The Holiday season is also the cinema season. We’re giddy about movies right now. Today sees the release of the trailer for No Time to Die, the 25th Bond film (counting only the “official” EON productions – sorry about that, Casino Royale (1967) and Never Say Never Again (1983)). No Time to Die (hereinafter NTTD) will be Daniel Craig’s last performance as 007. While we won’t quite say that nobody does Bond better (Sean Connery was the first we saw in the role, and will always be first in our heart), Craig has been a brooding, menacing agent on Her Majesty’s Secret Service. To tide us over until NTTD premieres in April, we have Craig’s current fun, showy performance as a drawling detective in Knives Out, which is Rian Johnson’s take on Agatha Christie-esque murder mysteries. Rian Johnson is probably most famous for directing The Last Jedi, which was … fine. We’re hoping that the ninth episode in the Skywalker saga, The Rise of Skywalker, due out in a couple of weeks, will be more than fine. (One further tie-together: Daniel Craig had a brief moment in The Force Awakens as a stormtrooper reluctantly complying with Rey’s mind commands.)
Star Wars popped into our heads (it doesn’t take much) while reading a recent court opinion regarding child custody issues. That case also made us think about Sir Kenneth Clark’s great Civilisation series from 1969.
Let us explain.
The case is Matheson v. Schmitt, 2019 WL 6245773 (Mich. Ct. App. November 21, 2019). A divorced couple was squabbling over several child custody issues, but the only one of real interest to us is whether the child would be vaccinated. The mother, who had primary custody, said no, while the father said yes. The mother had religious objections to vaccination. Michigan law permits parents with religious objections to opt out of vaccinations, but here it was only the mother who harbored such objections. The father did not share those religious objections, and argued that his child should be vaccinated. Because of this dispute, the issue was tossed to the court, which needed to consider the best interests of the child. Satisfying the religious objections of one parent did not further those best interests (more on that later), so the mother grabbed hold of a fig-leaf of bogus medical objections. She contended that vaccination of the child was not in the child’s best interests “because vaccinations were medically contraindicated.” In support of this theory, the mother relied on testimony from the child’s pediatrician who stated that “a child’s potential predisposition to an adverse reaction from a vaccine can be gleaned from reviewing the child’s family medical history.” The plaintiff asserted that the child’s family’s medical history includes ailments “such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, psoriasis, and other autoimmune disorders, and therefore, the child would be predisposed to developing rheumatoid arthritis from her vaccinations.” But when the trial court asked the pediatrician whether a medical test exists that would predict a child’s predisposition to injuries arising from vaccines, the doctor responded that such a test does not exist.
The plaintiff presented evidence that vaccines can have adverse effects. That should arrive as news to precisely nobody. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also acknowledges that vaccines carry a “remote chance” of causing serious injury or death. Additionally, the product insert for the MMR vaccine indicates that the vaccine may have an adverse reaction of causing thrombocytopenia, and a variety of other serious ailments, such as encephalitis and encephalopathy. In short, it was undisputed that vaccines can potentially cause very serious adverse effects. It was also undisputed that there was a family history of autoimmune disorders. Then the mother’s expert took things to crazy-plaintiff-town by testifying about undue influence exerted by pharmaceutical companies over the CDC.
The Matheson appellate court preferred the land of lucidity. In affirming the trial court’s order in favor of vaccination, the appellate court held that “the dispositive issues are not whether vaccines can potentially cause adverse effects, or whether the vaccine manufacturing industry and pharmaceutical companies are unduly influencing governmental regulatory agencies. Instead, what is at issue is whether the administration of vaccinations is in the child’s best interests, taking into account her physical health. Even accepting as valid and accurate plaintiff’s contention that the child bears some predisposition to incurring an autoimmune disorder because of her family history, this attenuated risk, in and of itself, simply does not outweigh the significant benefits that would inure to the child by protecting her from the threat of serious and life-endangering diseases in the population. Put another way, the threat of harm to the child by exposing her to vaccines that could potentially trigger an autoimmune disorder is speculative, and the record does not otherwise demonstrate that the child would be put at risk of harm by receiving vaccinations.”
