Patheos (& Other) Peeps: Rachel Marie Stone on Loving Our Neighbor By Getting Our Kids Vaccinated

On Fridays, I share links to blog posts by other writers. I link often but not exclusively to writers affiliated with Patheos, the religion and spirituality web portal that hosts my blog. Please share the blog love by reading these posts, sharing them via Facebook, Twitter, etc., and/or participating in the comment conversation.

My oh-so-brave friend Rachel Stone put herself on the line this week, by writing a post for Her.meneutics (the women’s blog on the Christianity Today web site) in which she argued that vaccinating our children makes sense from a scientific/medical perspective (research has clearly debunked the notion that vaccines cause autism, and the benefit of vaccines arises from “herd immunity”—an illness can be eradicated in a population even if not every single person is vaccinated, so long as enough people are vaccinated) and from a Christian perspective (because of that herd immunity mechanism, if a significant part of the population is unvaccinated, the risk of illness is greater not just for those people, but also for people who cannot be vaccinated for some legitimate medical reason, people with compromised immune systems, neighboring populations, etc.). The dangers arising from widespread failure to vaccinate is on display in some African nations, for example, where diseases such as polio had previously been considered eradicated. But when enough people stop vaccinating for various reasons (for example, one Islamic group spread a rumor that vaccines were a U.S.-led conspiracy to sterilize Muslims), then the disease reappears, and not only in that population, but in neighboring populations.

Rachel argues:

What concerns me about the anti-vaccination movement is not merely the fact that people are so easily persuaded by falsified claims about vaccine risks, nor the tragedy of people losing their lives to diseases that were (thanks to vaccines) nearly eradicated. Rather, I’m concerned that so many people seem willing to let others carry the supposed burden of vaccination so that they don’t have to. To me, that’s a failure of the commandment to love our neighbors: our infant neighbors, our elderly neighbors, and our immune-compromised neighbors. That’s a disease of the soul for which the only treatment is love—best shown in the God who became man to bear our infirmities in his own body.

Hoooo doggy, did she ask for it. Predictably, Rachel is being flamed by those who pile on the anecdotes and web sites supposedly proving that, not only are vaccines dangerous, but they are made from dead babies! And they are a conspiracy led by Big Pharma, whose sole concern is money, money, money! And furthermore, how dare Rachel suggest that our daily decisions about how to live and care for ourselves and others have anything to do with our faith! People come to the Her.meneutics blog to read about spirituality and Jesus, thank you very much, not to have someone suggest that their Christian faith has anything to do with their behavior and decisions! And anyway, urging people to make decisions based on what’s best for everyone and not just the individual isn’t Christianity, it’s socialism!

It’s obvious where I stand. I think our faith should inform our daily behavior and decisions, both mundane and monumental. I think research is more valuable for decision-making than accumulated anecdote. I think making medical decisions based on what you read on web sites heavy on opinion and conspiracy theories and light on documented research is foolish (I am married to a librarian after all). I think journlists should be allowed to raise legitimate questions about the quality of medical research and reveal the holes in popular cultural notions without being accused of being both cold-hearted and blind to reality. (In my work around reproductive and fertility medicine, I have occasionally argued with those who elevate anecdote over science, and been accused, as Rachel has been this week, of being fooled by Big Pharma and conspiring doctors, while also failing to give a damn about people’s well-being.) I want to bang my head against the wall when I read comments to Rachel’s essay from those who say they aren’t vaccinating their children against diseases like polio because people don’t get polio in the U.S. (and why is that again? oh yeah…because of vaccines!). I hope New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof pays attention to Rachel’s tweet to him the other day: “Please write something about how vaccine conspiracy theory is a US luxury afforded us by the efficacy & safety of vaccines!”

I’d go a step further than that, and argue that widespread suspicion of modern medicine in our culture—the painting of vaccinations, pharmaceutical companies, hospital births, and more as part of a vast conspiracy by those in power to hide the truth, make money, and rob people of their self-determination—is a luxury available only to those who have never faced serious threats to life or limb without benefit of modern medicine to treat them. As Rachel points out in a post reflecting on her vaccination piece (a gracious and wise post, especially given the circumstances), no institution or profession is free of self-interest or flawed priorities. Our medical system has plenty in it that needs fixing. But the people who make up the “system” also possess our better human qualities of wisdom, compassion, and honesty.

