Am I my brother’s keeper? or “Why should we care if other children are unvaccinated?”

Michelangelo’s Pieta

There are few issues more contentious in modern parenting than the question of immunization. Whether protection against all of the diseases or none of them, or just a few so as to avoid giving “too many vaccines, too soon”, each parent grapples with the science and stories that frame the great vaccine debate.

Ultimately the decisions surrounding immunization have to be made by the parents of the children in question with as much discernment and factually accurate information as possible. Many faithful, deeply loving Catholic parents find themselves nonetheless on different sides of this question. It is tempting to treat this issue as something that is solely up to each family, where some children are vaccinated and others aren’t but we all can still form a loving community together.  Vaccinations choices seem like decisions for our own families which only affect us. I’ve even been directly asked by a non-vaccinating parent and friend, “If you are so sure that vaccines work, why do you care whether my kids are vaccinated or not? If vaccines work, your kid is protected and nothing my kid gets will affect yours anyways.”

It is a persuasive argument in some ways, and yet I still can’t help but think…am I my brother’s keeper? Should I be my brother’s keeper? My faith teaches that my responsibility to others extends well past the confines of the walls of our family home. It means seeing Christ in the face of the child with cystic fibrosis, knowing that my healthy child will probably recover from flu without incident but the child behind us at church may be less fortunate. It means knowing that concern for fetal life extends to protecting children before birth from all harm, including the harm caused by rubella, varicella or measles. It means concern for the immunosuppressed child, the teenager with Down Syndrome, the father on chemotherapy, the grandmother in fragile health.

Sometimes the choices we make for others are big. They are visibly important and speak about how deep our commitment to our faith is. We open not just our hearts but our home to the child needing a family. We take our children to the retirement home for elderly religious to visit with them. We protest against the convicted criminal’s death through the unjust use of capital punishment.

But sometimes the choices we make are small, almost invisible to the world. These small acts of charity are as critical and as meaningful as the loudest, most public profession of faith. Because the truth is that we are our brothers’ keepers. We are our sisters’ keepers. We are called to love all but particularly those whom the world might deem expendable. We stand with the weak and takes steps to ensure that no harm comes to them. That is why it isn’t enough to say, “But my child is healthy, so a choice to leave them unvaccinated isn’t wrong.” When we act with complacency towards these diseases, what we are essentially saying is “It’s ok that these diseases are around. Bad things will only ever happen to somebody else’s child, and that just isn’t my responsibility or concern.”

Through our indifference the suffering Christ in every child harmed by a preventable disease becomes invisible to us, and by our choices we build up the very same culture of death against which we carried signs and sang hymns seeking God’s mercy. We are the keepers of the weak, the unborn, the young, the elderly, the pregnant mother or otherwise infirm human being created in the image of God. We owe to them a genuine culture of life in which to participate as fully as possible, including protecting them from infectious diseases wherever we can.

We are accountable to God, and to each other.  By our choices we participate in a culture that embraces life, or not. One that affirms the value of each person as an irreplaceable gift, or not. Parents who choose to leave their children unvaccinated are accountable to their children and to the vulnerable who may be harmed through their choices, even when their choices are made under pursuit of the good and with loving intentions. But it is never too late to ask the hard questions on this topic, never too late to seek education from the leading scientific authorities on any worries one may have, never too late to start quietly building a culture that preserves and protects life at every stage, one child, one shot at a time.

21 thoughts on “Am I my brother’s keeper? or “Why should we care if other children are unvaccinated?”

  1. Oh wonderful! So when my child nearly dies from a horrific reaction to the pertussis vaccine (which is what happened) I should nevertheless be forced to vaccinate all my other children just so that you can sleep easier concerning your child. Since you might accidentally sit near us in Mass, YOU get to decide! This isn’t Catholicism. This is socialism.

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    • Timothy,

      I am so sorry to hear that your child had a severe reaction to the pertussis vaccine. Vaccine reactions severe enough to endanger someone’s life are incredibly rare, on the order of 1 per hundreds of thousands or even millions of doses given. I am not your family’s doctor, or a specialist treating either the child who had a reaction or that child’s siblings. Whether your children should be medically exempted is a medical question best left to the medical professionals responsible for their care.

