At the risk of being one of those that rush in where angels fear to tread, I am writing about parents refusing vaccinations for their children. This topic was brought (again) to the forefront by the story (see here) of a measles outbreak linked to a church in Texas. A church visitor contracted measles overseas, and subsequently there have been 21 cases at the church, mostly in unvaccinated people.
Ethically there are many dimensions to the story. First of all is the dictum that “Good ethics begin with good facts.” The pastor of the church in question is reported as having “reservations” about vaccinations, “primarily with very young children who have family history of autism. . .” This is an example of decision-making based on bad facts. The results of the one study that purported to establish a link between the MMR vaccine and autism (funded by lawyers looking for evidence to use against vaccine manufacturers) not only have never been replicated, but have subsequently shown to be so flawed that the medical journal that published them retracted the original article. However, the legend continues to propagate (fueled by the internet) that there is scientific evidence of a link between MMR and autism, and it is unfortunate that a Christian leader has influenced healthcare decisions based on fraudulent data. This is not to say that vaccinations do not carry risk, only that autism is not one of them. (Since the measles outbreak the pastor, to her credit, has strongly encouraged vaccination, and the church has held free immunization clinics.)
Then there is the issue of parental rights vs. the public health interests of society. While I tend to lean towards the side of parental rights, I do not think that trying to balance the rights and interests of one party vs another is the most helpful way to frame this debate. I believe a more helpful approach is found in the story of the Good Samaritan, found in the Bible in Luke chapter 10. When Jesus affirms that the law is summed up by, “Love God with everything, and love your neighbor as yourself,” the question the lawyer asks Jesus is, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan and turns the question on its head, saying, in essence, “You are the one who should be the neighbor — even if it means inconvenience or risk to yourself.” When it comes to vaccinations, who knows how many people who cross our paths are immunocompromised in one way or another? If it means being a good neighbor to those who are vulnerable around us, then vaccination may be one way of “Loving our neighbors as ourselves.” (Plus, when that visitor brings a vaccine-preventable disease into our midst, it won’t be bad for us either.)