, Volume 11, Issue 2, pp 152–174 | Cite as

Vaccine resistances reconsidered: Vaccine skeptics and the Jenny McCarthy effect

  • Samantha D Gottlieb
Original Article


Recent data and increased vaccine-preventable disease outbreaks suggest that a growing number of US parents choose not to vaccinate their children. Popular media have responded to this phenomenon by emphasizing refusers’ moral failings and irrational fears. This article explores vaccine skeptics’ objections and argues that their critics miss fundamental reasons for resistances. Drawing on ethnographic research with a community of vaccine skeptics in southern California, a consideration of a leading vaccine researcher’s responses to vaccine critics and an analysis of Jenny McCarthy’s condemnation of current vaccine practices, this research considers why even parents who have accepted some vaccines, but not all, distrust vaccines and their proponents. Parents’ skepticism merits new forms of engagement by physicians and other vaccine advocates. As with any health intervention, vaccines can present some risks to a small number of recipients; when public health and clinical messages minimize parents’ fears, they may increase parental doubt. The voices of parents who choose to opt out of or to alter the normal vaccine schedule reveal important expressions of biomedical resistance.


vaccines parental resistance Jenny McCarthy 



I appreciate the anonymous reviewers for their time and insightful feedback. I wish to thank Abigail Baim-Lance, William Muraskin, and Lauren Heidbrink for reading and commenting on earlier versions of this article. Hadley Leach and Richard Gottlieb have contributed useful editorial comments. I want to acknowledge all the research participants, especially those who shared their families’ lives and intimate details with me during fieldwork.

This research was funded by the Wenner-Gren Foundation grant #7754 and the National Science Foundation grant # 0724616. The author declares no conflict of interest.


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Copyright information

© The London School of Economics and Political Science 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • Samantha D Gottlieb
    • 1
    • 2
  1. 1.University of California, Berkeley, Center for Science, Technology, Medicine and SocietyCAUSA
  2. 2.Department of AnthropologyGeography, and Environmental Studies, California State University, East BayHaywardUSA

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