Pray the flu away

s+hWhen I became a parent, I was introduced to a world with a lot of fighting. Not between my husband and me — we get along great. But there can be some pretty serious fights in the Mommy Wars. These range from whether mothers should work outside the home to whether they should breastfeed exclusively. And one of the fiercest debates is over vaccination.

There’s a bit of a trend against vaccinating children and some parents who choose not to claim religious reasons. But St. Louis Post-Dispatch religion reporter Tim Townsend looked at what happens when religious reasons are the real reason for abstaining from vaccination. When I first looked at this piece, it was headlined “Does Christian Scientists’ right to refuse swine flu vaccinations threaten others?” It struck me as a bit too provocative of a headline. Now it reads “Prayer or inoculation? H1N1 is newest dilemma.” This seems like a much more responsible and accurate headline.

Townsend does a great job of summarizing the main issues at play in religious freedom and public health. He looks back at a moment in recent history to provide some context:

At the core of the issue are two ideas that help define Western civilization — in public health and religious freedom — that are sometimes at odds.

The first is a strategy epidemiologists call “herd immunity,” which allows the masses to protect the weak. The second is the free exercise clause of the First Amendment.

The concept of herd immunity says that when most of the population is inoculated against a disease, the chain of infection breaks down. Those who can’t be vaccinated — infants, for instance, or those with conflicting medical conditions — are protected.

Those who can’t be vaccinated, or who choose not to be, are called “free riders” by epidemiologists because they gain the benefit of herd immunity — even though they don’t participate. Because immunization is never 100 percent effective, when free riders get sick, it puts even those who have been vaccinated at risk.

He then discusses several instances of public health problems at Christian Science schools. For instance, a 1985 measles outbreak at a Christian Science college left three dead, over one hundred sickened and 712 students quarantined. There was another measles outbreak in 1989 that affected the school and a 1994 outbreak that spread to the school.

The piece discusses the theology behind Christian Science’s teaching that healing prayer renders medical care unnecessary. It also notes that the church encourages members to comply with any laws requiring vaccination and that it doesn’t forbid members from turning to medicine if they wish.

The H1N1 flu vaccine isn’t even mandatory, as measles and mumps vaccines are, but it does provide an opportunity for Townsend to explore the conflict between religious freedom and public health laws. He notes a 1944 Supreme Court decision supporting forced vaccinations. He gets some good varying perspectives:

[Nancy Berlinger, deputy director of the Hastings Center, a New York-based bioethics research institute,] said another ethical concern was that when a population refuses to be vaccinated, public health resources have to be diverted to that population if an outbreak occurs.

“We’re all members of the public, no matter what our personal beliefs are,” Berlinger said, “and there’s a point at which those beliefs start affecting someone else.”

But Rebecca Dresser, a professor of law and medical ethics at Washington University, said the fact that most states allow religious exemptions for mandatory vaccinations showed that “the public health benefits of the vaccine are outweighed by the desire to show respect for religious beliefs.”

But the article doesn’t just focus on the politics and law — it spends a healthy amount of time exploring the teachings of Mary Baker Eddy and how they’re interpreted today.

Here’s how the piece ends:

Church officials point out that Eddy was a stickler for the law, and that when a law mandates vaccination, Christian Scientists abide by it. But because the H1N1 vaccine is not compulsory, church spokesman Davis said there had never been a need to compromise between Eddy’s beliefs and healing prayer.

“If the teaching and practice of Christian Science were dogmatic or there was a prohibition against vaccination, there would be a compromise,” Davis said. “But
if Christian Science, in fact, heals, then there is no compromise. Instead, it’s part of the solution to infectious disease.”

It’s the mark of a provocative story that I found myself sympathizing with opposing arguments as I read the piece. It also indicates to me that Townsend did a good job of presenting the strongest arguments as opposed to straw men. It might have been useful to mention the downside of vaccinations. My mother was one of many Californians and others who became deathly ill in the 1970s when she was given the swine flu vaccine. And while vaccine enthusiasts like to point out that the chance of getting sick or dying from a vaccine is small, statistics aren’t much comfort if you’re one of the people to die or almost die!

Anyway, as much as I weary over the Mommy Wars, I do wish we’d see some more good reporting in the mainstream press on such issues as people falsely claiming religious exemptions for choosing not to vaccinate. And there’s another vaccination story with huge religion ghosts. Some vaccines are made from aborted fetuses? I had no idea until a neighboring mother of four children told me recently. It’s difficult to find much coverage of the issue but while many of the vaccines that were originally made from aborted fetuses are now cultured using different methods, the chicken pox vaccine is made from aborted fetal tissue. That presents an obvious quandary for those who don’t believe it’s ethical to use humans in such a manner.

Each time I vaccinate my children, I have to sign off on a long list of potential complications — but parents aren’t informed that some vaccines are made from aborted fetuses. I certainly wish I’d known and think both our pediatrician and the media might have done a better job of keeping parents informed.

