With measles outbreaks in 14 states and health authorities imploring parents to weigh the minimal risks of vaccines against the ravages of preventable disease, some Christians are raising an objection of a completely different sort: the abortion connection.
The Internet rumors that claim vaccinations mean having tiny pieces of aborted fetuses injected into your body are flat-out wrong, yet there is a grain of truth in the assertion that vaccinations and abortions are linked.
Many of the most common vaccines, ones for rubella and chicken pox for example, are grown in and then removed from cells descended from the cells of aborted fetuses. Pregnant women aborted them about 40 years ago by choice, and not with the intent of aiding vaccine production.
Yet for some religious believers, those facts do not lift what they see as a moral prohibition against vaccination.
“West Virginians who object to abortion for religious or moral reasons have a right to refuse to inject abortion-related ingredients into their children,” states the website of the group West Virginians for Vaccine Exemption. West Virginia and Mississippi are the only two states that do not allow religious exemption for vaccinations.
In the rest of the nation, religious exemptions are far from rare. New Jersey, for example, where Gov. Chris Christie this week said he vaccinated his own children but stands behind the rights of parents not to, allowed nearly 9,000 school children whose parents claimed religious exemptions to go unvaccinated last year.
Health experts say even small pockets of unvaccinated children and adults can pose enormous public health risks, and point to the measles outbreak that began in Disneyland in December as but one piece of proof that nearly eradicated deadly childhood diseases will return as vaccination rates drop.
But where these scientific arguments fail, some religious authorities say there is still a moral, Christian calculus that can lead abortion opponents to choose vaccination in good conscience.
“I’m a follower of Christ, and the teachings of the Bible are the most important information that informs my thinking and my life,” said Dr. Eugene Rudd, the senior vice president of the Tennessee-based Christian Medical & Dental Associations, which takes a firm stance against abortion.
“But there is a judgment here, both scientific and moral, that says vaccination is part of my obligation – civic and moral – to others.” To protect one another, he said, “that’s an important biblical teaching.”
Rudd’s organization created a web page (cmda.org/resources/publication/immunization-ethics-statement) for Christians who struggle with the question of whether to vaccinate, and he has written on the matter for the Annals of Pharmacology, explaining how he concludes that vaccination is the moral choice. It is simply a fact that many life-giving breakthroughs in medical history were associated with less than moral practices, he wrote, and that failing to vaccinate can make one complicit in another’s suffering.
“It is relevant that those who accept vaccination for themselves or their children do so without any intention of endorsing abortion,” he further wrote. “The fact that there is a remote association with abortion does not establish moral culpability.”
The Roman Catholic Church, which opposes abortion and endorses vaccination as a general good, advises a similar reasoning process when it comes to vaccines linked – however distantly – to abortions, and the church leaves the decision up to the individual Catholic, said John A. Di Camillo, staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia.
This decision-making requires Catholics to affirm the dignity of life and to testify against the destruction of unborn life, he said. And it also requires them to ask other questions. Among them:
- “What are the details of a particular vaccination?”
- “Is there an alternative?”
- “Is the disease being vaccinated against contagious?”
When these questions are answered, he said, accepting vaccines whose origins are linked to abortion “could be morally licit.” A statement from the Pontifical Academy for Life, issued in 2005, affirms that Catholics may use such vaccines and should recognize the moral problems with them.
Karen Ernst, a vaccine advocate who leads Minnesota-based Voices for Vaccines, said there is an argument to be made that vaccines prevent abortion.
Rubella in a pregnant woman, for example, can lead to fetal deformities that might prompt that expectant mother to abort. But a woman vaccinated for rubella is not going to expose a fetus to the illness.
Ernst said that while she “applauds people who are prayerful when they discover there is some connection to abortion,” she fears that those who reject vaccinations based on a dangerous misunderstanding of science are taking advantage of those who hesitate for religious reasons.
“People who are anti-vaccine are people who are very vocally anti-vaccine,” Ernst said. “They want other people to be anti-vaccine, and one way they try to hook people in is to say ‘if you’re pro-life, you should know they are made from aborted fetuses.’”
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Lauren Markoe is a national correspondent for Religion News Service.)