Thursday, April 16, 2015

Can Christians Rightly Claim a Religious Exemption to Vaccines?

DisclaimerThis is a personal opinion piece. We are not a doctors. This article is not intended to be medical advice. For information on the authors' religious theologizing credentials, see the author bylines at the bottom of the post.

Last month a senator from North Carolina boldly (and incorrectly, I might add) declared that the only groups that have religious grounds for declining vaccines are the Taliban and Christian Scientists (read more here). Earlier this year, a senator from Oregon also started trying to remove the religious and personal belief exemptions which are currently available for school children to opt out of vaccines in Oregon. She claimed that the religious exemption was no longer needed since there were no religious groups which decline vaccines based on their religion (read more here)

Seriously? Where are these senators doing their research? While we are unsure about other religions' means of cataloging belief, we can can tell you with certainty that Christian faith and practice is more than its collection of faith statements and official confessions. For example, mainstream Christian denomination, the Assemblies of God's 16 Fundamental Truths - which are the key doctrines all Assemblies of God churches must agree with - says nothing about murder being contrary to their religious beliefs. But you can bet your bible highlighters that if you actually ask any pastor or official from the denomination, they will tell you in no uncertain terms that murder is contrary to their religious beliefs (see the ten commandments in Exodus 20)

Additionally, we personally know Christians who feel a deep check within themselves about vaccinating their kids and they are not sure if they can legitimately claim a religious exemption. These two situations are why we decided to write this post. Because in addition to plenty of logical reasons why you might want to avoid some vaccines, we are here to tell you: 
Christians can legitimately claim a religious exemption from vaccines.

What does this mean?

Before we dive into the nitty gritty, let us tell you what that statement we just made does not mean:

We do NOT mean:
  • There are no Christians who vaccinate
  • That you must abstain from vaccines in order to be a Christian
  • There is a verse in the Bible which says "thou shall not vaccinate"
  • That we think you are a bad parent if you choose to vaccinate your children
Here's what we DO mean, and can say confidently after four religious degrees and more than two decades of professional religious experience between the two of us: If you are a Christian, there are legitimate biblical and theological arguments that support your choice not to give certain vaccinations to your kids. 

Christian Considerations 

Regarding Vaccines

Love thy neighbor, taught Jesus. If I refuse a vaccine and thereby put those around me at risk, am I disobeying this core principle of Christian teaching? Perhaps I'm not even loving myself. This was the thrust of an article published by Christianity Today a couple years ago.

This is a fair question which deserves careful thought. Mainstream media likes to make fun of the hyper-religious for trusting God to the exclusion of doctors. This is not what we're talking about. There are real moral quandaries about particular vaccines that have nothing to do with mercury or autism (or Jenny McCarthy or Andrew Wakefield for that matter)

Use of aborted fetal cells in the development and manufacture of vaccines
Here's a hard truth: Some vaccines were and are developed using stems cells acquired via abortions. These vaccines include: chickenpox, MMR, shingles and hepatitis A (as well as certain brands of: hepatitis B, polio, rabies and diptheria/tetanus/pertussis) [see here and here as well as below for more info]. Even though no new aborted fetuses are required to produce these vaccines, they are still grown from electively aborted parent cells. Not to mention the large number of aborted fetuses which were experimented on in order to perfect the strains used by vaccine manufacturers today. Perhaps this doesn't bother you, but a religious exception on the basis of conscious here is well grounded for those who hold that aborted fetuses are people who were essentially murdered, which is a common Christian thought regarding abortion.

Risks of side effects from vaccines and aluminum toxicity
Next, we believe that the standard vaccine schedule can harm children in a variety of ways. This isn't even a controversial thought as the CDC and the vaccine manufacturers themselves admit that there are risks to vaccinating that can cause both short term and long term damage to vaccine recipients. (see those on the CDC website here)

In addition to the risks of a known side effect, let's talk about toxicity: Are you aware that the aluminum levels in many vaccines are higher than the FDA maximum dosage suggestions for small children, and especially for the fetuses of pregnant moms? And even more, that no studies have been done on the safety of injecting this much aluminum into a pregnant mom? The problem is that aluminum is a known neurotoxin, put into vaccines as an adjuvant.(read more here). Without aluminum, the muscle tissue isn't irritated enough for the immune system to respond to the vaccine.