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  • Jerry

    aborted fetuses

    That surprised me so much that I had to go to google to research. There are quite a few web sites making that claim with scary headlines. From what I could find, these are all totally false claims. Site such as talk about what is really going on. If someone has an actual authoritative reference to the contrary, I’d be interested in seeing it.

  • Jerry N

    Jerry, Mollie’s wording was a bit off: there isn’t aborted fetal tissue in the vaccine itself, but as the factsheet you cite states, some vaccines are grown up in human cell lines derived from “fetal tissue”.

    That fetal tissue has been, at least in some cell lines, derived from an aborted child. The material grown from those cells is purified, so while there is no fetal tissue in the vaccine, the vaccine could have been made using fetal tissue as central part of the production. I believe the chickenpox vaccine used in the USA (which isn’t the only one; a European-approved one uses another cell line) uses such a cell line, but I haven’t looked into this. If the day job and family permit, I’ll dig back into this.

  • Chris Bolinger

    Love the Simpsons “Soylent Green” graphic!

  • Jerry

    The key point from my cite is that the cell lines were from the 60′s not today. There are many web sites that make it seem that vaccines are being manufactured from abortions done recently rather than from fetal tissue while, given the time frame, were probably from miscarriages not abortions.

    I find it hard to believe that someone who objects to abortions would object to people donating tissue from a miscarriage just as people donate organs when they die.

    It seems that clear honesty is not valued very much these days. Rather we see a spectrum from vagueness to outright lying.

  • Jerry N

    The tissues from the controversial cell lines were specifically from induced abortions, not miscarriages–the latter would have been fine.

    That the abortions were from some time ago is relevant, and is part of the reasonwhy the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ruled that parents could legitimately opt to use them (though respecting those who still object and calling on companies to use alternatives).

  • Mollie

    I should have been more clear and said the vaccines were developed from aborted fetal parts.

    Anyway, when I asked my pediatrician about the chicken pox vaccine, she told me that the MMR and others were also derived in the same fashion. She told me that there are alternatives for some vaccines for people who have ethical objections but not for others.

    Here’s an article from a Catholic site on the matter:

    In the United States, 10 different vaccines for chicken pox, hepatitis A, polio, rabies, and rubella are cultured on aborted tissue from two fetal cell lines known as WI-38 and MRC-5. These vaccines are Varivax (chicken pox), Havrix (hep-A), Vaqta (hep-A), Twinrix (hep-A/hep-B), Poliovax (polio), Imovax (rabies), Meruvax II (rubella), MR-VAX (measles/rubella), Biavax II (mumps/rubella), and MMR II (measles/mumps/rubella). Alternative, pro-life vaccines are available in this country for all but the chicken pox, hepatitis A, and rubella inoculations.

    The WI-38 “human-diploid” cell culture was developed in July 1962 from a “therapeutically aborted” three-month-old girl. “WI” is an acronym used by the Wistar Institute, an aggressive proponent of embryonic stem cell research. The August 1969 issue of the American Journal of Diseases of Children explains WI-38 was taken from a voluntary abortion performed in Sweden: “This fetus was chosen by Dr. Sven Gard, specifically for this purpose [use as a vaccine culture]. … .”

    MRC-5 is derived from the lung tissue of a 14-week-old baby boy. MRC stands for Medical Research Council, a research center funded by British taxpayers. According to Coriell Cell Repositories, “The MRC-5 cell line was developed in September 1966 from lung tissue taken from a 14-week fetus aborted for psychiatric reasons from a 27-year-old physically healthy woman.”

    Development of the rubella vaccine actually involved not one, but 28 abortions. Twenty-seven abortions were performed to isolate the virus and one abortion (WI-38) to culture the vaccine. The vaccine’s strain is called RA 27/3 (R=Rubella, A=Abortus, 27=27th fetus tested, 3=3rd tissue explanted). Rubella, or “German measles,” is usually a harmless childhood disease. Ironically, rubella is most dangerous for preborn infants, who have a 20 to 25 percent chance of contracting congenital rubella syndrome if their mothers catch rubella during the first trimester. Scientists at the Wistar Institute took advantage of the 1964-65 rubella epidemic to legally acquire fetal tissue from at least 27 so-called therapeutic abortions conducted on women at risk for rubella. Since the live virus was not detected until the 27th abortion, the preceding 26 abortions were apparently performed on perfectly healthy babies. By contrast, Japanese researchers obtained a live virus by swabbing the throat of an infected child.

    And here’s a link to another article from the Vatican. Not that I’m Catholic — but these were some of the more comprehensive things I read when looking for links.

    For what it’s worth, the Catholic sites don’t offer any cut and dry answers on whether Catholics should or should not vaccinate their children with these vaccines.

  • Mollie

    Here’s that link.

  • Jerry

    Mollie, thanks for the links.

