Matt Bevin's anti-vaccination stunt is not about "personal choice": It's much darker than that

Bevin's anti-choice, anti-vaccine views show a pattern of deeply troubling attitudes toward women and children

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published March 21, 2019 4:11PM (EDT)

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin  (AP/Timothy D. Easley)
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (AP/Timothy D. Easley)

Thirty years ago this spring, I got the chicken pox. The disease is never fun, but I got a particularly bad case and my body still bears scars, especially on my scalp. I was sick a lot as a kid, including two hospitalizations for asthma, but nothing I endured was worse than the chicken pox, with the ceaseless itching from hundreds of sores covering every inch of my body, even the most tender areas. I spent hours every day crying, wondering with a childish intensity whether I would ever feel comfortable again. The vaccine came out six years after that and I, even as an adolescent, was overjoyed that children would never have to suffer that way again.

All that came rushing back to me reading about Gov. Matt Bevin of Kentucky, a Republican with a growing national profile, bragging about deliberately infecting his children with this disease, rather than sparing them the pain by getting them vaccinated. The story is bizarre, but not all that surprising. It's another reminder that, while the religious right loves to talk about love and Jesus, the true motivating principle of the movement is cruelty and domination, especially when it comes to women and children.

Bevin presented his decision to avoid the vaccine and instead deliberately expose his nine children (!) to the disease as a matter of personal choice. He said, "If you are worried about your child getting chicken pox or whatever else, vaccinate your child," while adding that "some parents, for some reason, they choose otherwise" and the government "should not be forcing this upon people."

Invoking free choice sounds noble, but in reality Bevin has spent his career opposing choice and, in particular, opposing women's bodily autonomy. He's stridently in favor of forcing childbirth on women, and has signed multiple bills trying to ban abortion in Kentucky, either literally or effectively. He also opposes the choice to prevent unwanted pregnancy, and ran on a platform of denying birth control services to women on Medicaid. He signed a bill mandating that schools teach students that choosing to have sex without intending to procreate is invalid. Bevin also opposed the right of same-sex couples to marry, comparing such consensual relationships to child rape.

Intentionally infecting your children with a nasty disease is not about personal choice, especially when the disease is easily prevented. Instead, it fits into the larger pattern of Bevin's life and political career, which is a pattern of deliberately inflicting pain on vulnerable people for no good reason. Beyond his personal proclivities, Bevin's behavior is part of a larger pattern of political sadism that animates the religious right, which is why so many of its preferred policies are about inflicting harm and trying to control the life choices of other people.

The anti-vaccination movement is largely associated in the public's mind with well-heeled, socially liberal types in urban areas, a professional class of people who get so caught up in organic food and perceived New Age wisdom that they start to believe lies about vaccines being toxic. Such people certainly exist, but the reality of anti-vaccination hysteria is a lot more complicated than that.

As Julia Belluz at Vox points out, recent measles outbreaks have mostly "been spreading in a particular type of community: tight-knit and traditional," such as Orthodox Jewish communities in New York, Amish communities in Ohio and most recently a Slavic community in Washington state — communities where a few influential members can induce a groupthink situation that is impervious to outside information.

The religious right, in contrast, isn't a tight-knit community so much as a national political movement organized around markers of identity -- whiteness, most notably -- and an ideological commitment to strict patriarchal family norms. As such, anti-vaccination sentiment hasn't really coalesced into a widespread belief on the religious right in the same way that, say, support for Donald Trump's presidency or hostility to abortion rights have.

Still, anti-vaccination sentiment plays off certain religious right impulses, particularly the affection for an "old-fashioned" child-rearing style that is punishing or even cruel. (Conservative Christians have spent years resisting any efforts to pass laws against severe corporal punishment.) As such, vaccine hostility has started to crop up frequently in conservative Christian communities, as evidenced by Bevin's behavior.

Another reason anti-vaccination ideas have traction in the religious right community reflects the sadistic impulse to punish women for exhibiting sexual independence. The rise in right-wing Christian skepticism about vaccines can be traced largely to the introduction of a vaccine to prevent HPV, a sexually transmitted virus that can cause cervical and throat cancers.

For the religious right, any effort to prevent sexually transmitted infections is viewed as "permission" to have sex. So there was an immediate and widespread word-of-mouth campaign among religious conservatives aimed at demonize the vaccine and scaring parents into believing that girls who receive it become sexually promiscuous. (In fact, there's no evidence that the vaccine influences sexual behavior at all. Even if it did, it's worth asking why conservatives think protecting virginity is more important than preventing cancer.) Former Rep. Michele Bachmann even suggested that the HPV vaccine causes "mental retardation."

There are also conspiracy theories throughout the Christian right claiming that vaccines are made with aborted fetuses. The truth is more mundane: Some vaccines were developed using fetal tissue in the 1960s, but none is now used to manufacture them. But such rumors persist, feeding off the religious right's distrust of medical care that improves the health and wellbeing of women and children, and also the fear that male authority over both is being undermined by such care.

Bevin's choice to infect his children with a painful disease for no good reason doesn't make sense at first glance. But his deep connection to the religious right helps explain things. Denying women and children the right to prevent pregnancy and disease is the ultimate show of domination: It demonstrates that their very bodies and health are subject to the whims of patriarchal authorities. It's tempting to shrug Bevin's behavior off as religious kookery. In fact, it's part of a poisonous ideology that is causing real harm to vulnerable people every day.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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