The vast majority of questions being posed by Catholic parents with regard to mandated vaccinations fall into two categories: the rights of parents and the morality of certain vaccines.
The Catholic Church has made it very clear that we must all be free to follow our conscience and that parents are primarily responsible for their children. It also teaches that respect and promotion of families must be one of the paramount drivers of public policy.
At the same time, the Catholic Church teaches that we live in community with each other and must balance our rights with the legitimate responsibility to promote the common good.
All of us have a responsibility to inform our conscience properly before accepting or refusing immunization against dangerous contagious diseases.
Rights of Parents
The right of parents to raise and educate their children is central to the well-being of the family and ultimately to society. As expressed so eloquently in the Catechism of the Catholic Church:
2207 The family is the original cell of social life. It is the natural society in which husband and wife are called to give themselves in love and in the gift of life. Authority, stability, and a life of relationships within the family constitute the foundations for freedom, security, and fraternity within society. The family is the community in which, from childhood, one can learn moral values, begin to honor God, and make good use of freedom. Family life is an initiation into life in society.
2209 The family must be helped and defended by appropriate social measures. Where families cannot fulfill their responsibilities, other social bodies have the duty of helping them and of supporting the institution of the family. Following the principle of subsidiarity, larger communities should take care not to usurp the family’s prerogatives or interfere in its life.
The Catechism also makes clear that the family operates within the larger community which shares a mutual dependence as families exercise their freedom:
1738 Freedom is exercised in relationships between human beings. Every human person, created in the image of God, has the natural right to be recognized as a free and responsible being. All owe to each other this duty of respect. The right to the exercise of freedom, especially in moral and religious matters, is an inalienable requirement of the dignity of the human person. This right must be recognized and protected by civil authority within the limits of the common good and public order.
Finally, society has the responsibility to balance the various freedoms in a manner that promotes the common good:
1908 Second, the common good requires the social well-being and development of the group itself. Development is the epitome of all social duties. Certainly, it is the proper function of authority to arbitrate, in the name of the common good, between various particular interests; but it should make accessible to each what is needed to lead a truly human life: food, clothing, health, work, education and culture, suitable information, the right to establish a family, and so on.
Catholics must inform themselves and follow their conscience with regard to vaccinations. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has provided doctrinal guidance on the morality of vaccines. Specifically, the CDF looked at the morality of using vaccines derived using “descendant” cells of aborted fetuses. In the summary of its ruling, the CDF says:
- “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 their 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.”
A link to the complete letter from the CDF is available on the website of the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC). The Center answers a variety of questions on the morality and ethics of vaccines along with other articles that might be of interest in creating a well-formed conscience on this topic. Visit the site at http://www.ncbcenter.org/page.aspx?pid=1284 or see below.
FAQ on the Use of Vaccines
National Catholic Bioethics Center – http://www.ncbcenter.org/page.aspx?pid=1284
- What is the Church’s teaching about the use of certain vaccines that have a distant historical association with abortion?
- What does it mean when we say that these products are made in “descendent cells”?
- How does one know when a particular vaccine has an association with abortion?
- What does one do if a physician recommends one of these vaccines?
- Are there any vaccines for which there are no alternatives?
- What do I do if there is no alternative to a vaccine produced from these cell lines?
- What support is there in Church teaching for this position?
- What can I do to ensure that alternative vaccines will be made available?
- Am I free to refuse to vaccinate myself or my children on the grounds of conscience?
- Won’t my use of these vaccines encourage others to destroy human life for research purposes?
What is the Church’s teaching about the use of certain vaccines that have a distant historical association with abortion?
There are a number of vaccines that are made in descendent cells of aborted fetuses. Abortion is a grave crime against innocent human life. We should always ask our physician whether the product he proposes for our use has an historical association with abortion. We should use an alternative vaccine if one is available.
What does it mean when we say that these products are made in “descendent cells”?
Descendent cells are the medium in which these vaccines are prepared. The cell lines under consideration were begun using cells taken from one or more fetuses aborted almost 40 years ago. Since that time the cell lines have grown independently. It is important to note that descendent cells are not the cells of the aborted child. They never, themselves, formed a part of the victim’s body.
How does one know when a particular vaccine has an association with abortion?
