Conscientious objection to vaccinations

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jan 30, 2015

Following an outbreak of measles that was traced back to Disneyland, public-health authorities are ramping up their campaign to persuade all American parents that their children should be vaccinated. This campaign places pressure on some parents who have moral objections to the use of certain vaccines.

We should not underestimate the vigor of the public-health campaign. Writers from RealClear Science and from Fox News-- not outlets ordinarily inclined to favor the expansion of government powers—have called for mandatory vaccination of all children, and even jail time for parents who resist.

Nor should we underestimate the seriousness of some parents who are determined to resist the campaign. Some oppose vaccination on scientific grounds, claiming that it can have harmful effects. Others resist on moral grounds, because some vaccines are derived from the cells of aborted babies. It is on the latter category—the conscientious objectors—that I want to focus in this essay.

This is not an essay on the effectiveness of vaccines. I am not a scientist; I have no standing to address that issue. But before setting aside the question of public health, let me raise a simple practical question: How many vaccinations should be mandatory? Should parents be legally obligated to use every vaccine that public-health officials consider desirable? Or should some be mandatory, and others elective?

Just a few years ago, Governor Rick Perry of Texas (again, not ordinarily known for favoring government intervention in private lives) issued an executive order requiring that all 6th-grade girls in the state be vaccinated against the human papilloma virus (HPV). The Centers for Disease Control opposed that move, saying that mandatory vaccination was not warranted. More recently, some medical experts have questioned whether the vaccine, Gardasil, actually works, while others have cited serious side-effects. Were parents in Texas being unreasonable, then, when they opposed the vaccination campaign?

More to the point, since we are talking about an outbreak of measles, would it be unreasonable for parents to decide that they would like their children to be vaccinated against measles and mumps, but not against rubella? For American parents today that is nearly impossible, because Merck, the company that dominates the field, decided in 2009 that its drugs for measles, mumps, and rubella would be bundled into a single MMR vaccine. This creates a serious moral problem, because Merck’s rubella vaccine is derived from the tissue of aborted babies.

So we return to the question of conscientious objection. Can parents have their children vaccinated with the MMR vaccine without compromising their pro-life principles—without cooperating with the Culture of Death? The National Catholic Register addressed that question this week, and although I cannot find any clear error of fact in the article, I think it creates a very inaccurate impression.

Relying heavily on analysis by the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC), the Register explains that parents who choose to have their children vaccinated are engaged only in “remote material cooperation” with abortion. Given the potential risks of disease, the article reports, the Vatican has stated that parents can be justified in chosing vaccination.

That’s all perfectly true. But reading the Register article, one might conclude that the Vatican has said parents should vaccinate. That’s not accurate. The Pontifical Academy for Life, in a statement released in 2005, said that parents could be justified in choosing vaccination. The statement did not say that this choice was preferable, let alone mandatory.

What the Vatican did say, with undeniable clarity, was that parents have a moral obligation to insist on vaccines that are not prepared by immoral means: vaccines not derived from fetal remains. The Pontifical Academy for Life wrote that “there remains a moral duty to continue to fight and to employ every lawful means in order to make life difficult for the pharmaceutical industries which act unscrupulously and unethically.”

That was in 2005. It was in 2009—four years later—that Merck decided to stop making available the morally untainted vaccines for measles and mumps. The Vatican had called upon American Catholics to fight for the development of morally acceptable vaccines. Sad to say—with the honorable exception of parents who resisted the immoral vaccines, and groups such as Children of God for Life that supported them—we did not fight hard enough to dissuade Merck from taking a giant step in the opposite direction.

The Register story conveys the impression that Catholic parents should vaccinate their children, but might also choose to lodge an objection against the use of morally tainted vaccines. The Vatican’s statement, in effect, tells parents the reverse: You may vaccinate, but you must object.

