Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Mandatory vaccination: a danger to religious freedom

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 24, 2019

If I told you that police in New York had been ordered to bar Jewish children from public places, would you be alarmed?

You should be. And it happened. No one said that the order was directed specifically at Jewish children. But that would be the primary effect of a policy announced last month in Rockland County, a suburb of New York city.

Rockland County officials were reacting to an outbreak of measles, which had occurred primarily within the local Orthodox Jewish community. More than 150 children in the county have come down with the disease; most of them were from Orthodox Jewish families, which decline to vaccinate children for religious reasons. So Rockland County officials, citing the risk of a broader epidemic, announced that unvaccinated children would not be allowed in public places such as schools, churches, restaurants, auditoriums, and shopping malls.

How could that order be enforced? As a practical matter, how would police officers know whether or not children were vaccinated? In this case, obviously, children would become suspects if, and only if, their parents wore the distinctive clothing of Orthodox Jews.

Fortunately a New York judge has blocked enforcement of this dangerous order, persuaded by an attorney for Orthodox Jewish plaintiffs who argued that the “religious exemptions [to mandatory vaccination] are sacrosanct.” But county executive Ed Day is undaunted. As he promised to continue the fight against measles, he took a shot at the court’s decision, saying: “It is unacceptable to sit back and do nothing as more of our residents fall ill to this deadly disease and court decisions aside, we will never do that.”

Measles is not ordinarily a deadly disease. Indeed this year, despite a surge in the number of cases, the death toll in New York remains at zero. But it is a highly infectious ailment, and particularly bothersome to health officials because until recently, the disease had very nearly disappeared in the US. The MMR vaccine is very effective in preventing measles, and since the vast majority of children receive that vaccine, the overall American population has developed a “herd immunity.” The mini-epidemic this year, centered in New York, struck almost exclusively people who had not been vaccinated.

Some communities of Orthodox Jews, however, remained unvaccinated. Rockland County officials did not propose to punish those Orthodox Jews for their beliefs. Their children were not to be banished from public life because they were Orthodox Jews. Still they would have been banished, if the policy had taken effect. They would not have been punished for what they believed, but for acting on their beliefs.

The episode in Rockland County should sound an alarm for Catholics. The most insidious threats against our religious freedoms are not frontal assaults, not laws that would ban Catholic worship or punish the expression of Catholic beliefs. The major threats are against taking action on the basis of Catholic beliefs. At least in the foreseeable future, American Catholics are not likely to face prosecution for attending Mass on Sunday. But we may face legal penalties for refusing to conform with public policies that violate our religious convictions—as the policy of vaccination violates the convictions of some Orthodox Jews.

And as a matter of fact, some Catholics—myself included—also have objections to the use of the measles vaccine, MMR, which was developed using tissue from aborted babies. The babies were aborted more than 50 years ago, and the use of the vaccine does not require further abortions today. So moral theologians argue that the use of the vaccine is a case of “remote material cooperation” with an evil act, which can be justified in cases of need.

However, the Vatican also enjoined Catholics to resist the uses of vaccines developed from illicit sources. In 2005 the Pontifical Academy for Life said that “families have a duty to take recourse to alternative vaccines, putting pressure on the political authorities and health systems so that other vaccines without moral problems become available.” That 2005 Vatican statement said that Catholic families could be justified in vaccinating children to avoid a grave danger of disease—mentioning measles in particular—but also could be justified in “the use of conscientious objection with regard to the use of vaccines produced by cell lines of aborted human fetal origin.” The statement insisted that “the use of these vaccines should not be misinterpreted as a declaration of the lawfulness of their production, marketing, and use.”

Sadly, American Catholics did not unite to protest the use of the MMR vaccine, and demand the development of alternative treatments. Church leaders in this country did not exhort the faithful to demand moral alternatives—let alone to decline vaccination. As a result, the drive for mandatory vaccinations against measles gained momentum, and pharmaceutical companies actually stopped producing vaccines that provided morally acceptable alternatives.

Sadder still, the Vatican has now changed its tune on the question of vaccination. The Pontifical Academy for Life—which has been completely revamped and redirected under Pope Francis—recently issued a new statement, effectively reversing the earlier policy. The new statement emphasizes that today’s vaccines are only remotely connected to the original use of aborted fetal tissue, so that they “no longer imply that bond of moral cooperation.” The Pontifical Academy suggests a much stronger moral obligation “to guarantee the vaccination coverage necessary for the safety of others.”

The new Vatican statement claims that no abortions are needed for the development of new vaccines. That is true—it always was true—but researchers are touting the qualities of a new line, Walvax II, which has been developed from fetal tissues, as the possible base for development new and improved vaccines. What incentive do pharmaceutical companies have to reject the new Walvax line, if Catholics (and others committed to the pro-life cause) do not mount a concerted campaign against the use of illicit vaccines?

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 See full bio.

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  • Posted by: SPM - Apr. 24, 2019 10:32 PM ET USA

    I would be interested to know if you think Justice Scalia was wrong in "Employment Division v Smith"? Using Justice Scalia's argument, New York's decision would be proper since it was not "specifically directed to religious practice." Do you believe that peyote use be permitted when based upon a "sincere" religious belief? What about Marijuana?