What is the Catholic Church’s position on vaccines?
Vaccines, a cornerstone of modern medicine, are being regarded with skepticism by a growing segment of the population. There are fears that vaccines are unsafe, ineffective, and are being pushed by the government and pharmaceutical industry for reasons of profit and social control. Given the nature of this debate, the Church’s position should be explained.
Vaccines work, and they are safe and effective. They remain a cornerstone of public health. The Church supports vaccinations. These points must be made clear from the start.
However, there are caveats that cause millions of people to think twice before vaccinating. Doubts over safety and motive deserve both a fair hearing and evaluation. And there are ethical concerns over how some vaccines are derived. Historically, the cells from aborted children have been used in the development of some older vaccines. Finally, there is the issue of freedom, and the right of parents to choose what is best for their children.
First, it should be noted that vaccinations have changed the world substantially, helping hundreds of millions, possibly billions of people to survive in the present age. Without vaccinations, at least hundreds of millions of people would not be adults today.
Diseases kill. Historically, disease has been the greatest killer of all humanity. Consider the Spanish Flu pandemic which killed about 100 million people or 5 percent of the world’s population between 1917 and 1920. That is more than five times the number of people killed in World War I (20 million killed in the war).
Doctors warn more diseases will evolve and emerge in the many years to come, and vaccines will be essential to preventing future illness.
Sanitation alone does not explain the well being of people, and vaccinations administered in areas where sanitation is poor still escape the diseases they would otherwise suffer. SImply put, vaccines work as advertised.
However, a growing body of disinformation, rare, but publicised vaccine injuries, and scandals such as a counterfeit rabies vaccine in China are undermining public confidence. There also remains the question of how some vaccines are developed.
The National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) explains there are several vaccines derived from the cells of aborted children. Specifically:
A) Live vaccines against rubella:-The monovalent vaccines against rubella Meruvax (Merck) (U.S.), Rudivax (Sanofi Pasteur, Fr.), and Ervevax (RA 27/3) (GlaxoSmithKline, Belgium);
-The combined vaccine MR against rubella and measles, commercialized with the name of M-R-VAX (Merck, US) and Rudi-Rouvax (AVP, France);
-The combined vaccine against rubella and mumps marketed under the name of Biavax (Merck, U.S.),
-The combined vaccine MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) against rubella, mumps and measles, marketed under the name of M-M-R II (Merck, US), R.O.R., Trimovax (Sanofi Pasteur, Fr.), and Priorix (GlaxoSmithKline UK).
B) Other vaccines, also prepared using human cell lines from aborted foetuses:-Two vaccines against hepatitis A, one produced by Merck (VAQTA), the other one produced by GlaxoSmithKline (HAVRIX), both of them being prepared using MRC-5;
-One vaccine against chicken pox, Varivax, produced by Merck using WI-38 and MRC-5;
-One vaccine against poliomyelitis, the inactivated polio virus vaccine Poliovax (Aventis-Pasteur, Fr.) using MRC-5;
-One vaccine against rabies, Imovax, produced by Aventis Pasteur, harvested from infected human diploid cells, MRC-5 strain;
-One vaccine against smallpox, AC AM 1000, prepared by Acambis using MRC-5, still on trial.
[EDITOR’S NOTE: the names of the products above are all registered trademarks ( R ).]
This list is courtesy of the Pontifical Academy for Life, and the document “Moral Reflections of Vaccines Prepared from Cell Derived from Aborted Human Foetuses.”
The Church finds the following:
-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. (Ibid.)
Or as the NCBC states, “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.”
In other words, the Church understands that it is not the parents’ fault for being put in a position to choose between vaccines and support of a product derived from evil. Instead, the Church recognizes that the existing lines of treatment are well-removed from the initial misdeed and at this point, parents cannot be faulted for protecting their children from these diseases by using these vaccines.
However, the Church suggests parents ask for alternative vaccines to those listed above, and that they use those alternatives when possible. Additionally, the Church recommends that parents protest these vaccines in a reasonable fashion so as to encourage the ethical development of alternatives.
Putting parents into this dilemma is an injustice. Nonetheless, in this case, the lives of their children outweigh the legitimate moral concern for how these vaccines are developed.
As for the final issue, which is should parents be allowed to choose whether or not to vaccinate their children, the Church has no stated position. Many countries require vaccination. In places that do not require vaccination, and have poor medical infrastructure, vaccination is mandated by nature. It is common for parents to trek long distances to have their children vaccinated because they intimately understand the risk diseases pose.
However, in parts of the industrialized, western world, and in the United States in particular, public health and herd immunity remain strong enough to allow millions of people to remain unvaccinated without much danger. Cases of unvaccinated children becoming critically ill are still very rare, but they do happen.
Experts fear this good luck will not hold. As more people opt out of vaccinations, herd immunity will be compromised, especially in communities that have low rates of vaccination. Still, freedom outweighs, and the choice to vaccinate or not remains firmly in the hands of the parents.
It should be noted that not all people can vaccinate themselves, and that herd immunity is critical to preserving the lives of many vulnerable people, including those with compromised immune systems. When making the decision whether or not to vaccinate, people should consider
the needs of these individuals.
Consider what Dr. Paul Braaton of the Catholic Medical Association has to say about vaccines and the common good: “I also want to clarify that nobody at the Catholic Medical Association is against vaccines. We think that vaccination is a moral good, that it’s good for patients, and that it has benefited society greatly. We have a responsibility as moral agents to protect the common good and to immunize ourselves and our children against communicable disease.”
Finally, much of the information against vaccination is misinformation. Vaccines are not as profitable as curing symptoms of disease, so it does not make economic sense to vaccinate, yet the practice is widespread, which is a victory for pro-life ethics. Vaccines are highly regulated. Injuries can happen but are extremely rare. Many alleged, widely publicized cases of vaccine injury are not related to vaccines, but instead are anecdotes suspect to faulty perception. In some cases, misinformation is spread by quacks selling “alternative” treatments or health programs.
In summary, the Church supports vaccinations and has found that the risk of not vaccinating a person outweighs concerns over how some vaccines were once developed. People should ask for alternatives when possible, and they should protest unethical development practices. People should consider the needs of those who cannot be vaccinated when making their decision whether or not to vaccinate, but the decision is firmly theirs. People must understand they accept a level of moral liability for the health of those around them by choosing not to vaccinate.
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