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.