While there isn't a specific religious reason to avoid aluminum, we do need to ask: How much aluminum is too much aluminum? A study titled Aluminum neurotoxicity in preterm infants receiving intravenous-feeding solutions concludes that no more than 4mcg per KG of body weight per day is an appropriate quantity of injectable aluminum for babies.  Carissa has written about this previously here.  What happens when babies are exposed to too much injected aluminum all at once? The specifics about the type and severity of side effects as well as who are most susceptible to a side effect is still being argued among doctors and scientists. In the meantime, though, is it just to risk the development of our own children on the altar of community fear? 

Risky lifestyle vaccines
While some vaccines - like chickenpox - are for diseases anyone could catch simply from being present in the community, the vaccines for hepatitis B and HPV are for diseases you are only at risk for if you are engaging in behavior not endorsed in most Christian communities. These behaviors include promiscuous sexual activity and illicit drug use.

The CDC recommends that infants be given the Hep B vaccine while they are still at the hospital. Hepatitis B is contracted via illicit drug use and sexual activity - behaviors which even if our children choose to abandon the faith in which they are raised - they will not be engaging in for more than a decade. In the meantime, it seems that the vaccine is only good for about 10 years or so and diminishes before those same kids might become sexually active and need the protection.

Let us be clear that we are not advocating for refusing Hep B vaccines to at-risk kids. What we are saying is that in the same way that you would never put your daughter on birth control before she becomes interested in sexual activity because "one day she might decide to have sex," Christian families may want to pause to consider if their kids really need this vaccine before having it administered.

If our teens one day decide they want to act contrary to the religious environment in which they grew up and to be sexually active before marriage we would not only allow, but would encourage them to consider a birth control method as well as the Hep B vaccine. Assuming, however, that they will one day make a serious choice contrary to our religion when they aren't even yet an hour old makes no sense, especially in light of the known risks of injecting large quantities of aluminum into tiny bodies.

What did this mean for our family? In the same way that we are planning to teach our kids about birth control, we plan to teach our kids about this vaccine and why one might need it - and then let them make their own choice based on if they are joining us in our religious convictions and lifestyle or if they are going to go their own way in that regard.

Risks of vaccine vs. disease itself
Here is our final thought about reasons why Christian parents may want to opt out of some vaccines:
When the risk of complications from a vaccine, as reported by the CDC's own data(see here), exceeds the statistical chance of serious complication from the disease itself, we have a moral responsibility to our most immediate neighbors - our children - to protect them.  When I'm more likely to get sick from going to the doctor's office to get a vaccine, then actually getting the disease the vaccine is for, there is a mathematical problem that becomes an ethical dilemma. 

So what about that religious exemption?
In order to support families' free exercise of religion, states need to allow each parent to have the religious freedom to determine the best medical care for their own children held in tension with their sincerely held religious beliefs. If not, not only are the constitutional rights of these children being compromised, but schools run the risk of lower federal funding as religious parents remove their kids from public schools. Religious populations face the real possibility of discrimination as their children are systematically excluded from their right to a free public education. Furthermore, religious schools are also put in a hypocritical position where they may be forced to require vaccines that they themselves object to on religious grounds. This is a travesty.

Religious liberty is not a group liberty. Religious liberty is an individual liberty. No one needs to wait for their religious community to put out a public statement. Religious liberty lets the individual choose how to live and worship.

Compulsory vaccination is not just a threat to personal liberty, it stands against moral conscience and thereby religion itself. While there are good reasons to delay and/or skip many vaccines, you as a parent owe no one an explanation for the vaccine choices you make for your children - except to God. Skipping a shot is hardly abuse. There is a good argument, however, that too many shots too soon is. 

Christian Evaluation 

of Available Vaccines

We just threw a lot of information at you regarding legitimate reasons for Christians to opt out of vaccines on religious grounds. It's important that you know that these principles do not apply generally to the vaccination process, but rather to individual vaccines. Parents should consider each vaccine in tension with the principles above on a case-by-case basis. And at the end of the day, you are responsible to God for the choices you make regarding the health care of your kids.

Below is our assessment of legitimate religious reasons based on Christian theological principles to opt out of certain vaccines. Please keep in mind that these are assessments based on religious and moral reasons  and should not be considered medical advice.

Chickenpox (varicela):
As of the writing of this article, all chickenpox vaccines including Varivax and ProQuad are produced using fetal cell lines MRC-5 and WI-38. There is not currently a chickenpox vaccine produced without fetal cell lines in the US. 

