Letters from Maine

A chance to unite


Is America coming apart at the seams? According to the press, there are more things that divide us than bind us together. It’s red state versus blue state, it’s the privileged versus the disadvantaged, people of color versus the white majority. Could the great melting pot have cooled and its contents settled out into a dozen stratified layers?

Small child receiving a vaccine Sean Locke/iStockphoto

Despite the image of a divided America that we see portrayed in the newspapers and on television, I continue to believe that there is more that we share in common than separate us, but it’s a struggle. The media operate on the assumption that conflict draws more readers than good news about cooperation and compromise. The situation is compounded by the apparent absence of a leader from either party who wants to unite us.

However, when one scratches the surface, there is surprising amount of agreement among Americans. For example, according to John Gramlich (“7 facts about guns in the U.S.,” Pew Research Center, Dec. 27, 2018), 89% of both Republicans and Democrats feel that people with mental illness should not be allowed to purchase a gun. And 79% of Republicans and 91% of Democrats favor background checks at gun shows and for private sales for purchase of a gun. As of 2018, 58% of Americans feel that abortion should be legal in all or most cases, and only 37% feel it should be illegal in all or most cases. (“Public Opinion on Abortion,” Pew Research Center, Oct. 15, 2018).

At the core of many of our struggles to unite is a question that has bedeviled democracies for millennia: How does one balance a citizen’s freedom of choice with the health and safety of the society in which that person lives? While resolutions on gun control and abortion seem unlikely in the foreseeable future, the current outbreaks of measles offer America a rare opportunity to unite on an issue that pits personal freedom against societal safety.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine, for nearly 40 years.

Dr. William G. Wilkoff

According to Virginia Villa (“5 facts about vaccines in the U.S.,” Pew Research Center, Mar. 19, 2019), 82% of adults in the United States believe that the MMR vaccine should be required for public school attendance, while only 17% believe that parents should be allowed to leave their child unvaccinated even if their decision creates a health risk for other children and adults.

Why should we expect the government to respond to protect the population from the risk posed by the unvaccinated minority when it has done very little to further gun control? Obviously a key difference is that the antivaccination minority lacks the financial resources and political muscle of a large organization such as the National Rifle Association. While we must never underestimate the power of social media, the publicity surfacing from the mainstream media as the measles outbreaks in the United States have continued has prompted several states to rethink their policies regarding vaccination requirements and school attendance. Here in Maine, there has been strong support among the legislature for eliminating exemptions for philosophic or religious exemptions.

It is probably unrealistic to expect the federal government to act on the health threat caused by the antivaccine movement. However, it is encouraging that, at least at the local level, there is hope for closing one of the wounds that divide us. As providers who care for children, we should seize this opportunity created by the measles outbreaks to promote legislation and policies that strike a sensible balance between the right of the individual and the safety of the society at large.

Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at [email protected].

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