      I am somewhat puzzled at your comment about forcing people to be vaccinated. Vaccine mandates are common enough in order to protect public health, but that is a mandate, not compulsory. There is no vaccine police going door to door to forcibly vaccinate the unvaccinated. Rather, if one wishes to participate in a public good like public education one must take reasonable steps as determined by public health authorities to keep themselves and their fellow students safe. Civic rights come with civic responsibilities.

      My question is whether it is ethical for people without medical contraindications to refuse very simple, generally safe preventative health care without any consideration to the vulnerable that a consistent life ethic demands we protect. This is an ethical question more than a legal one. My children are all healthy, although one is too young to be protected against some of the diseases preventable through immunization. I’m more concerned about the child who may come into contact with disease because someone decided that because their child is healthy they can go against medical advice and opt out of the most basic preventative health care. I am concerned about the child who could face death so that others could live as they pleased, and the moral poverty that implies.

      Your child had a near fatal vaccine reaction that could not have been anticipated, something incredibly rare. I am sure that was terrifying and that that child’s hospitalization must have been an experience you will never forget. However there are other children and other parents who will wind up in exactly that same place because of someone else’s direct and extravagant choice with foreseeable consequences for the medically at risk. Standing with the weak so that they can live the vocations that God set out for them is not socialism. Perhaps, though, one might call it Christianity.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Timothy, it’s for the sake of those who CAN’T be vaccinated because of age or a medical exemption that the rest of us need to vaccinate our kids. If your doctor recommends that you shouldn’t have any further vaccinations for your child, then I’m glad that my children are vaccinated to protect him. I’m glad they’re vaccinated to protect the children in our community who are battling cancer. I’m relieved that I’ll never feel the horror of knowing my children were a part of an outbreak that caused a mother to miscarry. I’m grateful we’ll never pass a preventable disease to a baby too young to be vaccinated.

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  2. No one is forcing those who have medical contraindications. Hyperbole to socialism is unwarranted. As those above have stated, it is because of the people who can’t be immunized that the rest of us feel a moral obligation to do so. I’m truly sorry for your situation and I wish there had been a way to know ahead of time who would/wouldn’t have a severe reaction to the immunization, so we could save families like yours from going through that heartache. As scientists and medical experts develop vaccines, aspects like this do come up in research and anyone with a condition that would indicate an adverse reaction is advised against the vaccine. I’m sorry there was no way to know ahead of time in your case. I truly am. For many vaccine-preventable diseases, there is no indication of who will suffer greatest, either.

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  3. I would suggest that the genuinely Catholic approach to this question is quite simple: Catholics should feel free to tell Catholic parents that they really should vaccinate about as often as they feel free to tell the same parents when to use NFP or how many children they should have.

    And no one should be made to feel that only *one* side of this question (the choice to vaccinate) constitutes an authentically morally good decision. Catholic parents are utterly free (largely because Catholic moral teaching is not consequentialist) to choose whichever choice they think, in conscience, is better….

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    • Freedom of conscience is not an absolute freedom, and while the number of children a family has or is called to have impacts only them, whether or not measles or pertussis is eradicated is a reality that touches every one of us, particularly the most vulnerable.

      The Catholic Church does not come out and say “you must vaccinate your children.” It also doesn’t say “you must follow the building codes proper to your community” or “wear your seatbelts.” It does, however tell us that when we do not take steps and someone is harmed through our omission, we do bear responsibility.

      From the Vatican Statement, down in the footnotes.

      “15 This is particularly true in the case of vaccination against German measles, because of the danger of Congenital Rubella Syndrome. This could occur, causing grave congenital malformations in the foetus, when a pregnant woman enters into contact, even if it is brief, with children who have not been immunized and are carriers of the virus. In this case, the parents who did not accept the vaccination of their own children become responsible for the malformations in question, and for the subsequent abortion of foetuses, when they have been discovered to be malformed.”

