Does the “Fetal Cell” Problem Justify Religious Exemption for Vaccinations?

Rachel Stone posted yet another excellent article about the importance of childhood vaccination for public health over at her new Religion News Service (RNS) blog. Rachel has consistently spoken up in favor of most children being vaccinated against childhood diseases, including in a (surprise!) controversial post several years ago for Christianity Today in which she invoked the Golden Rule to argue that vaccinating is not merely a “personal choice,” but a way of caring for our vulnerable neighbors by fostering herd immunity. In this week’s RNS post, Rachel focuses on parents who claim a “religious exemption” from vaccination laws, such as those requiring children to be vaccinated before they enter school. In most cases, parents don’t have to explain their religious objections, but merely state that they have them. Rachel writes:

What’s most troubling to me is the casual abuse of the venerable concept of “religious freedom” in order to secure the right to refuse, on dubious scientific grounds, an effective and important public health measure, particularly when very few Americans practice any form of organized religion that specifically proscribes vaccination.

As Rachel describes, some parents use religious exemptions as a way of avoiding vaccinations that worry them, even if they don’t actually have religious objections to the practice. However, some pro-life Christians do claim a religious reason for refusing their children’s vaccinations. They claim that, because some vaccinations are manufactured using cells taken from aborted fetuses, their religious objection to abortion gives them a valid religious objection to vaccinations.

Seeking more information and perspective on this question, I talked with Karen Ernst, who works with Voices for Vaccines, a parent-led organization that supports and advocates for on-time vaccination and the reduction of vaccine-preventable disease. Karen is a Roman Catholic and pro-life, and she also works doggedly to convince parents that they can trust the scientific evidence in favor of vaccine safety and the vital role of vaccines in public health. She offered this explanation:

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  (Hep A, rubella, chicken pox, and rabies) are grown in the cell lines, and once they are ready to be used in the vaccine, they are taken out of the cell line. People think that vaccines “contain” fetal cells, but 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 vaccines created from these cell lines, 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. 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.

It’s also important to note that refusing vaccines puts parents at risk of sin, because they knowingly fail to protect their children from diseases that 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. Finally, more than a few religious organizations that are pro-life also provide vaccines as part of their mission work.  

When it comes to sin and law, Jesus was a “big picture” guy, his focus on charitable intentions and whether one’s action leads to more good results than bad. For example, when he noticed the Pharisees hanging around, eager to accuse him of healing on the Sabbath, Jesus said, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do harm, to save life or to kill?” (Mark 3:1-6). And of course, he defined the law broadly, citing love of God and neighbor as the greatest commandment and the ultimate summary of the Law and the Prophets. (Matthew 22:36-40)

The public health benefit of widespread vaccinations—the benefit to our neighbors, globally and here in the U.S.—is clear. While some children have health concerns that make vaccines too risky, for most families, vaccinating children is a way to love our neighbors (including those children for whom vaccination is too risky) by contributing to herd immunity against deadly illnesses. Using the “fetal cell” argument in support of a religious exemption to vaccines isn’t an example of bravely standing up for one’s faith. Rather, it’s a kind of blasphemy in which people distort facts and then slap a “Christian” label on their opinions. Claiming that my choice not to vaccinate my children is “personal” is not a Christian claim; it’s an American one, rooted in an individualism that contrasts sharply with the community- and neighbor-focused ethic of Jesus. Unlike other parenting choices that are truly best left up to individual parents, the choice to vaccinate or not affects the well-being of the “least of these”—the very young, the very old, the sick. Jesus had plenty to say about how our treatment of the vulnerable ought to reflect our love of him.

For a load of data on exemptions and how they affect vaccination rates, check out this article from Mother Jones

Author’s Note: A reader sent me an email (disagreeing with something I said in one of the comments below), in which she also said that “someone” told her that I have removed any comments disagreeing with my opinion. I have not deleted any comments on this post. I delete comments rarely, and then only if they violate my comment policy in obvious ways (such as by using derogatory language toward me or another commenter, or spreading false information).

