Volume > Issue > The Vaccine Debate

The Vaccine Debate


By Agnes N. Penny | November 2006
Agnes M. Penny is the mother of five young children and the author of Your Labor of Love: A Spiritual Companion for Expectant Mothers and Your Vocation of Love: A Spiritual Companion for Catholic Mothers, both published by TAN Books.

A couple of years ago, I had the temerity to write a letter to the Pope. I sat down with a pen and paper and posed a question to His Holiness. Normally, I would consider such a procedure audacious in the extreme, but I had a pressing question and I needed an answer.

My question was, at first glance, rather simple, but I had discovered deeper complexities which baffled me. It concerned certain vaccines for children that are required in the U.S. and that were manufactured using stem cells from aborted babies, including the vaccines for chicken pox, hepatitis A, rubella (German measles), mumps, and polio. At first, I thought of course it was immoral to have one’s children vaccinated with these tainted vaccines — to insure the health of our children through the death of other children! But then a friend gave me some articles distributed by the National Catholic Bioethics Center in 2000 which claimed that since the stem cells were derived from abortions performed long ago, and not from abortions still being performed, one would not be committing any sin by using these vaccines. The articles delved deeply into the issue, arguing the pros and cons of using these tainted vaccines, but the overriding conclusion of the writers seemed to be that using the vaccines would not constitute direct participation in the sin of abortion and thus would be a morally licit act. Only one argument against using these vaccines was left unanswered: One writer pointed out that parents, by allowing their children to be vaccinated by tainted vaccines, might encourage scientists to continue to use stem cells from aborted babies in future experiments and vaccines, because the scientists would hear no objections to the use of the tainted vaccines. This last argument left me in a quandary. Was it right to endanger my children’s health over such a tenuous moral objection? Had it been my own health at stake, that would be different, but it was my children’s. So I wrote a letter to the Pope.

A few months later I received a response, a letter from the Vatican, thanking me for my concern and promising to forward my letter to the Pontifical Academy for Life. Fine. That was gratifying. But I had just given birth to my third child, and I still didn’t know whether it was all right to have her vaccinated or not!

I knew other Catholic families who solved the problem by requesting the non-tainted alternatives when possible and getting the tainted vaccines when there were no alternatives, such as for the vaccines for chicken pox, hepatitis A, and rubella. I admired these families; they, at least, were sending a message to the vaccine manufacturers that tainted vaccines were objectionable. But their solution did not satisfy me; somehow it seemed illogical to my way of thinking. If the tainted vaccines were O.K. to use, why request alternatives? And if the tainted vaccines were not O.K., how could one use them when no alternative was available?

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