      The parents who did not accept vaccination of their children become responsible for malformations and the abortion of fetuses who are malformed because they did not vaccinate against a vaccine preventable disease. If this is the case even with a vaccine that is not ethically made, I think there is a very difficult time arguing that there isn’t a responsibility to safeguard others against vaccine preventable diseases on a broad basis, particularly when discussing vaccines that a family has no medical contraindication against and where the vaccine has no ethical ambiguity.

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      • Hi, Genevieve–thanks for the reply. I point you to an assertion from the same document’s conclusion, regarding one’s permission to use immorally developed vaccines:

        ***”such cooperation occurs in a context of moral coercion of the conscience of parents, who are forced to choose to act against their conscience or otherwise, to put the health of their children and of the population as a whole at risk. This is an unjust alternative choice, which must be eliminated as soon as possible.”***

        The very parental conscience that the “Vatican” (even though this is a non-magisterial source) document is seeking to uphold is the same parental conscience that could be violated when considering the prior scenario that is being considered by those choosing not to vaccinate. Namely: the parental assessment that concludes that the risks involved in vaccination *itself* are proportionately weighty enough to avoid it, even when compared to the risks of not vaccinating.

        In this scenario, the parents should not be morally coerced *to* vaccinate in opposition to their well-formed consciences, if their view of the evidence suggests (rightly) that the risk of having their child harmed via the vaccine administration is too great.

        I don’t believe anyone asserts that any vaccine is either 100 percent effective or 100 percent risk-free. One might view this choice as choosing which of two “lotteries” you’ll participate in. Everyone’s playing the odds of each lottery based on their understanding of the evidence and percentages.

        Granted, if it could be determined that there is *zero* risk to administering a vaccination in the scenario of “footnote 15,” there *might* be a case to be made regarding the “responsibility” of a parent who refuses. But with due respect to the writer of that decidedly non-authoritative footnote, that’s not the world we’re living in.

        We’re living in a world in which well-informed and responsible Catholic parents are *first* answering the important moral question of whether using the vaccine is going to harm *my* child, let alone put anyone else at risk. And in this arena, I maintain that every Catholic parent, with God’s help, must answer this question for themselves, free of any moral coercion from any outside elements…

        Comparatively, since I mentioned family size above, take a look at the text below from Gaudium et Spes 50–I’d stand by my suggestion that, like family size (which *does* require parents consulting the “interests” of family, society and Church), the decision whether to vaccinate or not follows the same path and belongs exclusively to parental judgment in the sight of God….

        ====Gaudium et Spes 50====
        “Finally, they should consult the interests of the family group, of temporal society, and of the Church herself. The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God.”

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      • Assessing the risk of harm from an immunization is not a parental question but a medical one, properly assessed by the medical providers rendering care to the child in question. I think every parents has the right to question an immunization or immunizations but too often parents raise questions without actually listening to answers. I’ve been working with pro vaccine advocacy for a few years at this point and by and large the issue is less specific unanswered questions and more the pervasive sense of unease about immunization, essentially that if there is enough smoke there must be fire, a misplaced sense of karma that you always pay a price and maybe better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

        The responsibility to one’s child is the first consideration but doesn’t that include to taking medical advice about basic preventative health care? Parents have the right to all available evidence and to have every question answered. But fundamentally immunizations aren’t about belief systems. They are about facts, evidence, the hard numbers about the risk of harms from disease vs harm from the vaccine. Seatbelts and carseat have the risk of harm too. I don’t think that anyone would argue that my deeply held belief that a car seat is unsafe means I should be exempt from using them.

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      • Hoping this comment “nests” properly below, as a reply, Genevieve, to your last response… 🙂

        But the Catholic view is that parents–not doctors–make these decisions for their real children in their real family. Right?

        I’m presuming you would not be in favor of a government *mandate* for vaccinations?

        You see, with the car-seat example, despite government-mandated use of car-seats, a parent can *still* opt to not use the car seat by not transporting the child in the car….right?

        Thus with immunization, we’re looking for accurate info from medical experts/scientists. All parents *should* look for that. But at the end of the day, parents must decide this themselves, in the sight of God….

