Culture

Michael Leunig On Vaccination: “I Think The Science Is Incomplete, I Honestly Do”

"I think the science is incomplete, I honestly do."

As he’s best known for making whimsical musings about a small crudely-drawn duck, Michael Leunig last month found himself in unfamiliar territory facing serious accusations of being negligent about public health. Following on from the government’s controversial “No Jab No Pay” policy, one of his cartoons in The Age appeared to defend mothers who choose not to vaccinate their children and, in turn, he faced widespread criticism.

On social media a number of people called him out as an anti-vaxxer, some argued it was irresponsible for The Age to publish the cartoon, and others whose family members had suffered from preventible diseases took personal offence.

Though Leunig himself refused to clarify his thoughts on the issue itself, a spokesperson told us, “His cartoon on the subject addresses the issues of hostility towards those who choose not to have their children vaccinated and defends their right to a personal position”.

Now, in an interview with ABC News Breakfast this morning, he’s finally expounded on that view. Though he was invited on air to talk about his new cartoon collection Musings From The Inner Duck, the conversation inevitably turned towards this controversial issue (around 1.05).

“I think it’s a very significant moment when you ask the maternal instinct to absolutely step aside and accept what the conventional wisdom are saying [but] I’m not taking a position here publicly,” he says.

“The position I’m taking is … do we just sweep aside those mothers who, in great conscience and intelligence and research feel that they just can’t go ahead with this? Should we demonise them, criminalise them, should the whole society make them feel a pariah? I’m concerned about that. That’s the traditional work of the cartoonist, to stand up for the improbable minority, which seems to be of true heart and sincerity.”

Virginia Trioli counters Leunig’s concerns, pointing out that any scientific evidence against vaccination has been totally debunked — to which Leunig responds, “Well, science depends on whether you believe that science is the final say on everything.” Parents are entitled to be wary of the practice, he says, comparing it to the drug thalidomide: society once accepted the use of that drug, which caused mass birth defects in the 1950s and ’60s. (Though, as Trioli points out, this was due to a cover-up by the pharmaceutical company which manufactured it).

“[It’s] my job, not to march entirely with science; to be the improbable,” he told Trioli. “People like yourself, and [your cohost], and [many others] get heated up and say ‘stop this’ … Why so emotional?” 
To this Trioli responds with what is just a truly impressive amount of sass to have before 8am on a Friday: “It’s called public health”. Here’s the footage of that, slowed down for you:

The end of the segment seems to trail away from there, with Trioli frustrated by the debate she’s found herself in, and Leunig a little carried away with the verbal diarrhoea he’s let out after firmly stating he was “not taking a position publicly”.  

“If we cared about public health we wouldn’t design cities like this,” he said. “We wouldn’t have appalling television, dreadful media, you know, the public health is in disarray. At so many levels. All we are worried about this is this little needle … But I’m not standing against vaccination, it’s the individual conscience, it’s a matter of conscience. I was a conscience objector in the Vietnam war so I understand about it.”

With many viewers regarding these comments as further confirmation of the cartoonist’s opposition to vaccination, social media has been united almost unanimously against him.

There are those that are flagging his comments as hazardous misinformation:

Some renewing calls for his employer to take action against him:

And others who just feel a little jaded by the new meaning this all gives to his iconic cartoons:

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Leunig irl