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.