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      • I’m in favor of vaccine mandates for things like public schools, which are public goods where the state has a compelling interest in upholding public health and in guaranteeing access even to those who may be medically compromised. I’m in favor of incentives for immunization (insurance premium credit, reduced physician copay perhaps.) I’m not in favor of compulsory vaccinations.

        It is the parent’s ultimate duty to consent to medical care for their children, including preventative care. But that responsibility comes with the culpability for harm sustained even if under the aspect of the good someone makes a choice that causes harm to another. I would argue that this does mean making medical decisions based on the best application of human understanding to the subject matter in hand, that medical decisions be made based on medical facts, not on superstition.

        I cannot imagine the grief a parent would experience if their child contracted tetanus that could have been prevented, or the grief of knowing that the chicken pox your child carried unknowingly to church caused a hospitalization for a child who had had an organ transplant. I can and will continue to try to persuade parents to look at the science to see what they would need in order to feel comfortable immunizing their children, and I often help parents find the study or answer they would need to see in order to be comfortable. It should be easier to do the right thing, not harder and not with a side dish of humiliation because “how dare you ask questions of the experts.”

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      • Hi, again–I’m entirely in favor of asking questions of experts.

        I’m *not* entirely in favor of introducing the word “superstition” into the conversation, as the dynamic here involves not superstitions but rather multiple views on what the medical facts really are known to be and how to draw conclusions from these facts.

        Even the Constitution of the United States contains a finite set of “facts”–yet how many different “factions” arise from interpretations of and conclusions from that set of facts? I’m just saying that the Catholic Church leaves room for Catholics of good will to differ on a matter like this….

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      • See, I think this is where we part ways. I think that the people who collect the statistics and reports of harm are credible. I think the people doing the research to see whether there could be a causal link between a vaccine administration and a medical event like a seizure are credible. I think that the evidence is overwhelming but that a lot of parents just don’t know quite where to look, and a lot of pediatricans are too busy to handle it. And I think it is on the medical community for an unwillingness to take the time to work with parents to address their concerns to make immunization an easier choice.

        If there is overwhelming evidence that vaccines are safe and effective (which there is) and the only real counterweight is a sense of dread, then I think the term superstition is warranted. I mean, look at what needs to be true in order for immunizations to actually be the danger that they are feared to be. Are the scientists who develop vaccines and study and promote their use worldwide too stupid to find a link if there is a high risk of harm from immunization? Competent enough to find a high risk of harm and evil enough to hide it? Are all of the studies that show no link fabricated? And why would some vaccines (Rotashield) be found to cause harm and get pulled from the market because the VAERS system is so well designed to catch the 1 in 10,000 event?

        At some point, in the face of so much evidence, vaccine rejection does become a superstition. I don’t think it becomes superstition until people have had exposure to all of the available evidence and still hold to their belief over and above evidence to the contrary. Catholics of good will can and do disagree and I would never question the intentions of the people involved, but that does not diminish the objective risk to their children nor does it eliminate the objective risk to the vulnerable that a consistent life ethic demands we protect.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Jim,

    I’m not sure I follow the comparison of NFP and vaccinations.

    One of those topics focuses solely on one family, and one family alone. The husband and wife with, hopefully, prayer and discernment, is about them, their family size, their calling from God and their ability to be the best parents to the children they have.

    The other topic involves preventable diseases that can be spread from person to person and cause serious consequences, including death, for many. As Catholics, we have an OBLIGATION to protect those who are vulnerable. Those who are too young to be vaccinated, those who’s compromised immune systems are too fragile to be vaccinated, those on medications that prevent them from begin vaccinated.

    I understand that parents have concerns about risks, but I would ask what risks you are talking about specifically. It’s been proven that VAERS is not a reliable source for looking at safety of vaccines (if I’m not mistaken, a person once reported that a vaccine had turned him into the incredible hulk). I could report that my daughter had a reaction to a vaccine, say, a rash, when in reality it could be that the Dr’s office forgot that my child has a sensitivity to latex and her rash was exactly in the shape of a band aid over her vaccine injection site.

