed since 1979 comes at a cost… [vaccine-associated polio] should be reduced substantially as a result of the recently adopted sequential IPV-OPV schedule. An estimated $230 million also is spent each year to maintain the high levels of polio vaccine coverage. Once polio is eradicated from the planet, polio vaccination can be discontinued…

The fact that vaccination carries a small risk only serves to underscore the benefit of eradicating the disease. It does not make sense to avoid a very small risk of vaccination by allowing the return of very devastating illness and disease. It does make sense to work to have these diseases eliminated in this generation– not to allow pockets to emerge for outbreaks to erupt– so that the next generation will have no need for the vaccine.

Many Amish were convinced after the 1979 polio outbreak that vaccination was worth it. It was a small outbreak but it led to 15 cases of paralytic polio. Those who chose to be vaccinated during that outbreak did so after seeing these results, and knowing that what might be a mild illness for them could be spread to someone for whom the illness would be deadly. In his book Amish Society, John Hostetler documents (p. 324):

In the case of the polio outbreak, after a series of visits by health officials, the Amish arranged for mass immunization in their homes and schools. The objection to polio immunization was finally overcome when a lay member argued that the Amish would not want to be the cause of other persons getting the disease.

Much more recently, in 2014, several unvaccinated members of an Amish community returned from mission work in the Philippines carrying the highly contagious measles virus. In June of 2014, NPR reported that many Amish families who had not vaccinated their children for a number of reasons were choosing to be vaccinated because of the great burden of the measles outbreak. It started in April, when a nurse identified measles in one Amish family.

“The rash. They had the conjunctivitis in the eyes, their eyes were red,” she says. “They don’t want the light, they sit in the darkened room, wear dark glasses. I mean they were just miserable. High temperatures, 103, 104 temps. So this was the measles.”

When one family was asked why they had not vaccinated, the father responded

“I guess there was no scare to us before… I guess we were too relaxed.”

All of the community’s activities, including their worship, were interrupted for months as the disease spread wildly. As of September of this year, 377 cases of measles were reported in Ohio despite more than 8,000 unvaccinated people choosing to be vaccinated in response to the outbreak. Measles-Cases-616pxThis year has seen a total of 594 cases, mostly in unvaccinated people, resulting from 18 separate outbreaks caused by unvaccinated people bringing the disease into the country. The recurring themes here are that concerns about vaccination are valid, and in religious communities they can be especially troubling as we sort through our views of obligation to God and to our neighbors. These diseases, though, are far from benign and evidence shows that we can hold some hope of eradicating serious, debilitating, life-altering and even life-ending illnesses by preventive measures– by vaccination.

Vaccines work best before an outbreak, and as the Ohio measles case shows, mass vaccination after an outbreak has limited benefits. People who are exposed before vaccination will still fall ill. People who are exposed between the time of vaccination and the time that it takes the body to produce antibodies may still fall ill and spread the disease to others.

It is not wise for Christians to grow complacent, following the example of Hollywood’s elite. Let’s heed these examples that God has given us, the wisdom of those who have suffered this before us, and take measures to prevent the next outbreak.

A Moral Duty to Vaccinate?


Not long after I wrote my last post, I read the blog of another Voices for Vaccines parent advocate who is also a Christian. She laid out her thoughts and offered a rather forceful conclusion– Christians have a moral duty to vaccinate themselves and their children. I was glad to find her post Worship of the “Natural” & Why I’m Pro-Vaccine, because she touched on some points that speak to me personally, having been antivaccine and still preferring most things wholesome and unadulterated.

The people who are anti-vaccine are generally in love with all things “natural” and organic. They worship nature. I’ve listened as Christians make the argument that God made our bodies a certain way, totally skipping over the parts of the Bible where we’re cursed. In fact, the Bible does not speak highly of “natural” anything. At best, it’s neutral and at worst, it’s damned to hell.

I can identify with this. I came from this place, and I am now very prickly about the subject. Of course, I still love cooking with fresh, whole ingredients but more for the creative process and simple nutritional benefits than for any other reason. Healthy food is good, but it’s not magic.

So while I readily identified with that statement, I kind of glossed over the issue of moral duty when I posted this to my personal Facebook page. To me, yes, it is a moral duty to vaccinate your children both for their own protection and for others. But I didn’t come to that conclusion just by reading another blogger’s words and nodding along. My husband and I have been considering this issue for the past year. I am often the one reading the science, and together we work through the Scripture.

It would be wrong to say that God does or does not directly demand a certain behavior from us regarding vaccination. However, this doesn’t mean we can be flippant about the subject. It’s not merely a preference like choosing homebaked bread vs. store-bought. Vaccination is not a lifestyle choice. It’s a healthcare decision, but it’s also a public health issue. By nature, the government’s recommendation for people to vaccinate compels us to consider this as a social duty. Only a concern more urgent than that social duty, such as the risk of imminent harm from the vaccine, can justify relief from that duty. A social duty is not necessarily a moral one, but as the author of the blog post I mention above pointed out, vaccines are an issue of life or death. If we consider ourselves pro-life Christians because of a moral duty to protect life, then we must examine our attitudes about vaccination with that level of seriousness and not with a less rigorous “Christian liberty” defense. On the subject of Christian liberty, Sinclair Ferguson points out:

We are given liberty in Christ in order to be the servants of others, not in order to indulge our own preferences… “We … ought … not to please ourselves… . For even Christ did not please himself ” (Rom. 15:1–3). There is something devastatingly simple about this. It reduces the issue to the basic questions of love for the Lord Jesus Christ and a desire to imitate Him since His Spirit indwells us to make us more like Him. True Christian liberty, unlike the various “freedom” or “liberation” movements of the secular world, is not a matter of demanding the “rights” we have.

Christ died for us. He suffered miserably for our sakes. He lived again that we might follow him in faithfulness. Aren’t we compelled to go so far for each other, and for Him, if we must? Well, vaccines aren’t anything like that in terms of the commitment, and with them we can only help protect our brothers and sisters physically, not spiritually. Yet we cannot shrink away from these very basic responsibilities too easily.  I think it is fair to say with what I have laid out, then the only remaining issue in my mind is whether a person who refuses vaccines is doing so because the risk of harm to themselves is truly greater than the duty to act in accordance with efforts of public health. Far be it from me to make that judgment on someone else’s behalf.

I do have one last point to make and it is this: there aren’t really two sides on this issue. There are the facts, and there are the fears. The provaccine side is where the scientific consensus exists. Potential reactions are carefully scrutinized to ensure that, while some people still do have reactions, very very few serious reactions occur. When the risks are too high, the vaccine is pulled off the market. The antivaccine side exists primarily as a place where the gaps of science are filled in with speculation. Yes, there are heart-wrenching stories of purported vaccine injury, and only those families and their doctors can truly know the accuracy of those. These families are suffering. Yet, there are some extraordinary cases where such stories have been woven with apparent intent to deceive.

When it comes to the facts, there are many decades of evidence of effective vaccines thwarting millions of deaths and serious illnesses worldwide– suffering we never had to hear about because it didn’t take place. Science demonstrates the clear causal link between pathogen and disease, and the clear association between public vaccination efforts and drastically reduced incidence of disease. What science has also shown is that the vast majority of illnesses attributed to vaccines, in internet forums and elsewhere, aren’t even associated with vaccines, much less caused by them. Vaccines cannot and should not be the scapegoat for every illness for which a cause has not been found. They have done too much good to have people scared away because of misunderstood tragedy, fear and speculation.

A blog about a simple, Christian, homeschooling, homesteading family.


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