Bioethics Blogs

Mark A. Largent, Vaccine: The Debate in Modern America, Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012; Mark Navin, Values and Vaccine Refusal: Hard Questions in Ethics, Epistemology, and Health Care, Routledge, 2016

Over the last twenty years or so, vaccines have developed as one of the standard examples of major public scientific controversies, alongside climate change and genetically modified foods. This public contention has attracted scholarly attention, and the current review examines two recent attempts at such scholarly intervention. While both books have their limitations, I recommend both to anyone interested in a sophisticated introduction to the vaccine controversy. Specifically, the first substantive chapter of each book would be an excellent set of readings for one-session discussion of the controversy in a bioethics class or science communication workshop.

Mark Largent’s Vaccine: The Debate in Modern America was published in 2012 by Johns Hopkins University Press (Largent 2012). Largent is a historian of science at Michigan State University, and most of the book takes the form of historical narratives of some key figures or moments in the development of the vaccine controversy. Mark Navin is a political philosopher at Oakland University in Auburn, Michigan, and so his Values and Vaccine Refusal—published in 2016 by Routledge—focuses on a more abstract analysis of arguments (Navin 2016). Both books are broadly accessible. While Largent’s book was published a few years ago, the two books work well together; thus the current, joint review.

Before getting into the details, let me introduce some terminology and provide a brief overview of the state of the vaccine controversy and vaccine compliance. Following Navin, vaccine denial is a denial of mainstream medical beliefs about the safety and efficacy of vaccines, while vaccine refusal is the behavior of refusing routine childhood vaccinations.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.