As someone who would be living an isolated, painful, limited life without benefit of modern medicine, I choose to look for that wisdom, compassion, and honesty first. I choose to trust that those advocating childhood vaccinations are motivated primarily by the desire to do what research has continually shown to be the most effective thing to ensure that children aren’t suffering from (and dying of) preventable diseases.

About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Kyra

    Has ANYONE researched the “dead babies” claim, before dismissing it out of hand?

    It’s only Christians who get hung up on this issue; the cdc has no reason to hide it.

  • Susie

    “Human diploid tissue’ is clearly listed on the CDC website. This IS aborted fetal tissue. Scripture tells us ‘life is in the blood’, so it makes sense that contaminating the blood with diseased animal tissue, known neurotoxins, like mercury and aluminum, and known carcinogens, like formaldehyde, will cause neurological and immunological problems, especially in babies, whose blood/brain barrier is not fully developed. I don’t see anywhere in scripture that it’s OK to sacrifice babies for the ‘greater good’.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      “it makes sense….”

      That’s exactly the problem with how this debate gets framed. We don’t get to decide what does and doesn’t cause diseases and disorders based on “what makes sense.” Research is continually proving that what “makes sense” to our puny human brains doesn’t actually make sense. There is no proof that vaccines cause specific disorders. Whether we THINK they should based on what makes sense to us non-researchers is irrelevant.

      I have a brittle bone disorder. People who are pregnant with a baby known to have this disorder believe that it “makes sense” to deliver the baby via c-section. Our puny human brains think that’s obvious that a potentially traumatic squeeze through a vagina is going to be more dangerous than being lifted out of an incision. But research proves otherwise. What “makes sense” to us is not the most important data to use in deciding what medical interventions to choose.

    • Autismum

      Of course there’s nothing in scripture about vaccines that would be because they weren’t invented at the time those words were written. Vaccines are not aborted foetal smoothies. Some, not all, are made from cell lines taken from abortion of the 1960s. Millions of lives have been saved.
      As for vaccine ingredients, formaldehyde is produced in the body every day (about an ounce and a half) through normal metabolism. This dwarves the amount in vaccines. It is the dose that makes the poison.
      There is no mercury nor aluminium in vaccines. This is a scare tactic by the antivaccinations movement. What is there in some (again not all) are aluminium compounds and there was (but now only in multi vial ‘flu vaccines) thimerosal, a mercury containing molecule. Describing these compounds as alumium or mercury and attributing their elemental qualities to them is as ridiculous as calling salt sodium and insisting it burst into flame on direct contact with water.

      • Ellen Painter Dollar

        “not aborted foetal smoothies”…Thanks for that thought! The hyperbole of antivax language is part of what makes me crazy. How we talk about something matters.

  • Taffy Wilcox

    I’d be curious to know your thoughts on vaccinating your dog. As one whose dog had vaccine – induced seizures all his life, I am not crazy about them.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      Any medical procedure, from vaccines to surgery, carries risk. Our job is to weigh the risks and benefits as best we can and then decide what treatments to consent to. If there is information available ahead of time to indicate that a vaccine poses a specific danger to an individual animal or human, then I think it’s reasonable to proceed with caution, and in some cases, the decision not to vaccinate might be the most appropriate one for that individual. And then there are those cases when something unanticipated goes wrong. And that just, well, sucks. I’m not being flippant. It’s sad and awful and terrible when someone has a bad reaction to vaccine, just as it’s sad and awful and terrible when someone reacts poorly to anesthesia and ends up seriously injured after a routine surgery that should have been low risk. But the risks of such complications are low. When most people (and animals) can get vaccinated with little risk, then I object to people choosing not to vaccinate due to PERCEIVED and UNSUBTANTIATED risks, because of the danger that a large number of unvaccinated beings poses to the larger population.

