Hypodermic Needle Injection. Photo courtesy Steven Depolo via Flickr Creative Commons

Hypodermic Needle Injection. Photo courtesy Steven Depolo via Flickr Creative Commons

Virtually every article I’ve read (or written) about the public health benefits of vaccination has received a comment arguing that because vaccines such as rubella were developed with cells from aborted fetuses, religious exemptions for evangelicals, Roman Catholics, and others who oppose abortion are justified.

This despite the fact that the Vatican clarified the Catholic position on vaccination in 2005, addressing the fetal cell question and affirming that vaccination is a question of the “common good.”

Nearly a decade ago, Msgr. Jacques Suaudeau, a medical doctor and a member of the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life told Catholic News Service that if an unvaccinated child were to communicate rubella to a pregnant woman (which often results in serious birth defects or miscarriage) that parent would be in “much more proximate cooperation with evil” than if the parent had simply agreed to use even a “morally questionable” vaccine.

It’s surprising, therefore, to read that a Roman Catholic father in Staten Island, New York, has been granted a religious exemption to the vaccination requirements of the Education Department. The father, who is identified only as “P.R.,” argued for a religious exemption not on the basis of the fetal cell question but instead because:

“children are born from the hand of God”  and that vaccination “demonstrates a great lack of faith in the gift of health and the promise of protection that we are given at birth and through baptism when we put our child in the hands of the Lord.”

This strikes me as not too far off from the sorts of faith healing that makes tragic news from time to time when children die because their parents believe that seeking medical care constitutes a lack of faith. Only this time, it’s not just the child that’s in danger. It’s the community around that child as well.

Furthermore, I’d like to ask P.R., whoever he is, whether brushing his kids’ teeth “demonstrates a great lack of faith” in God. Doesn’t God know when our teeth should fall out? The floss and fluoride and fillings that stave off the march toward dental decay that some of us are prone to is more or less natural, and, so far, God’s “promise of protection” hasn’t done much to excuse me or my kids from cavities.

For that matter, I wonder if P.R. puts his kids in car seats or buckles up when he gets behind the wheel, and, while he’s at it, disables the airbags. Because really, if you’re going to be consistent, any of these safety measures could be construed as a lack of faith. Why not put your child “in the hands of the Lord” and purge your home of smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, too? I suppose God could always dispatch an angel in case of emergency.

As a person who struggles with anxiety — particularly when it comes to the safety and health of my kids — I understand that protective measures do sometimes point to a lack of faith. But it’s not so much that I have faith that God doesn’t need my help in protecting my kids — it’s more that I need faith to close the yawning gap between reasonable and prudent living and all that is way outside my control.

In other words, I don’t wrap the kids in bubble wrap and confine them to the house while I bite my nails and Google around for things that could go wrong (even when that’s exactly what I want to do) but neither do I let them run with scissors, chew on batteries, play in traffic and eat raw chicken because “God will protect them.”

What I suspect in the case of this parent — and this is pure conjecture, of course — is that rubella and measles seem like remote enough dangers that he feels reasonably confident that he can trust “God” with his kids’ health, because of herd immunity. I imagine it would be much harder to trust “God” to protect the kids when they’re living in an area with endemic meningitis, polio, and measles.

Meanwhile, I’m troubled that this particular vision of “religious freedom” has no room for the common good — and shocked that the NYC Department of Education is letting P.R.’s sorry fallacious argument fly.


  1. Rachel, I’m saddened by your tone in this article. I know you are passionate about this issue but instead of publicly attacking this fellow Christian with such spite – why don’t you consider interviewing them or something else more constructive. Also – not all vaccines are created equal: http://www.judicialwatch.org/blog/2014/04/merck-dr-exposes-gardasil-scandal-ineffective-deadly-profitable/

    • Rachel Marie Stone

      Post author

      Not sure where you’re seeing spite here, and it is exceedingly hard to get interviews with people who allow themselves to be identified only by initials. I also don’t consider it to be non-constructive to point out the terribly flawed logic that lead to this dangerous decision. Thanks for reading.

  2. Rachel may spare the vitriol, but I won’t.

    There is nothing sane about opposing vaccination, especially in one of the largest and most diverse cities on the planet. The religious oppositions are self-righteous crap. It is the typical fundamentalist belief that they can be as harmful to anyone else as long as they claim God compels them.

