Sunday, May 20, 2012

To Vaccinate or Not to Vaccinate

Vaccination can be a hot-button topic among parents. There are many reasons while parents may object to having their children vaccinated. This article will focus on one moral argument – the fact that tissue from aborted children was used to make many vaccines. In venturing into these tumultuous waters, I would like to make three statements:
I am 100% pro-life. 
I believe parents have the right to make the decisions that they feel are best for their children and their consciences.
 My children are fully vaccinated.

In 2005, the Pontifical Academy for Life issued a statement regarding the use of these vaccines. I encourage you to read the full document at That statement does give parents the right to object to having their children vaccinated for moral reasons, but it emphasizes that this must be weighed against public health risk. The summation at the end of the article states:

-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.

In 2008, the Vatican issued the document Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions which also addressed this issue:

Grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such “biological material”. Thus, for example, danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available. Moreover, in organizations where cell lines of illicit origin are being utilized, the responsibility of those who make the decision to use them is not the same as that of those who have no voice in such a decision.

We can therefore state on moral grounds that while we do have a responsibility to object to the fact that the vaccines were made using these methods, we can make the decision to use them for the well-being of our children and society at large.

As I reflected on this issue, I tried to find a moral comparison. The one that kept coming to mind was organ donation. If a person is murdered, that person’s organs can still be donated (provided she was not murdered for the purpose of obtaining her organs). Would the recipient be considered a cooperator with evil because he benefited from the wrongful death of another? No. In fact, the gift of organ donation can be considered to bring a good out of a very bad situation.

In the case of these murdered unborn children (in 1964 and 1970), the decision had already been made to murder them. That is the horrible reality. Using the tissue from them does not change that initial evil, but is it possible that, like an organ donation, the vaccines brought some good to the world? Perhaps an ethicist can answer that question for me.

In terms of moral responsibility for the evil incurred in this chain of events, even the Vatican states that a parent who chooses to use these vaccines holds a very small level of responsibility. I certainly do not advocate the committing of sin, but the reality is that despite our best efforts, most of us, myself included, have committed more evil in thought, word, and deed, since we got up this morning. Perhaps considering the wider implications of public health if we refuse these vaccines, our energy in avoiding evil could be directed to more immediate concerns.

As for the practical question of whether to refuse to vaccinate one’s children for this moral reason, as the Vatican has stated, one does have the right to do so. However, vaccines work because a majority of the population is vaccinated. If the number of those who refuse to vaccinate their children increases, that protection will be lost and those diseases we consider eradicated can return. Those who choose not to vaccinate their children are protected because I chose to vaccinate mine. They are still benefitting from the vaccines.

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