  • Miriam

    I 100% support vaccines. In previous generations of my family, people were permanently damaged by diseases that we don’t get anymore because of vaccines (my great aunt was never able to have children because of measles) and some died (my great grandfather died in the flu pandemic of 1918-19.)

    As for the chemicals in vaccines, did any of you anti-vaccine people ever really look at that? “oh noes! There is mercury in them!” oh yeah, it is *ethyl* mercury, which the body clears out of the system in about 18 hours, unlike *methyl* mercury which is the nasty stuff that bioaccumulates in the environment and is really harmful. It’s like the difference between wood alcohol (which kills people) and regular booze alcohol (which can mess you up, but your liver is pretty awesome at cleaning it up and getting rid of it).

    Oh noes! Aluminum! For heaven’s sake, there’s aluminum in everything, there is more aluminum in breast milk then there is in vaccines. And guess what? Countries like Norway that have gotten rid of all these “offending” chemicals in all their vaccines, are still having the problems (like autism) that “come” from vaccines.

    Not getting your kids vaccine is the worst kind of selfish, privileged thing a parent can do in an industrialized country.

    However Ellen, I do have to say after my horrendous personal experience with hospital birth, I do have to say that the care given to pregnant and birthing women in this country is sorely lacking. (hence my skeptical take on the mantra of “the safest place to have a baby is in the hospital”) Modern medical technology for at risk women is amazing and has saved countless lives, but too often all that advanced technology is applied to people who do not need it. The 30% c-section rate in this country is unacceptable and puts lives in danger. The WHO says that the c-section rate is best at about 15%, that is the real number of people who need that live saving surgery, but people like me? I did not need it and I resent having been put through the over medicalized bullshit machine when I had W.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      The arguments about all the chemicals, etc. in vaccines reminds me of a women’s mag that I once picked up that listed page after page of all of the places in your household where bacteria are present, and ways to clean those areas. But nowhere on any of those pages did the magazine say that any of those bacteria in our homes cause specific illnesses. Yes, we are exposed to chemicals and bacteria and all sorts of stuff all the time. The mere fact that certain chems are present in vaccines doesn’t phase me unless someone can prove that the presence of those chems in those vaccines are causing specific problems in vaccinated people. And that’s what the research hasn’t shown.

      As for hospital births, I agree that things are messed up. My argument is about the demonization of the medical system that I see in many conversations, including those around birth. I know that home births can be safe and appropriate for many women, and that in other countries, they are actually the norm. That makes tons of sense to me. What bugs me is when any conversation around birth (or any other medical issue) starts to demonize an entire profession and medical system. I am an optimist at heart who believes that MOST medical practitioners are compassionate and wise folk trying to do their best with a flawed system. That’s all. I once read a diatribe by a blogger about how the medical staff kept wanting to speed her labor along and she and her valiant husband kept sending the big bad medical people away (really, the language was so good and evil that it was nuts). When the doc said something after delivery like, “Oh well, missed my daughter’s birthday party,” the blogger’s response was a “gotcha!” In her thinking, that was the “proof” she needed that the whole birth team was conspiring to make her have her baby so that the doctor could go home. That may be true. But when I said something like, “Did you ever talk to your doctor after, maybe let him know how that comment came across to you at the time?” everyone thought I was nuts. I mean, doctors are humans too. Sometimes they might say stuff that gets misinterpreted. Sometimes they might not understand how their actions are perceived by others. How about talking to your doc as a human instead of making him the evil foil in your little morality tale?

  • Christa

    The Bible says ‘HIS way is perfect’. Does God make mistakes? Of course not. There has never been, is not, and will NEVER be something MAN can create BETTER than what the Lord has created! So for man to say that the immune system God himself created is inferior to what they can genetically manipulate – is, from a religious standpoint, blasphemy in itself. Also, the Bible states our body is not ‘ours’ and the Holy Spirit is within us.. We are not to mark our flesh or harm our bodies, so to believe it’s acceptable to inject foreign chemicals, toxins and carcinogens into our precious, PERFECT blood…is WRONG and a CLEAR disobedience of Him and His word!