Both the treating pediatrician and the father’s expert medical witness testified that they recommend that children receive the vaccinations suggested by the CDC and the state of Michigan. Conversely, the mother’s expert witness had not personally evaluated the child and, while familiar with the child’s “medical records and her family history, testified generally about potential adverse reactions to vaccines and notably did not provide any substantive evidence, aside from possibilities and speculation that the child would be harmed by the administration of vaccines.” That thin presentation against vaccines could not overcome evidence that whooping cough is at “epidemic proportions” in Michigan and that it can lead to pneumonia, and even death for a child. The plaintiff did not present persuasive evidence establishing that “[the child] will be harmed by any particular vaccination and/or that any particular vaccination is otherwise contrary to [the child’s] best interests.” On the grounds of science, the mother’s cases against vaccination was a loser.
What really drove the case was the mother’s strong religious objections to the use of vaccines because “some vaccines are cultured in aborted fetal cells” and also contain animal blood. The trial court duly considered plaintiff’s objections to vaccines when considering “[t]he capacity and disposition of the parties … to continue the education and raising of the child in his or her religion or creed, if any.” The trial court ultimately did not find that the plaintiff’s testimony on the subject of her religious objections rendered this factor “more or less favorable to either party.” Accordingly, the appellate court held that “the trial court did not err by determining that it was within the child’s best interests to be vaccinated.”
The appellate court in Matheson also held that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in rejecting the mother’s proffer of expert testimony by a doctor “in the areas of adversomics, which addresses the adverse effects of vaccine injuries.” The expert had an “extensive educational and professional background in pediatric medicine, and her interest and work with vaccine-related topics,” but there was no showing that the expert had “been educated in , or worked professionally in, the specific and specialized area of adversomics for which plaintiff sought to qualify her as an expert.” Moreover, the court was “unable to discern exactly what comprises the specialty of adversomics,” and what “specialized knowledge” the expert could offer the trier of face in these proceedings.
If you haven’t seen the Civilisation series (the “s” is the British spelling), do yourself a favor and watch it. It is as relevant today as it was 50 years ago. The first episode is called “The Skin of Our Teeth.” It is about the Dark Ages (the six centuries following the fall of the Roman Empire) when Europe survived and ultimately emerged from violent paganism only because some monks huddled off the Irish coast and preserved art and scholasticism. By the end of the series, Clark blasts the then current era’s lack of confidence and seems to see the barbarians at the gate. That was back in 1969. By now, the barbarians seem to have made their way in and grabbed hold of the levers of power. Or perhaps as the cartoon character Pogo once famously said, “we have met the enemy and they is us.” Granted, we are growing ever grumpier and more pessimistic as we stumble toward dotage. Maybe we are the grouch yelling at millennials to get off our lawn. But to our moldy eyes, the glories of the Enlightenment are on the verge of being squandered. Voltaire and Franklin would be hooted by a talk-show audience or campaign rally crowd. Goodbye scientific method, hello idiocracy. Anti-vaxxers and climate-change deniers worry us. We seem to be sliding into a new Dark Age. The Matheson case is a brief moment where someone of sense leapt atop the pile of foolishness and called for a halt. (You should certainly take a look at Kenneth Clark’s description of Rodin’s Balzac sculpture – possibly the finest sculpture since Michelangelo — as a figure who says no to “lies, tanks, teargas, ideologies, opinion polls… the whole lot.”) With the current ascendancy of anti-fact know-nothingism, perhaps a small group of people who care more about truth than preference will hunker down on a small island (Martha’s Vineyard would be nice), and wait out the orgy of ignorance. In Civilisation, one of the places where the monks tended to their precious illuminated books while eluding chaos was Skellig Michael, a fearsomely remote and rocky crag west of Ireland. This tiny, forbidding island probably seemed hardly worth the bother to the Vikings. Skellig Michael also served as the location for Luke Skywalker’s retreat in The Last Jedi. So, yes, as always, everything comes back to Star Wars.