What does the church teach about vaccinations?

Categories: Around the Diocese

healthMinnesota law requires all students in kindergarten through 12th grade to show they have received immunizations against certain diseases or have an exemption based on medical reasons or the “conscientiously held beliefs” of their parent or guardian. In light of the recent debate over whether parents should be required to vaccinate their children against measles and other diseases, The Visitor interviewed Father Thomas Knoblach, consultant for health care ethics for the Diocese of St. Cloud.

Q: In light of the recent measles outbreak, some media have called attention to parents who don’t vaccinate their children because they fear it can cause autism or other medical problems. Is there any scientific basis for this concern?

A: In the reading that I’ve done and the literature I’ve reviewed, there is no evidence for this. In fact, it has been made clear that the initial study on this matter in 1998 has been debunked and the physician-author censured. There is no evidence of long-lasting, negative neurological consequences from the use of these vaccines. I think there’s been enough independent scrutiny of this and a number of studies done in various countries that demonstrate it’s a reliable conclusion.

Q: What does the church say about vaccinating children in general? Is it a moral obligation or should it be a parent’s call?

A: Somewhere in between. The National Catholic Bioethics Center has a page on vaccinations, and I think they do a fine job in pointing out that, while the church does not mandate particular actions like vaccinations, there is a legitimate concern about the common good. Vaccination risks are far outweighed by the public health dangers of not vaccinating.

As a responsible citizen, it is the person’s responsibility not only to care for their own child’s welfare but also the welfare of the community in which they live. A non-vaccinated child is far more likely to get measles, for example, and then transmit it to the rest of the community that is not vaccinated. That’s why there’s a goal of immunizing 95 percent of children, which is considered sufficient protection to prevent an outbreak. You can’t ensure that no one will get sick, but you can exponentially reduce the risk.

Q: There has been some concern raised about vaccines prepared from cells derived from aborted fetuses. The measles-mumps-rubella vaccine falls into this category. Explain how Catholic moral teaching views the manufacture and use of these types of vaccines.

A: People may have different reasons to refuse or avoid vaccines. One of them is this question about whether it is morally legitimate to use vaccines if they began with tissue from an aborted fetus. The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith does a fine job addressing this. [The congregation addressed the issue in its 2008 document “Dignitas Personae” (“The Dignity of the Human Person”), and the Pontifical Academy for Life published a statement on the topic in 2005.]

The National Catholic Bioethics Center goes into detail about two cell lines that originated from tissue from two fetuses aborted 45 to 50 years ago. These cell lines are used to culture some vaccines. As the NCBC points out, since that time, the cell lines have grown independently and are not the cells of the aborted fetus. And, there are no cells from an aborted fetus in any of the vaccines.

When you look at Catholic moral principles about cooperation with evil, there are different degrees of complicity and moral culpability.
“Formal cooperation” — in this case, if someone uses the vaccine because they support abortion and believe this advances abortion — would clearly be wrong.

Then there is “material cooperation,” which means I’m somehow involved in wrongdoing, but there may be justifying reasons to do so. “Immediate material cooperation” would mean that somehow I’m directly involved in the wrongdoing even though I disagree with the wrongdoer’s intention. This is clearly not that case with parents seeking to vaccinate their child. A fetus is not aborted in order to create the vaccine their child gets every time.

This would be, at best, very “remote material cooperation.” Remote in the church’s mind doesn’t mean it’s been a long time, as though the passage of time would now justify something that was wrong at one point. By remote, we mean causally remote. In these cases, parents are morally justified in allowing their children to be vaccinated to protect their health and the health of others despite concerns regarding the vaccine’s origins. It is worth noting as well that the fetal tissue used to culture the vaccines originally did not come from abortions done for that purpose.

Q: In the meantime, it would seem we should encourage the creation of other vaccines that wouldn’t have similar problematic origins.

A: Correct. The issue, of course, is that as long as it’s profitable, there is no motive for companies to create alternatives — unless there’s sufficient moral pressure brought to bear on those companies, or unless another company is funded to do the work by those with this moral concern who are seeking an alternative.

The Pontifical Academy for Life, however, is clear at the end of its document when it says: “The burden of this important battle cannot and must not fall on innocent children and on the health situation of the population, especially with regard to pregnant women.”