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      Um, vaccines aren’t genetically manipulated. They are simply a way to kick start the body’s own immune system. And sorry, but having been born with a body that does NOT work as it should, and having had medical intervention that allows me to live a full life in spite of that, I don’t buy the idea that it’s blasphemy to figure out how to treat and prevent illness.

  • Ellen Painter Dollar

    I’m logging off for a few days…last minute vacation with my family. So I won’t be able to respond to any additional comments for a few days.

  • Kyra

    I’ll just say, that the risk of vaccine injury has been very real and substantiated in my family; in fact, it has happened, on more than one occasion (although thankfully not to my own child).

    The media and the medical profession will tell us that the risk is very small. That has not been my experience, but I will recognise that the opposite has not been yours. I don’t have a problem with people doing their research, and coming to a different conclusion than I do. I do have a problem with someone saying I’m not a good Christian if I do differently, or dismissing the information I give, without even checking to see if what I say is true.

    When you read the vaccine package insert (depending on which vaccine it is), and you come to a serial number on the ingredients list, a letter with a few numbers after it? That’s the serial number, or the “name”, that was assigned to the aborted fetus, decades ago, and still makes up a constituent of the vaccine in question. Oh, I don’t mean it’s the same literal baby… there wasn’t enough of him to go around. But it will still be cells propogated from this fetus. Seriously, I could not make this stuff up. This is found on the government’s own websites.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      You cannot decide on what the risk of a particular procedure is based on your “experience.” Your experience is not the same as the overall risk to the general population, and that’s the risk that should matter when people are making decisions about vaccinating their children. Some people end up injured after surgeries that go wrong. Do we then start advocating against surgeries that help the vast majority of the people who have them?

      Again, not trying to be flippant or cold about people who have had complications from vaccines. But anecdote doesn’t equal scientific research, and the research indicates that vaccines are safe for the huge majority of children.

      Some vaccines (only the MMR from what I gather) were developed using cell lines that came from legally aborted fetuses back in the 1960s and 70s. Many, many of our modern medicines and technologies are developed using decades-old cell lines (e.g., “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks”). There is no new fetal tissue being used in making vaccines. Not using vaccines does absolutely nothing to the abortion rate, and does not affect whether or not aborted fetuses are used today in developing vaccines (they’re not). If you get cancer, will you refuse the drugs developed from Henrietta Lacks’s cell lines because her cells were unethically obtained without her informed consent?

      And anyway, the way some commenters to Rachel’s piece said it was, “Vaccines have dead babies in them.” That is false and inflammatory and not at all helpful to the debate.

  • Kyra

    I am not making determinations about vaccine based solely on my experience; that was only the catalyst that caused me to start researching it. I was merely pointing out, that it is a reality for many of us.

    And, if you had researched this (!), you would know that many vaccines in use today (mmr being only one of them) were propogated from the cell lines of aborted fetuses, many decades ago, not just in the 60s or 70s. This is how the vaccines were originally created.

  • Kyra

    However, if you have done your research, and are aware of this and other concerns regarding vaccines, and you are still okay with it, I respect your right to make your own decision. Please extend to those who don’t vaccinate, the same courtesy. Realize that we have researched as well, and are generally vastly informed about vaccines, their origins, their ingredients, the politics, and more. If your conscience allows you to vaccinate in spite of the fetal cell connection, good for you. Please understand and respect that my conscience does not allow it of me.

  • Karen

    I applaud you, Ellen. Christians must take responsibility for their communities by keeping themselves and their children healthy. Thank you for your eloquence in speaking out.

  • Mary

    Bless you, Ellen. You’re braver than I am. (And I 100% agree with you on this.)

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      Thanks Mary. Although as a friend said after reading both my and Rachel’s posts, one shouldn’t have to be brave to speak up in favor of common sense supported by reams of solid medical research.

      • Rachel Marie Stone

        True enough!