The cell lines WI-38 and MRC-5 are derived from tissue from aborted fetuses. Any product grown in the WI-38 and MRC-5 cell lines, therefore, has a distant association with abortion. The cells in these lines have gone through multiple divisions before they are used in vaccine manufacture. After manufacture, the vaccines are removed from the cell lines and purified. One cannot accurately say that the vaccines contain any of the cells from the original abortion.
What does one do if a physician recommends one of these vaccines?
Sometimes alternative products, which are not associated with these cell lines, are available for immunization against certain diseases. For example, there is a rabies vaccine (RabAvert) and a single dose mumps vaccine (Mumpsvax) without any association with abortion that are equally safe and effective. If doing so is practical, you should ask your physician to use an alternative vaccine, but there is no moral obligation to use products that are less effective or inaccessible. Parents should check with their physician regarding the efficacy and availability of these and any other vaccine.
Are there any vaccines for which there are no alternatives?
Unfortunately, at present there are no alternative vaccines available in the United States against rubella (German measles), varicella (chickenpox), and hepatitis A. All of these are grown in the cell lines WI-38 and/or MRC-5. (See note #7 of the statement of the Pontifical Academy for Life for a listing of vaccines and their source).
What do I do if there is no alternative to a vaccine produced from these cell lines?
One is morally free to use the vaccine regardless of its historical association with abortion. The reason is that the risk to public health, if one chooses not to vaccinate, outweighs the legitimate concern about the origins of the vaccine. This is especially important for parents, who have a moral obligation to protect the life and health of their children and those around them.
What support is there in Church teaching for this position?
A statement from the Pontifical Academy for Life issued in 2005 holds that one may use these products, despite their distant association with abortion, at least until such time as new vaccines become available.
What can I do to ensure that alternative vaccines will be made available?
You can write to the pharmaceutical companies that make these products and insist that they manufacture vaccines that can be used by all without moral reservation. Also, you can contact your local legislators about your concerns.
Am I free to refuse to vaccinate myself or my children on the grounds of conscience?
One must follow a certain conscience even if it errs, but there is a responsibility to inform one’s conscience properly. 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.
Won’t my use of these vaccines encourage others to destroy human life for research purposes?
Upon use, one should register a complaint with the manufacturer of the products as an acceptable form of conscientious objection. This signals opposition to the wider, morally reprehensible practice of using the unborn as little more than research material for science. There is no moral obligation to register such a complaint in order to use these vaccines.
It should be obvious that vaccine use in these cases does not contribute directly to the practice of abortion since the reasons for having an abortion are not related to vaccine preparation.
© The National Catholic Bioethics Center, 2006.
Vaccines and Exemptions Granted by Schools
National Catholic Bioethics Center – http://www.ncbcenter.org/
There is a particular concern on the part of Catholic parents about being granted exemptions from immunization requirements for admission to Catholic schools. We offer this brief statement as a clarification of the position of The National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC).
There are generally three types of exemptions from immunization requirements for school admission granted by authorities: 1) a religious exemption, 2) a conscience exemption, and 3) a medical exemption. Regrettably legislatures, health care agencies and school systems do not always use the terms consistently and with precision.
Furthermore, there are different kinds of vaccines targeting different kinds of diseases. We make a broad distinction between two types of infectious diseases. These definitions are provided by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Communicable disease: an infectious disease that that can be transmitted from one source to another by bacteria or viral organisms.
Contagious disease: a very communicable disease capable of spreading rapidly from one person to another by contact or close proximity.
Examples of contagious diseases would be measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox. Examples of communicable diseases which are behaviorally transmitted would be HPV and HIV. The NCBC supports mandated universal immunization for contagious diseases as defined above. It also supports a requirement that children be immunized against contagious diseases as a condition for admission to a school if a significant threat to the health of others exists. Such a requirement should allow for exemptions under certain conditions as is explained below.
The NCBC does not support mandated universal immunization and immunization as a condition for admission to schools for communicable, behaviorally transmitted diseases such as HPV. The NCBC holds that while there is no moral objection to vaccination against HPV in and of itself, the choice to have a child immunized against HPV must ultimately rest with the parents. The NCBC strongly opposes the mandating of vaccinations for non-highly contagious but communicable diseases because they do not pose the same public health threat as do the highly contagious diseases. The Center also opposes such vaccinations as a condition for admission to public or private schools since the diseases transmitted by behavior do not pose the same public health risks as contagious diseases as defined above.
