There are a few terms that are commonly used to describe an undesired outcome of a vaccination. Perhaps the most common one is “side effect.” The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines side effect as “a secondary and usually adverse effect (as of a drug)”—as in “toxic side effects—called also side reaction.”1 MedicineNet defines an “adverse effect” as, “A harmful or abnormal result. An adverse effect may be caused by administration of a medication or by exposure to a chemical and be indicated by an untoward result such as by illness or death.”2
I have seldom run across the term “side reaction” in my reading, but I have often come across “adverse reaction.” Dictionary.com defines an adverse reaction as, “A result of drug therapy that is neither intended nor expected in normal therapeutic use and that causes significant, sometimes life-threatening conditions.”3
Another term that is also used to describe harm caused by vaccination is “adverse event.” The Harvard Medical Practice Study defines an adverse event as, “an injury that was caused by medical management (rather than the underlying disease) and that prolonged the hospitalization, produced a disability at the time of discharge, or both.”4
It is curious how sterile all of these terms sound. Side effect, adverse effect, side reaction, adverse reaction, adverse event. The words would not seem to elicit any strong emotional response from anyone who may hear them. It’s kind of like… collateral damage or friendly fire. Wikipedia defines collateral damage as, “a general term for deaths, injuries, or other damage inflicted on an unintended target. In American military terminology, it is used for the incidental killing or wounding of non-combatants or damage to non-combatant property during an attack on a legitimate military target.”5
Wikipedia defines friendly fire as, “an attack by a military force on non-enemy, own, allied or neutral, forces while attempting to attack the enemy, either by misidentifying the target as hostile, or due to errors or inaccuracy.”6
It is only when you read the definitions of the terms that you start to get a sense of their harmful implications. Toxic side effects? Do a Google search for the word “toxic” and you’ll find words like poisonous, virulent, noxious, deadly, dangerous, harmful, injurious and pernicious.7 A harmful or abnormal result? An untoward result such as illness or death? Causes significant, sometimes life-threatening conditions? Prolonged hospitalization? Disability?
Why does there seem to be such a need to exfoliate the potential negative impacts of vaccines? Why minimize them? Why not just say…
Yeah, vaccines do sometimes produce unintended harm, even serious harm, but we think it doesn’t happen that often. So the chances that anything will happen to you or your children are probably pretty slim.
Might it have something to do with an unwillingness to accept that a medical intervention that is supposed to help is actually causing harm? Does using bland terms to describe unintended harmful consequences of vaccines make these consequences more acceptable?
In 2011, Barbara Loe Fisher of the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) wrote:
[W]hen a child is injured or dies after vaccination, too often their injury or death is viewed as collateral damage in our nation’s “War on Disease.” Worse, it can be quickly dismissed by vaccine administrators as a “coincidence” and never counted at all.8
In 2015, Fisher wrote:
When vaccine risks turn out to be 100 percent for you or your child, you are expected to quietly accept that you are unavoidable collateral damage in the war on microorganisms.9
Fisher may be onto something here when she refers to being at war with disease and microorganisms. If you’re at war you can justify any action regardless of the consequences. It is both convenient and gentler on the conscience. Fisher has often noted the cruelty of this “utilitarian rationale,” also known as “the ends justifies the means.”9
According to Fisher:
Utilitarianism, which is a consequentialist theory, judges the rightness or wrongness of an action by its consequences and holds that an action that is moral or ethical results in the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people.10
This ethical and political doctrine developed by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham10 in the 18th century is similar to the Doctrine of Double Effect (DDE) described by Thomas Aquinas during the Middle Ages. The DDE sees as morally permissible “an action that causes a serious harm, such as the death of a human being, as a side effect of promoting some good end.”11
In 2007, American philosopher Camilo Mac Bica wrote:
[B]y focusing upon the moral significance of intention and its relevance to moral agency and responsibility, the DDE morally distinguishes killing as an unintended, secondary effect—collateral damage—from murder, claiming only the latter as absolutely prohibited. Consequently, the Criterion of Discrimination is preserved and, if intention is withheld, killing noncombatants is morally permissible.11 12
There are those who truly believe that terms like side effects and adverse reactions are appropriate because most people who experience them following vaccination appear to suffer no serious and lasting harm. There are also those who simply prefer to soften the vocabulary to avoid scaring people and risking they might become “vaccine hesitant.”
Then there are those who use such dispassionate language as a way of distancing themselves from what is really going on. It is like generals on a battlefield when they resort to using collateral damage to describe all the innocent people who were maimed or killed as a result of a military operation. It depersonalizes things and makes it easier to morally justify the ends or the intent of the mission.
2 Medical Definition of Adverse effect. MedicineNet.com May 13, 2016 (last review).
3 adverse reaction. Dictionary.com.
4 Brennan TA, Leape LL, Laird NM, et al. Adverse Events, Near Misses, and Errors. N Engl J Med 1991;324:370-376.
5 Collateral damage. Wikipedia.
6 Friendly fire. Wikipedia.
7 toxic. Google.
8 Fisher BL. Advocacy Panel Statement, Vaccine Safety Working Group Stakeholder Meeting, National Vaccine Advisory Committee. NVIC.org June 13, 2011.
9 Fisher BL. Blackmail and the Medical Vaccine Exemption. NVIC Newsletter May 18, 2015.
10 Fisher BL. The Moral Right to Conscientious, Personal Belief or Philosophical Exemption to Mandatory Vaccination Laws. NVIC Newsletter May 2, 1997.
11 Doctrine of Double Effect. Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy Sept. 23, 2014.
12 Mac Bica C. Collateral Damage: A Military Euphemism for Murder. Common Dreams Apr. 16, 2007.