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.

  • RachelMarieStone

    Thank you for tackling this thorny aspect of the vaccine “debate,” and yes, I do use scare quotes for that word, because I don’t there’s really any legitimate debate there. Vaccines work. As I said in the RNS post, the only reason folks can feel safe (and are in fact relatively safe) leaving their kids unvaccinated is because the vast majority of us do the right thing and get our vaccines. I’m only kind of jesting when I say that those who vehemently oppose vaccines ought to test their convictions by spending a few weeks with their kids in a remote village in, oh, Rwanda, where polio, measles, rubella, typhoid, meningitis, and yellow fever — all vaccine-preventable — are still endemic.

  • William Walton

    Use of vaccines should be weighed against possible side effects and lifestyle. I once asked my friend—an infectious disease doctor—about the benefits of immunizations. He said he was not sure. For some vaccinations, the risk of adverse side effects is greater than the risk of contracting the feared disease.

    Your “love your neighbor” position is legit, but could it not also be argued that conglomerating children together in schools or child care facilities is the real inconsiderate act when it comes to spreading sickness and disease?

    • RachelMarieStone

      The risk of side effect from the yellow fever vaccine is greater than the risk of getting yellow fever…until you go to Rwanda. But we are “not at risk” for diseases that most people alive today do not even remember, like diphtheria, precisely because of vaccines. Vaccines have become the victim of their own success.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      I think it’s fair to say that your doctor friend is in the minority when it comes to physicians’ support for vaccines as a positive thing for public health. As for conglomerating children, that’s not a moral question, it’s a practical one. It’s also a theological one. In the Biblical account, following Jesus generally involves being part of a communal life. Sending children to school and child care isn’t just about education and safety, but about relationships and community.

      • William Walton

        I appreciate the perspective you are expressing, but to knowingly put others at risk of contagion by failing to disassociate either one’s self or one’s child is to not love one’s neighbor as one’s self. It is not to treat others the way we would have them treat us. Is not this the ultimate moral test?

        In Leviticus 13 God provided explicit detail on how to deal with infectious disease, specifically leprosy. His method—isolation, not vaccination. The Lord could have “vaccinated” the children of Israel against the infectious disease of leprosy as he did in the case of the plagues just before removing them from Egypt. He did not.

        Obsession with vaccinations can represent an attempt to evade moral responsibility. As one pediatrician confessed to the concerned and questioning parents of a newborn, one particular female vaccination was admittedly unnecessary if the child “would live rightly.” The “disease” for which vaccination was being proscribed was recognized by the doctor as wholly the product of a deviant lifestyle.

  • pastordt

    Thank you. So important and so necessary.

  • Y. A. Warren

    “What’s most troubling to me is the casual abuse of the venerable concept of “religious freedom” in order to secure the right to refuse, on dubious scientific grounds, an effective and important public health measure, particularly when very few Americans practice any form of organized religion that specifically proscribes vaccination.”

    Public schools should be for those who are willing to submit to the public will. Others can home school or send their children to church schools.

  • MelodyRN

    “It’s a kind of blasphemy in which people distort facts and then slap a “Christian” label on their opinions.”


    It’s also an indication of how poorly misunderstood vaccines and the immune system work. If these Christians realized that gravity of the situation and how these infectious diseases are only a plane ride away I doubt they’d continue to deny their children protection. These families riding on the coat tails of community immunity should spend a week in countries where mothers walk 15 miles to give their children vaccines that protect them. They should spend time in countries where a child dies every 20 seconds from a vaccine-preventable disease, then come back re-read the statements from the church. I’m sure their perspective would change quickly.

  • Dorit Reiss

    I’ve heard from several religious friends that they find the religious exemption – and especially its abuse by people who are not sincere in claiming it – very problematic. This analysis answers quite a few of the claims used. Thank you.

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