Vaccines are in the news again.
The Centers for Disease Control reports that there are now around 100 cases of measles in 14 states. To the horror of the kid in all of us, Disneyland was reported to have been a recent hot zone. Vaccination debates on social media get real ugly, real fast, even among friends and otherwise similarly-minded people. Parents are responsible for acting in the best interests of their children and so the responsibility of parents to do what is reasonable to help prevent a serious infectious disease for their children—and their neighbors—increases as the seriousness of the disease and its rates of infection increase. While measles is highly contagious, it rarely results in death, although serious complications associated with measles can occur, such as swelling of the brain and pneumonia. It is also very serious for pregnant women and their unborn children. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were around 55,000 cases of measles worldwide in 2014, down from over four million in 1980. That’s a significant difference and a difference no doubt due to vaccination. The WHO attributes a 75% drop in measles worldwide between 2000 and 2013 alone to vaccination. I have yet to see compelling evidence that would suggest that parents not vaccinate against measles.
Every medical intervention carries some risk of side effects and these must be reasonably weighed. The risk of developing a serious condition following vaccination for measles is about one in ten thousand—about the same as the risk of permanent paralysis of the tongue following wisdom tooth extraction. To put this in perspective, you are ten times more likely to be killed the next time you cross the street than you are to develop a very serious reaction from a measles vaccine. That’s a risk that needs to be weighed, of course. But the consequences for both personal and public health of not vaccinating for measles far outweighs the very small risk that a child will develop a serious complication from the vaccine. It seems safe to say that measles vaccination is safe and effective in preventing outbreaks of measles.
Public risks must also be considered alongside personal risks. This is especially true of highly contagious infectious diseases, like measles. If there is a good chance for a serious side effect and the benefit of the vaccine does not outweigh the risk, then one might be justified in not vaccinating. For example, Gardasil is a vaccine for Human Papillomavirus (HPV). HPV is highly prevalent among young adults and teens and while it is quite contagious, it is so only if one engages in particular kinds of sexual activity. The difference between measles and HPV is that anyone can get measles (apparently by going to Disneyland) but HPV is preventable by behavior. The benefit may not outweigh the side effects. That doesn’t necessarily mean one ought not receive the Gardasil vaccine, rather, in weighing whether to receive a specific vaccination, there is some cost-benefit analysis that needs to take place.
The real trouble with vaccines though, has less to do with side effects. Some vaccines are developed using cell-lines harvested from aborted fetal tissue. Two cell-lines in particular are problematic. The cell-line named WI-38 was developed from the lung tissue of a girl aborted in 1964 and cell-line MRC-5 was developed from tissue of the boy aborted in the UK in 1970. Both were elective abortions. Consider the term, harvest. As if human beings were reducible to their use as “resources”. No human person should ever be a source of raw materials for another’s benefit. Human beings are not objects to be manipulated and mined for resources. They are subjects. Living Images of God. Even if it were possible to cure every known illness by destroying even a single human embryo, it would not be licit, because the end does not justify the means and we must never do evil even to achieve some good.
The main moral concern with the vaccines is not really active cooperation, since the elective abortions occurred more than 40 years ago and receiving a vaccine developed from cell-lines (not even the original cells, more like copies of copies of copies, etc.) has very little causal connection if any to the initial events. But the 2008 instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Dignitas Personae warns:
“All of this gives rise to various ethical problems with regard to cooperation in evil and with regard to scandal.” (34)
Making use of the vaccines in question can cause scandal—leading others to mistakenly believe that it is ethical to use aborted fetal tissue in medical research. It can also constitute passive cooperation in such research, meaning that those involved (primarily the researchers themselves but also those who make use of the fruits of their research) do not speak out against the evil of treating human persons as means to ends. It’s a kind of tacit approval. To justify using these vaccines, there must be a serious or proportionate reason to do so.
Take chicken-pox, for example (and here only as an example, not medical advice). It used to be that chicken pox was a veritable right of passage as a kid. I knew families that would send their own children to play with neighbourhood kids who had chicken pox just to get it out of the way in their own house. I had chicken pox over twenty-five years ago and remember it vividly. It was painful and itchy and I had it everywhere, even on my tongue. But I also knew it would run its course and then I wouldn’t have to worry about it again (let’s not talk about shingles). Now there’s a chicken pox vaccine. It can be administered on its own or combined with measles, mumps, rubella (MMR). Both versions are developed with the WI-38 or MRC-5 cell lines. There are no alternatives available in the United States.
In a case like this where the illness is not very serious (referring only to chicken pox, not MMR) and where the only possible vaccines are derived from morally questionable cell lines, a parent who wished to avoid all association with evil or scandal may choose to not vaccinate against chicken-pox. One reason parents may want to vaccinate their children, against chicken pox, however, is that as more and more children are vaccinated for it, there is less of a chance that unvaccinated children will contract chicken pox as children, and chicken pox is actually far more serious for adults than it is if contracted early on. 75% of deaths from chicken pox are adults.
So should Catholics make use of these vaccines, then? Dignitas Personae concludes:
“Grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such ‘biological material’…danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available.” (35)
Every medical act carries some chance that it will not work as intended, just as some foods a restaurant puts on a menu will not sit well with some of its patrons. But when the health and safety of our children and community are on the line, protecting them against highly infectious diseases—especially when the benefit is much, much, much greater than the possible risks—seems the reasonable course of action. When the issue concerns moral cooperation in evil or scandal, parents should try to find alternatives to vaccines produced with cell-lines derived from aborted fetal tissue. If none are available (as is currently the case in the United States with MMR), they should make their objection known to pharmaceutical companies with clarity and gravity. Until the day when all vaccines are free from dubious origins and provided that they do not approve of destroying human life for medical “research”, parents do nothing wrong by vaccinating their children against serious and highly contagious pathogens.