The Pontifical Academy for Life ended its statement this way:

To summarize, it must be confirmed that:
  • there is a grave responsibility to use alternative vaccines and to make a conscientious objection with regard to those which have moral problems;
  • as regards the vaccines without an alternative, the need to contest so that others may be prepared must be reaffirmed, as should be the lawfulness of using the former in the meantime insomuch as is necessary in order to avoid a serious risk not only for one's own children but also, and perhaps more specifically, for the health conditions of the population as a whole - especially for pregnant women;
  • the lawfulness of the use of these vaccines should not be misinterpreted as a declaration of the lawfulness of their production, marketing and use, but is to be understood as being a passive material cooperation and, in its mildest and remotest sense, also active, morally justified as an extrema ratio due to the necessity to provide for the good of one's children and of the people who come in contact with the children (pregnant women) ;
  • such cooperation occurs in a context of moral coercion of the conscience of parents, who are forced to choose to act against their conscience or otherwise, to put the health of their children and of the population as a whole at risk. This is an unjust alternative choice, which must be eliminated as soon as possible.

This is not a call for passive acceptance of the vaccines derived from fetal remains. (And by the way, chicken-pox vaccine falls into that category as well.) It is a clear call for action to remedy an injustice. If Catholics mobilized to demand ethical vaccines, the pharmaceutical industry would be forced to respond. If Catholics are content to say that they can be justified in using these vaccines, the injustice will continue.

Meanwhile, what about those Catholics (and other conscientious objectors) who have taken a firm stand? Some parents have decided that although they could be morally justified in vaccinating their children, they will bear witness to the dignity of human life by refusing even a remote cooperation with abortion. They deserve our support.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: rik92vin8086 - Feb. 17, 2015 10:47 AM ET USA

    Research costs money. So the only solution, as I see it, is to have christian funds setup to direct money specifically to researchers in the areas that can develop vaccinations that are drived from ethical methods. Vaccinations are for ones health and are a good idea. But we need an ethical way to get modern medicines. The idea that aborted babies are a product for use just can't happen. But if Christians don't adopt some form of isolationism or internal economy mindset, we get diluted.

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Feb. 05, 2015 1:13 PM ET USA

    Paul, I think that's a great point about the "good" of vaccination; I think the document goes even further. In the section before that entitled "The position of the ethical problem related to these vaccines," there is statement (of course, non-magisterial) that "obligatory" mass vaccination for "German measles, mumps, measles, chicken pox and hepatitis A" is a "milestone" in the secular fight to eradicate these diseases. That's pretty strong language.

  • Posted by: Jerz - Feb. 05, 2015 8:58 AM ET USA

    I'll keep praying for Catholics to mobilize...on anything.

  • Posted by: paul8309 - Feb. 05, 2015 6:01 AM ET USA

    Having carefully read the Vatican document of 2005, I would conclude that it does in fact say that it is good to use the rubella vaccine. The two paragraphs near the end (beginning "As regards the diseases against which...") show this. The final conclusion -- "However, the burden of this important battle cannot and must not fall on innocent children and on the health situation of the population" -- can only be understood to mean that using the rubella vaccine is more than just permissible.

  • Posted by: 1Jn416 - Feb. 01, 2015 1:55 PM ET USA

    I suspect the reason that Merck ceased manufacture of the vaccine for measles and mumps without rubella was simply economic: the vast, vast majority of children were vaccinated with the MMR vaccine. To turn around a non-Christian corporation on a matter such as this would require a massive rejection of the MMR vaccine, giving Merck an economic incentive to change. Alas, as with so many things, it is hard to imagine this happening.

  • Posted by: Chestertonian - Jan. 31, 2015 2:45 AM ET USA

    The scientific and moral grounds go hand-in-hand, as the rise in problems such as autism began at the same time as the rise in use of aborted fetal cell-lines. So, the concern is that the aborted fetal cell lines may be causing the problems. Sound Choices Pharmaceutical Institute of Seattle is now conducting studies on this question, as "almost 92% of our children have had vaccines made using aborted fetal cell lines, which are contaminated with aborted fetal cell DNA and a retrovirus."

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Jan. 30, 2015 8:15 PM ET USA

    Given the full blown support and promotion of abortion and contraception throughout the world by our government, and the prevalent application of the death penalty in most of this country, isn't paying our taxes remote cooperation in these murderous activities?

  • Posted by: jmjusa - Jan. 30, 2015 5:39 PM ET USA

    All states allow medical exemptions for persons who have medical contraindications to vaccination (an allergy, for example). Most states allow religious exemptions and some allow philosophical/personal belief exemptions. A conscientious objector would likely fall into the last category.