  • Autismum

    Great post, well thought out and, in the midst of increasing cases of measles and pertussis, very timely. Thank you.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      Thanks for your support.

  • Ellen Painter Dollar

    I am far from an expert on vaccination, but my intent was to support my friend and colleague Rachel Stone, who HAS done the research, and share her excellent essay both about the science behind vaccination and the moral duty we have to support public health by vaccinating our children under most circumstances. To answer the questions that have been raised in the comment section, I consulted another person who has done her research, Karen Ernst of the blog “Moms Who Vax.” I am impressed by the number and quality of links Karen and her co-blog host provide for more information, by their explanation of concepts such as “false equivalency,” and by the measured, knowledgeable tone of their blog. Here is what Karen (who, by the way, is a devout Catholic and pro-life) wrote to me. I am quoting her with her permission:

    “I respect most people’s parenting choices when they have no effect on people outside their family. However, vaccination is not merely a personal decision, but a decision that affects public health. No vaccine is 100% effective, so there will always be those who rely on herd immunity. While I can respect that people are genuinely trying to do their best for their children, they are, indeed, endangering someone else’s child and taking away those parents’ rights to protect their children from disease. I also can sympathize with the desire to do what is best for a child, but I cannot respect a decision that is based on false information. The science on vaccinations is far too clear and the stakes are far too high to give people a pass. I also really liked the point you made in your blog. It is not Christian to think only of our own children when making health decisions. I always take into account Christ’s teachings that ‘What you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.’ The elderly, the very young, those with chronic conditions, those with compromised immune systems, and those who cannot be vaccinated rely on us to keep them healthy. As Christians it is absolutely our duty to do all we can to keep people healthy.

    Most people misunderstand how aborted fetal cells are even related to vaccines. These cells were harvested from the lung tissue of two aborted fetuses in the 1960s. Then they were grown as cell lines, which replicated practically endlessly, eliminating the need for more fetal cell tissue. Viruses from certain live-virus vaccines are grown in the cell lines (Hep A, rubella, chicken pox, and rabies), and once they are ready to be used in the vaccine, they are taken out of the cell line. Most people think that vaccines “contain” fetal cells, but I like to point out that they contain fetal cells no more than a potato contains worm poop.

    Where a pro-lifer can get hung up is in their culpability in the act of the abortion. The Vatican was asked by a pro-life group named Children of God for Life whether or not Catholics can vaccinate their children using these abortions and remain in good standing with the church. The Church’s response was not overwhelmingly pro-vaccine, but they did argue that Catholics can and should vaccinate their children.

    The reasoning was very basically thus: The bulk of the culpability (cooperation with evil) lays with the mother and the doctor performing the abortion. Next in line are those who harvested the cells, which was done without consent. Their cooperation is less than the first two since they did not perform or consent to the abortion, yet they did harvest cells without proper consent. After that, there is very little proximity to the original abortion. Doctors and parents are said to be in “very remote mediate cooperation” with the act of abortion, to the point where the sin is practically nonexistent. I probably sin more egregiously on a daily basis thinking bad thoughts about all the stupid drivers on the road. (Here is the actual letter:

    It’s also important to note that refusing vaccines puts one at risk of sin since they knowingly fail to protect their children from diseases which may maim or harm others. I’m not a theologian, but I imagine that if your unvaccinated children were responsible for exposing a baby to pertussis, and that baby later died, the act of failing to provide protection would be sinful.

    Furthermore, rubella and varicella (chicken pox) can cause birth defects when a mother is exposed during pregnancy. Congenital Rubella Syndrome is particularly dangerous and debilitating. Before the vaccine, exposure to rubella caused mothers to seek out abortion. One could argue, therefore, that vaccinating your children prevents abortion.

    It’s important to note that a more than a few religious organizations that are pro-life also provide vaccines as part of their mission work. The Latter Day Saints, for example, have a widespread measles campaign using the MMR (measles-mumps-rubella) vaccine as part of their mission work:,7098,6210-1-3218-1,00.html. MAF also delivers measles vaccines to various parts of the world:”