When 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.
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.