    On an emotional aspect, how many kids my Catholic neighbor has has no impact on me or my family. Their use or non-use of NFP has no impact either. I don’t ask any of my friends whether or not they use NFP, although I do enjoy discussing it if they volunteer that information. However, if my neighbor’s unvaccinated child were to contract measles and pass that on to me (because I am not immune to measles and am currently not a candidate to receive any kind of boosters to try to develop immunity), it has a HIGH likelihood of killing the unborn child that I am currently pregnant with. This is what the church is talking about when it specifically mentions protecting the most vulnerable in it’s writings on vaccinations. I for one, do not wish to live my life fearing that I could lose my baby because other people have determined that they do not have a responsibility to protect the weak and defenseless.

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    • I use the NFP example because I think it is a comparable kind of consideration that *does* involve more than “one family alone,” as articulated here in Gaudium et Spes, which I also cite above:

      ****“Finally, they should consult the interests of the family group, of temporal society, and of the Church herself. The parents themselves and no one else should ultimately make this judgment in the sight of God.”****

      So, at the same time that the Council Fathers remind us that choosing to have a child *does* involve not only family considerations but also the considerations of “temporal society” and Church, the Fathers also remind us that the decision still belongs to the parents and no one else…

      Likewise, as I see it, with the vaccination question….

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      • It still does not add up. Family size, in relation to society and the Church, has nothing to do with the overall health and well being of other people. We aren’t talking the possible passing of severe, debilitating, possibly deadly disease. We are talking the contribution to society of the said individual who may come about within the family dynamic.

        I absolutely believe that the decision to expand ones family (or not) is 100% only for the couple to decide. NO one else. I also absolutely believe that parents make the ultimate decision about vaccines, but they have a SEVERE obligation to take into account more than just their child. The church is clear on that.

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      • On the contrary, it adds up perfectly. Of *course* family size has fundamentally everything to do with the “overall health and well-being of other people.” Your argument appears to be with Gaudium et Spes rather than with me. In one case, we’re considering the risk factors involved in coming in contact with someone potentially capable of transmitting disease. In another case, we’re considering whether someone actually *exists.”

        I’m pretty sure the comparison is quite valid.

        I’m also pretty sure that no parent should feel compelled to place the well-being of someone else’s child *above* the well-being of their *own* child. The more “severe” obligation is obviously toward one’s own child.

        Above in this thread is an example of a parent whose child almost died as a result of the vaccination process and the child’s response to it. An example of the less-than-100-percent safety of vaccines. I would imagine that such a parent should not be second-guessed regarding whether any other children of theirs should undergo the vaccination process. I’d also presume it’s self-evident that, for example, if it could be known which children would suffer a potentially fatal reaction, that we’d conclude that the parent of that child should go ahead and have the child vaccinated, in hopes that the child survives, because then the surviving child wouldn’t go on living as a “risk” to other children, right? That would be backward thinking, right?

        The *immediate* potential risk to one’s child, arising from the vaccination process itself, should indeed weigh heavily upon one’s parental decision, before God. Even when the risk is remarkably low, just like the odds of winning the lottery, *somebody* somewhere gets the “winning” ticket. This truth must remain part of any parents’ discernment, before God, on this question. For some, this immediate risk may seem acceptable. For others, not so much. I’m merely asserting that the Catholic Church permits both choices as morally acceptable and clearly understands that only the parents themselves get to make that call…

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      • Typo alert from above: I wrote: I’d also presume it’s self-evident that, for example, if it could be known which children would suffer a potentially fatal reaction, that we’d conclude

        I meant that we’d NOT conclude…

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      • BTW–it would appear you believe that a parent who chooses *not* to vaccinate would be morally responsible for any consequences arising from the risk the unvaccinated child poses to the community.

        Do you *also* conclude that a parent who says *yes* to vaccinating a child is also therefore morally responsible for the outcome of that vaccination?

        Should that parent be praised for helping “protect” the community when vaccine produces the desired result?

        Should that parent be held morally responsible for any harm to the child if the child suffers a near-fatal reaction to a vaccination?

        I’m not sure you can have it both ways….

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