Readers, please do not write me off as a rabid “anti-vaxxer,” because I am not opposed to vaccines in general, nor do I dispute their medical efficacy. My kids have received DTAP and all other ethically-sourced vaccines. I only wish to explore the moral choices that we, as Catholics, have to make regarding the use of unethically-sourced vaccines. For the purposes of this article, let’s assume that vaccines do work as intended and do not cause cancer, autism, or anything else of which they are accused. (And please ignore anyone in the combox who tries to make those claims, because God knows there are plenty of other places online to debate that subject.)
I AM NOT ADVOCATING A POSITION FOR OR AGAINST THE USE OF UNETHICALLY-SOURCED VACCINES. All people must make their own decisions for themselves and their families according to the dictates of their own well-formed conscience. I’m simply writing about my own struggle with this issue.
I’ve been troubled recently at the social media vitriol directed toward people who, for whatever reason, have chosen not to vaccinate themselves or their children. I’m also concerned about the vitriol I witness from people who haven’t vaccinated directed toward those who have. I’m especially perplexed when that vitriol is committed by self-professed Catholics and directed toward other Catholics – we’re supposed to be better than that.
I’ve agonized over the issue of the use of unethically-sourced vaccines since I found out about them in 2004, when I was pregnant with my oldest child and started researching vaccines in general. I found the website of Children of God for Life and read about the existence and use of vaccines derived from aborted fetal stem cell lines.
I’ve read the position of the Pontifical Academy for Life, which says that while parents may use the vaccines, and may in some cases even have a moral obligation to do so, there is also the obligation to protest their use and to conscientiously object if necessary.
I’ve read the position of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, in which they state, “There would seem to be no proper grounds for refusing immunization against dangerous contagious disease, for example, rubella, especially in light of the concern that we should all have for the health of our children, public health, and the common good.”
However, they also say, “There is no moral obligation to register such a complaint in order to use these vaccines.” That is not strictly true, however, according to what the Pontifical Academy of Life says – according to Phil Lawler’s analysis of the statement, people who use the vaccines are in fact morally obligated to object to them as strenuously as possible.
I’ve read Immunity From Evil?: Vaccines Derived from Abortion by Dr. Jameson Taylor, which disagrees with several of the points from the NCBC article as well as gives disturbing background information about the development of the unethical vaccines (for example, development of the rubella vaccine actually involved not just one, but 28 abortions). I was especially troubled by how many institutions have justified conducting research on fetal tissue from aborted babies by invoking the Church’s stance on unethically-sourced vaccines, which is something the NCBC doesn’t mention in their article.
I’ve read Dignitas Personae, which discusses the issue of unethically-sourced vaccines. “Of course, within this general picture there exist differing degrees of responsibility. 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.”
I’ve read what the Catholic Church teaches regarding the formation of conscience.
I’ve read Moral Conscience and Aborted Fetal Vaccines by Bishop Robert F. Vasa.
I’ve signed the petition at Change.org asking Merck et. al. to provide ethically-sourced vaccines.
I’ve written to the vaccine companies, more than once, asking for ethically-sourced vaccines. It seems like a lost cause, though. If thousands of people petition them for ethically-sourced vaccines but those same people buy and use the unethically-sourced ones anyway, why should they take any of us seriously?
I’ve asked all of my children’s doctors if it were possible to procure ethically-sourced vaccines, offering to pay out of pocket if necessary (barring anything prohibitively expensive). I was always told they weren’t able to procure any, even prior to 2009 when they were allegedly available from Merck.
At every check-up, I ask my kids’ doctor if he thinks the risk is significant enough that we need to take recourse to the vaccines. (So far, the answer has been no, but my youngest son’s 15-month well-baby check is coming up in a few weeks and I plan to ask again, given some recent cases in our area.) I don’t take measles lightly; I know it is a serious illness that can have serious complications, and it scares me. But I don’t want to ignore my conscience simply out of fear – that can set a bad precedent.
I have prayed, and prayed, and prayed some more, asking God for guidance as I try to figure this out. I still haven’t received a clear answer.
And yet, over and over again, I’m essentially told I’m an idiot or worse because I’m so conflicted on whether or not to use these vaccines. I guess the assumption is that I haven’t read, studied, researched, or prayed about this issue at all.
This is a plea to all Catholics who feel the need to disdain, insult, abuse, slander, or mock those of us who struggle with this issue.
Please don’t assume we’re ignorant.
Please don’t assume we haven’t done our research.
Please don’t assume that we don’t care about our children, or other children, or the immuno-compromised.
Please do keep in mind the definition of rash judgement, as found in the Catechism: “He becomes guilty… of rash judgment who, even tacitly, assumes as true, without sufficient foundation, the moral fault of a neighbor.”
Please do assume that we are all trying to do what is best as parents.
Please do discuss this issue rationally, calmly, and civilly, without resorting to name-calling, ad hominem, or saying that parents who don’t vaccinate for measles are personally at fault for every single measles death in the world (this is an actual accusation I’ve had leveled at me, and I don’t think anyone who is knowledgeable about Catholic moral theology would agree with the accuser).
Please don’t say things like this, from a (public) Facebook thread I participated in this past weekend: “Because nothing says ‘Catholic’ like always looking for the loophole. But I hope your smug, narcissistic pride keeps you warm when your kids and all your friends’ kids are dead thanks to not getting vaccinated.”
It’s also not helpful to accuse me (or anyone else) of deliberately wanting to kill children, as Mark Shea did in that same Facebook conversation: “Your views are a public menace and a threat to the lives of my granddaughters. I don’t take kindly to people who threaten to blind and kill my granddaughters.” I don’t think this is how Catholics should talk with one another.
In the same vein, if you haven’t vaccinated (either partially or fully) due to this issue, please respect the beliefs of whose who have chosen to vaccinate in spite of this issue. The Church has stated that it is licit to take recourse to these vaccines, and in some cases there is a moral obligation to do so. People who choose to use unethically-sourced vaccines are not violating Church teaching, just as those who choose not to use them are not sinning by doing so.
And please join me in praying that ethical vaccines will become available so parents who are not opposed to vaccinating in general don’t have to be in this position in the first place.