    BLN, the news about gardisil being ineffective is a hoax.
    Virtually everything coming from the anti-vaccination people is either junk science or bad repeated rumor.

    Thanks to this misguided movement, horrific diseases which were thought to be eradicated are making significant inroads in our population. It is a public health issue guided by the selfishness and dare say idiocy of some. The logic of withholding vaccinations is very sketchy. Somehow worrying about a possible slight but survivable side effect is more important than worrying about catching a FATAL disease and spreading it around.

  3. Maybe it’s right to expose all this “self-righteous crap” as you call it. But who is more dangerous ? – these religious fundamentalists who are calling vaccines into question or a pharmaceutical industry that is steeped in corruption? This is not a hoax: http://projects.propublica.org/graphics/bigpharma (from the link: “In the last few years pharmaceutical companies have agreed to pay over $13 billion to resolve U.S. Department of Justice allegations of fraudulent marketing practices, including the promotion of medicines for uses that were not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. Here are summaries of some recent large settlements.”). These are vaccine makers as well – that should be trusted? It’s a cut-throat business with lot’s of money and power at stake. But it will all come out in the wash.

    • Phil Taylor (@pstni)

      Why did he wait so long to give us these “tools to keep us safe”? Millions have died throughout the centuries from diseases that are now eradicated through vaccination. Shame God didn’t give them the “tools to keep them safe” too.

  4. BLN religious fundamentalism is far more dangerous. It isn’t even a horse race. False pharmaceutical marketing is controlled and punished. There is no regulation of false religious claims. If only religion had to prove its product is as safe and effective as vaccines.

  5. Christians are told not to tempt God (Matthew 4:7) and leaving oneself vulnerable to disease without taking action that you can reasonably expect to protect against it, in my view, is tempting God. God may test our faith, but we may not test his faithfulness. Jesus says he is “the bread of life” (John 6:35) but most people will not take his words to mean that if we continue to eat food to nourish ourselves that we are faithless. In fact, when he miraculously brings a girl back from the dead, he commands the family give her food (Mark 5:43), something rather mundane and ordinary compared to the miracle of bringing her back to life. There is no indication that God wants us to deny ourselves basic means for maintaining health. As you pointed out, safety belts, tooth brushing, CO monitors, etc, are all rather basic means of health protection. So are the vaccines that are shown to be effective in preventing disease in ourselves and others.

  6. The excuse used by P.R. flies in the face of Jesus. His selfishness and disrespect for his neighbors and community is the opposite of Jesus’s teachings. This sorry individual deserves some old testament punishment for his awful decision and people like him won’t be happy until they lose a loved one to their poor decision or cause the death of someone else.

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  8. Buck Thornton

    I was born in 1961. I had mumps, chicken pox, red measles. Red measles meant I had to stay at home for several weeks. What a disaster that would mean today to “family schedule” if a parent had to stay at home to look after a child who could not go to school. We were given one vaccination. In Canada, our province just ordered 3 more new vaccinations. Then in winter flu shots are ordered.
    We are overmedicated, with Purell in our back pockets or anti bacterial in every doorway we enter at a public place.
    I’ve seen a lot of change over 40 yrs. I wonder how many drugs and vaccinations my grandchildren and great grandchildren will have.
    I do not see anything wrong with this exemption on religious grounds. Maybe the argument given was used as that is the one that would get results. Just saying you don’t agree is not politically or socially correct. I wonder if we are sacrificing the health of our children. Their bodies do not learn to fight anything off naturally. Every time my kids were ill as youngsters, they were given antibiotics. Flavoured even to taste good.

  9. Have you read the Roman Catholic position? Because you are misrepresenting it. It does not, most definitely say ‘it’s all good’. It says Catholics can ONLY use vaccines with fetal cell lines IF there is no viable alternative & they still are asked to call the manufacturer and register their discontent after doing so. They are under the obligation to know their brands and ingredients in order to use the most ethical version available. In short it is not a simple matter, it is a grave matter with a complex solution . . . Of course I am paraphrasing but the statement is not simple, it is complex.

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