  • Julia

    When I was working in a hospital pathology lab back in the 1960s, what is now called an abortion was known then as a procured abortion. What the public calls a miscarriage was known medically then as a spontaneous abortion. So – I wonder if the terminology concerning the 60s vaccines means what people now think it means.

  • Ranee @ Arabian Knits

    No, these were elective abortions or “therapeutic” abortions (as in, we did these specifically to isolate the disease and then to culture it). There is pretty good documentation of it. There is also the problem that the culture loses its efficacy after a certain number of re-culturing and it is cheaper to use aborted fetal cells than chicken embryos or other options, so it is quite likely they will be used again.

    There are ethical alternatives, but oddly enough, few are available in the US, and most insurance companies won’t pay for them.

    Here are a few references and blogs about this:

    List of Vaccines and whether they involve abortion
    Documentation of aborted fetal cell lines with sources from Catholic blogger
    Article from Catholic agency detailing aborted cell lines pay specific attention to Rubella, which required 28 abortions to develop.

  • Dave

    Mollie, I don’t see anything wrong with the earlier headline. There is, factually, a conflict between religious practice and public health in this area, even if the players do their best to finesse it. The story would be much less interesting were that not the case.

  • Mollie


    The thing is that the H1N1 vaccine isn’t mandatory so there’s no reason to single out Christian Scientists as endangering the health of others. The larger issue is, of course, one of tension and conflict.

  • Mollie


    One of the Catholic sites I was reading actually indicated that the aborted fetus for one of the vaccines came from a European family that felt it already had too many children — definitely a procured abortion.

  • Dave

    Mollie @12, that’s a non sequitur. Whether vaccination refusals do or do not jeopardize public health for a particular disease is not a function of whether the health bureaucrats have decided to make it mandatory. A calculation of the erosion of “herd immunity” (love that term) by refusals may go into a decision to make a vaccine mandatory but that judgment may not be perfect.

  • Dave

    Mollie: Oops, I mistook what you were getting at. Yes, the non-mandatory status does mean there will be other refusers than Christian Scientists.

  • Cassie

    Mollie, of course there is a reason to single out Christian Scientists. Many of the vaccine exemption provisions exist specifically because of Christian Science lobbying. Additionally, Christian Scientists have been the vector for multiple widespread measles outbreaks, including one from the mid-eighties in which several Christian Science children died. Mentioning the Christian Science outbreaks underscores the fact that a herd immunity failure is nothing to take lightly.

    This Vatican Statement on the issue specifically says that parents should still vaccinate their children, despite the fetal tissue: “In any case, there remains a moral duty to continue to fight and to employ every lawful means in order to make life difficult for the pharmaceutical industries which act unscrupulously and unethically. However, the burden of this important battle cannot and must not fall on innocent children and on the health situation of the population – especially with regard to pregnant women. . . .

    * as regards the vaccines without an alternative, the need to contest so that others may be prepared must be reaffirmed, as should be the lawfulness of using the former in the meantime insomuch as is necessary in order to avoid a serious risk not only for one’s own children but also, and perhaps more specifically, for the health conditions of the population as a whole – especially for pregnant women” [my emphasis] It’s a bit wordy, perhaps because it was translated from Italian.

    I respect the fact that people refusing this vaccine sincerely oppose abortion. I just wish they weren’t risking other people lives for the sake of their own personal beliefs. That choice seems selfish to me.

  • Ranee @ Arabian Knits

    Cassie, I really do not get how you interpret the statement from the Vatican as instructing parents to vaccinate. Saying that something is lawful, on a temporary basis, as is necessary to save life is not the same thing as endorsement or instruction to do so.

  • Ranee @ Arabian Knits

    If people are so concerned about those opposing certain vaccines because of the issue of aborted fetal cell lines, shouldn’t the response be greater use of chick embryos and other such sources? We have to pay completely out of our own pockets for ethical vaccines for our children and they are hard to get. Why is that, if the point is to ensure that more children are vaccinated to protect them and society at large?

  • Cassie

    Ranee, the Vatican recognizes that vaccines save lives.

    The burden of your fight against abortion should not fall on innocents. Therefore, until alternative vaccines are available, you should get your children vaccinated, not just for their protection, but for the protection of the public, especially pregnant women. That’s a pretty clear endorsement.

    What else could the Vatican possibly mean here? There is no situation in which someone gets a vaccine “temporarily”–once you get it, you can’t give it back. And there’s no situation in which a vaccine is necessary to save a life EXCEPT by preventing the disease in the first place. It’s not like doctors see a guy dying from the measles and say, “Quick, give him the vaccine!”

    Or are you thinking that the Vatican is being wishy-washy, e.g., “Don’t risk the lives of innocents. But hey, if you really don’t want to use vaccines, despite the fact that they save lives, we’re ok with that, too. We’re just pointing out that there’s no law forbidding them–we’ll leave the decision about risking lives up to you” ?? That would seem rather out of character, don’t you think?

    Really you should go read the whole Vatican statement. I just copied a bit from the end. It’s very thorough and unambiguous (if wordy).