In previous posts authors at the Rational Catholic have sought to argue that not only can the Catholic, pro-life parent vaccinate his or her children but also that they ought to do so. The reasons that a parent should vaccinate come from both an interest in the wellbeing of one’s own child as well as a general obligation to the common good.
Understanding that this is a complicated, emotional issue with profound moral and spiritual ramifications, last week I sought guidance from the National Catholic Bioethics Center regarding whether there is an active duty to vaccinate one’s children. The National Catholic Bioethics Center is a non profit organization whose mission centers on the protection and defense of human dignity through research, education, consultation and publication in the areas concerning health care and life sciences. They offer free consultation to anyone seeking guidance regarding ethical questions, and were kind enough to answer mine.
Reproduced with permission from correspondence with Edward Furton, M.A., PhD, Ethicist and Director of Publications for the National Catholic Bioethics Center
Focusing in on your central question, there is indeed a moral duty to immunize one’s child and so help preserve the public good through the use of scientifically established and clearly beneficial programs of vaccination. The chickenpox vaccine may be an exception to this rule, as the risks resulting from this disease are not great. As for the rest, for example, measles, mumps, and rubella, these are important childhood vaccinations and parents have a special duty to care for and love their children. Children cannot make these decisions for themselves and so depend upon the prudential judgments of others.
Unfounded fears about possible adverse effects do not overcome the objective duty to make use of immunizations. To make a sound moral judgment, the individual Catholic must properly inform his or her conscience. That means that one must seek to determine whether fears are based in reason and fact, or they are instead merely — if I may put it this way — superstitions. A correctly formed conscience will come to the conclusion that immunization is a moral obligation.
For those who remain “invincibly ignorant,” and who refuse to acknowledge facts, they must follow their conscience even though it is ill formed.
There is no question, no debate to my mind that parents who refuse immunization of their children do so in the pursuit of what they see as good. They do not do so from a desire to cause harm to their children or to their communities, but there is still a question of fundamental scientific ignorance in play that leads to vaccine denial. Not malevolent ignorance, but ignorance none the less. And ignorance should be met with education wherever possible.
There are excellent resources available to better understand the science of immunization. I will make and keep up to date in this post a list of resources for those who seek to understand the science of immunization. It is natural to have questions, concerns, fears and uncertainty about this topic especially given how pervasive myths are about vaccines. But none of those fears nullify the obligation we have to our children, and to each other.
To close, and with my thanks to Dr. Furton for allowing me to share his words:
“We are rational creatures and science represents our best understanding of how to protect ourselves from the transmission of serious diseases…. In the final analysis, we must rely on what is presently known in order to shape our decisions. Guesswork and unsubstantiated beliefs are not good grounds for moral action.”
Note: Dr. Furton makes the possible exception of the chicken pox vaccine due to his belief that chicken pox is generally a mild, and less dangerous disease than other diseases currently vaccinated against. I disagree with this risk assessment and feel that the 100 annual deaths and 11,000 annual hospitalizations in the pre vaccine era, and in particular the risk to the pregnant, the immunocompromised such as children who have received organ transplants, the elderly and the medically at risk make the chicken pox vaccine very important to obtain even though it is grown in fetal cell culture.
Vaccine Education Resources