The exemptions from immunization for admission to school provided by government and school authorities fall generally into three categories. The categories are described below and the position of the NCBC with respect to each category will be briefly explained.
Religious Exemption. A religious exemption from immunization would be granted if the teachings of the Faith of the parents held that vaccinations were immoral and contrary to God’s will. Many jurisdictions do not require that there be any specific religious teaching on the matter, but hold that whatever religious parents hold to be contrary to their Faith should be respected and an exemption granted – as long as there is not a clear and present risk to public health by admitting the child to the school. Some Catholic parents know and accept the clear teaching of the Church on the immorality of abortion. When they discovered that the vaccines for measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox were grown in cell lines that had their origin in tissue from two aborted children decades ago, they feared that they would be cooperating in abortion if they had their children immunized with these vaccines. However, the Catholic moral tradition holds that the parents would not be guilty of immoral cooperation in the evil of abortion if they had their children immunized with these vaccines especially if there were no other vaccines readily available. Since there is no Catholic teaching that the use of these vaccines is sinful, schools cannot allow Catholic parents to claim a religious exemption from the requirement of immunization.
Conscience Exemption. A conscience exemption from immunization would be granted by school authorities if the parents in conscience believed that it was immoral to have their children vaccinated. It is Catholic teaching that one must follow one’s practically certain conscience even if one is in error because the conscience is our last best judgment about what is right or wrong. If we would go against our conscience we would show that we were willing to do what was known to be immoral. Some Catholic parents erroneously believe that it would be a sin to have their children immunized with the vaccines with a historical association with abortion. The public schools, and indeed, Catholic schools ought to respect the consciences of these parents and grant a conscience exemption as long as there is not a health risk in doing so. The health risk is to be assessed by public health authorities. To provide an example. If the Centers for Disease Control judge measles to be virtually eliminated and public schools grant conscience exemptions because public health authorities have determined that to do so would not a public health risk, then it is our opinion that Catholic schools should also grant conscience exemptions. However, those in positions of responsibility in Catholic school systems are the ones who have to assess whether or not a risk to public health would exist if non-immunized children were admitted to the schools.
Medical Exemption. A medical exemption from immunization would be granted by the authorities if the child could not be vaccinated without facing serious health risks in the judgment of the physician because of conditions such as certain allergies, immunodeficiency, or neurological disorders. The authorities would grant such an exemption if, in their judgment, admitting such a child posed no serious health risk to the rest of the school community, children and staff. It is the opinion of the NCBC that a medical exemption should most definitely be granted by Catholic school authorities if in their judgment, based on the opinion of public health authorities, admitting the child would not constitute a health risk.
Some Catholic school authorities have read the statements of the NCBC on vaccines and have wrongly concluded that the NCBC did not believe that any exemptions should be granted children. However, it is our opinion that only religious exemptions from vaccination for Catholics should be disallowed because there are no Catholic teachings that vaccinations as such are immoral. It is further our opinion that conscience and medical exemptions should be granted if public health authorities have judged that there is no risk to public health by admitting to school children who have not been immunized. On the other hand we also believe that it would be wrong, and would be following an improperly formed conscience, for parents to refuse to have their children vaccinated against highly contagious diseases unless it were for medical reasons, if in doing so they would place their children – and others – at risk.
We must sound a cautionary note. Fortunately, through systematic programs of vaccination the Centers for Disease Control has declared many diseases virtually eliminated in the United States. It is important to acknowledge, however, that we live in a global society which brings with it certain hazards to unvaccinated populations. In May 2005 there was a serious outbreak of measles in Indiana and Ohio because an adolescent child returning from Romania to her home was infected with the virus causing measles while doing missionary work there. It took intensive efforts by public health authorities to contain the outbreak. Measles, mumps, rubella and chicken pox remain highly contagious diseases and are wide-spread in some parts of the world. Parents must always be aware of the risks to which they subject their children and others if they do not have them immunized.
© The National Catholic Bioethics Center, 2006.