Measles, mumps, rubella, oh my

| March 11, 2015 | 6 Comments

Within the vaccination controversy are Catholics who oppose the practice on moral grounds. When it comes to inoculations, what does the Church say about health, bioethics and the public good?

Doctor-Vaccinating-BabyAlthough most experts agree it’s unfounded, fear of a link between vaccines and the autism disorder spectrum has been cited as one of the reasons parents choose not to vaccinate their children. Lesser known is another basis for opposition, one rooted in moral objections to some vaccines’ ties to abortion.

The moral quandary has gained new attention in light of the January outbreak of measles linked to Disneyland in California.

Dr. Mary Ann Kish, who recently retired after 30 years as an infectious disease specialist, said that because most people, including doctors, haven’t seen the effects of measles — thanks to the use of the vaccine — some fears have become downplayed.

“People aren’t used to understanding measles as a bad disease, and when you don’t understand measles as a bad disease, you’re not going to take vaccination seriously,” said Kish, a parishioner of St. William in Fridley who also has theology degrees from St. John’s University in Collegeville.

Complications of the disease range from the relatively mild such as ear infection and croup to those more severe — encephalitis, an infection of the brain, and death.

Until about 2008, measles cases were down to between 20 and 60 per year, Kish said. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between Jan. 1 and Feb. 27, 2015, 170 people from across the U.S. (one from Minnesota) were reported to have measles.

The measles vaccination is part of the MMR trifecta, which also includes vaccines against mumps and rubella. It’s typically administered to a child at 12 to 15 months of age, according to the CDC, which also states that in the U.S. there is only one licensed MMR vaccine. It is manufactured by the New Jersey-based pharmaceutical giant Merck.

Vaccination origins

It is a point of fact, although not widely known, that some common vaccines are derived from cells of fetuses aborted five decades ago.

Paul Wojda, associate theology professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul and past chairman of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis’ Biomedical Ethics Commission, explained that pharmaceutical companies continued to culture and cultivate the cells to develop some vaccines.

In 2003, the Florida-based Children of God for Life sent an official inquiry to the Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith seeking clarification on parents’ right to oppose those vaccines, when mandated by state law. The CDC commissioned the Pontifical Academy for Life to study the issue of “tainted” vaccines. Its findings, published in English in 2005, found that there were two cell lines “originally prepared from tissues of aborted fetuses (in 1964 and 1970) and are used for the preparation of vaccines based on life attenuated virus.” These cell lines were used in nine vaccines against rubella and six vaccines against other diseases including hepatitis A, rabies and smallpox.

The study’s findings identified the brand names of the vaccines.

“Morally, that’s important,” Wojda said. “For those individuals who for in [good] conscience want to avoid any cooperation with original acts of abortion, the information the Vatican provided is very helpful. Parents can ask their [health care] provider what the brand name is” for the scheduled vaccine.

Kish noted that parents can receive information from their pediatricians, state and public health departments and the CDC website.

“Catholics have a responsibility to educate themselves about vaccines,” she said. Kish has two adult sons.

In good conscience

With this knowledge, may a Catholic parent in good conscience have their child vaccinated, even if the vaccine available has a link to the aborted fetuses?

The Vatican document says yes.

In the 2005 statement, the Pontifical Academy for Life asserted that one may use these products, despite their distant association with abortion, at least until new vaccines become available. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops concurs. “The recipient of the vaccine took no part in decisions to base the vaccine on this morally unacceptable source, but is coping with the results of immoral decisions made by others,” its website states.

Wojda explained how the Pontifical Academy for Life applied the “principle of cooperation” to come to its conclusion, the central concept being distance — how close a person is to the original “morally wicked deed” that was performed. In this case, the abortion.

“In the Catholic moral tradition, it’s long been understood that we live in a morally complex society,” said Wojda, himself a father who attends St. Mark in St. Paul. “Certainly, if I have my child vaccinated with the measles vaccine, that in no way suggests that I approve of those abortions. We can benefit from the consequences of an original evil deed without affirming that deed.”

The National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, Pa., guides parents in no uncertain terms: “One is morally free to use the vaccine regardless of its historical association with abortion.” The reason, it states, is because the risk to public health, if one chooses not to vaccinate, outweighs the legitimate concern about the origins of the vaccine.

“This is especially important for parents, who have a moral obligation to protect the life and health of their children and those around them,” its website states.

Wojda said the Vatican document stresses that inoculating children in no way implicates parents. Furthermore, he said, there are other issues at stake, namely, the health and well-being of all children, and a moral obligation to protect and not unnecessarily endanger the lives of the larger community.

“A fundamental principle of the Catholic faith is the dedication to the common good. Catholics are for public health,” added Wojda, who also has served as an ethics consultant to Catholic Health Initiatives, the country’s largest Catholic health care provider, as well as on the perinatal bioethics committee of Hennepin County Medical Center.

However, caveats exist. The Pontifical Academy for Life stresses that “the faithful and citizens of upright conscience” even while they vaccinate, should “oppose, even by making an objection of conscience, the ever more widespread attacks against life and the ‘culture of death’ which underlies them. . . . [Catholics] have a duty to take recourse to alternative vaccines (if they exist), putting pressure on the political authorities and health systems so that other vaccines without moral problems become available.”

Kish said that because there aren’t a lot of vaccine manufacturers, there aren’t a lot of vaccine alternatives. Merck’s MMR, for example, uses a cell line derived from an aborted fetus. Some ethical-vaccine advocates are petitioning them to develop a new, “clean” MMR vaccine, or to separate measles, mumps and rubella into single-dose vaccines, a practice it ended in 2008.

Wojda suggested the following language for a conversation with pediatricians: “My duty to my child and the entire population requires me to strongly encourage you to seek alternatives to this vaccine.”

“We can all do a little bit in terms of raising that protest,” he said.

Wojda compared the situation to animal rights advocates calling for people to change their eating habits.

“The idea is, if you’re buying food that was factory-farmed, you’re somehow complicit,” Wojda said. “But maybe you can’t afford to buy free-range chickens and grass-fed beef.”

Ultimately, Wojda said, the issue comes down to the benefits outweighing the risks.

“Respect for vaccinating is a pro-life cause,” he said. “Principles of cooperation have been applied. We are complicit, but in such a remote way that using the vaccines is morally justifiable. We benefit in countless ways in a society that tolerates a lot of this, so none of us really lives with entirely ‘clean hands.’ It’s almost impossible.”

He added, “Now more than ever, people need to be informed about where their medicines come from.”

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