An outbreak of the measles that reportedly started in Disneyland has reignited the debate over vaccinations. Harsh words are being spoken, moral absolutes being thrown as challenges. “Kids must be vaccinated to enter school”, some say. “Vaccinations are equivalent to supporting abortions”, others claim. “Parents should be held responsible for their decision not to vaccinate”, people insist.
As a Catholic and as a parent, I’m almost sorry to reach the conclusion that the issue is not as clear-cut as it may seem to some. Why am I sorry? Because this means I have to exercise that arduous virtue called prudence by doing my research and making a decision that effects not only my own children, but potentially unborn children and the wider population.
What’s at Stake?
There are several different factors that enter into the decision whether or not to vaccinate children. Contrary to some news reports, conscientious objectors are not (for the most part) just stubbornly refusing to take their kids to the doctor’s office. Their objections usually come down to two basic claims:
- Vaccinations could do more than harm than good: Objectors cite a variety of harmful effects of vaccines. These include, but are not limited to, toxic materials in the vaccines, an alleged link between vaccines and autism (this link has not been proven), and potential side effects of the vaccines. The CDC responds to most of these concerns here
- Some vaccinations can be traced back to the remains of aborted babies: It is true that a number of current vaccines are derived from two cell lines that were originally prepared from the tissues of aborted unborn babies. Understandably, Catholics of good conscience find this to be repugnant and immoral. The Pontifical Academy of Life, however, has explained that while the creation of these lines was sinful, people are not formally or materially cooperating with the evil of abortion when they are immunized.
The scientific reasons against vaccines are fairly weak. Particularly, these objections seem to hold little water when compared to the vast harm that can be caused by not being immunized.
The moral question is a bit more complex. While the Pontifical Academy for Life has said that it is not immoral to receive a vaccine that has been derived from a “tainted” cell line, that is not the end of story. They stress that as Catholics we should do everything we can to be sure that vaccinations are not created in such a horrendous way again. One way to do this is to seek out alternative vaccines that were not created with the use of the tissue of aborted babies. We also are being to asked to demand that untainted vaccines be created. The Academy does state that cooperation is “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).” In other words, the production of the stem line itself is unacceptable, but the use of the vaccines, while not ideal, is legitimate.
One thing that I keep coming back to throughout this debate is the role of parents. Children cannot decide for themselves whether or not to be vaccinated. As in so many things, parents have the responsibility to care for the health and well-being of their children. Of course, “the end doesn’t justify the means” as the adage goes. It wouldn’t be right to do something sinful (like cooperate with abortion) to keep a child safe from the measles. So many parents on both sides of the debate have taken their vocation as parents seriously, sincerely researching and deciding what they think is best.
However, all signs point, and the Pontifical Academy of Life agrees, to the fact that receiving these vaccines is not sinful. And, unless any future studies show differently, the proven health benefits of vaccines outweigh the potential risks.
So yes, we should do our best to avoid tainted vaccines and advocate for moral creation of any future stem cell lines. But if there is no alternative, we can morally receive vaccines. And, considering our responsibility to our children and our neighbors, not only can we receive the vaccines, but I would argue that we should.