Diptheria, Tetanus & Pertussis:
There are several versions of this vaccine available including some which also administer polio and HIB in the same injection. Please note that the Pentacel and Quadracel vaccines are developed using fetal cell line MRC-5. 

The use of fetal cells is not the only factor to consider as these vaccines are notoriously high in aluminum. Be sure to ask your doctor how many micrograms of aluminum is present in the vaccine brand they carry and weigh the risk of aluminum toxicity vs. the risk of the diseases against which you are vaccinating. (more info here)

Hep A (hepatitis a):
As of the writing of this article, all hepatitis A vaccines including Havrix, Vaqta, and Twinrix are produced using fetal cell line MRC-5. There is not currently a hepatitis A vaccine produced without fetal cell lines in the US.

HepB (hepatitis b):
We consider this a "lifestyle vaccine" which is only necessary for: children living in a household with someone positive for Hep B, those who are sexually active or intravenous drug users. In our family, we have decided to assume our children will follow our religious practice of saving sex until marriage and not shooting up drugs unless they choose not to, at which point they will be free to choose to receive this vaccine if desired. Children living in homes with someone positive for hepatitis B should talk to their child's doctor about whether this vaccine in right for them.

Please note: The "Twinrix" combo vaccine for both Hep A and B produced by GlaxoSmithKlein is developed using aborted fetal cell line MRC-5. The fetal cell free hepatitis B vaccine lines include Energix-B, Recombivax and Comvax. The use of fetal cells is not the only factor to consider as Hep B vaccines are notoriously high in aluminum. Be sure to ask your doctor how many micrograms of aluminum is present in the vaccine brand they carry.

HIB (Haemophilus Influenzae Type B):
The Pentacel vaccine which combines HIB with Diptheria, Tetanus and Pertusis is developed using fetal cell line MRC-5. HIB-only vaccines ACThib or Hiberix use semi-synthetic mediums (and are fetal cell free) and are also free of aluminum. We believe these are the best choices for those selecting this vaccine for their kids.

HPV  (Human Papillomavirus):
We consider this a "lifestyle vaccine" which is only necessary for those who are sexually active with potentially infected partners. If you are adhering to the Christian lifestyle practice of saving sex for marriage and your spouse does not have HPV, you are not at risk for this disease.

In our family, we have decided to assume our children will follow our religious practices unless they choose not to, at which point they will be free to choose to receive this vaccine if desired. Before choosing this vaccine, be sure to do more research on it to determine if the risk of the vaccine outweighs the risk of the disease itself. (get more info on HPV and its vaccines here)

MMR (measles, mumps, rubella):
As of the writing of this article, all MMR vaccines including MMR2 and ProQuad are produced using fetal cell lines MRC-5 and WI-38. There is not currently an MMR vaccine produced without fetal cell lines in the US. Individual vaccines for each of the diseases, measles, mumps and rubella are no longer produced in the US.

The polio is a vaccine we personally concluded carried a greater risk than the disease itself for our family (living in Oregon and not travelling internationally). No cases of wild polio have been contracted in the United States since 1979 and no cases of wild polio have been caught in the entire western hemisphere since 1991. The only cases of polio which have appeared in these regions during this time frame have been cases acquired from the vaccine. Conclusion: evaluate your own personal risk factors based on your geography before deciding on this vaccine. (read more about polio here)

Rabies vaccine Imovax is produced using fetal cell line MRC-5. Rabavert is a version of the rabies vaccine developed in a synthetic medium instead.

As of the writing of this article, the only shingles vaccine available in the USA is Zostavax and it is produced using fetal cell lines MRC-5 and WI-38. There is not currently a shingles vaccine produced without fetal cell lines in the US. 

For further reading about Christians and vaccines, please also see: 

About the Authors: 
Carissa Bonham has more than a decade of experience as a pastor and assistant pastor at both independent and Assemblies of God churches. She has a Bachelor of Arts degree in youth ministries and is one class shy of a Master of Arts in Religion focusing on Biblical Studies. 

She is the owner of this website and has written on various aspects of vaccines and contagious disease outbreaks. Read more of her articles on vaccines here or on general health and wellness here.

Joseph Bonham has a Bachelors of Bible as well as two Master of Arts degrees from the prestigious Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary with a focus on Hebrew Bible and Biblical Research Languages. He has more than a decade of experience as a religious teacher and scholar.

Joe and Carissa have been married for nine years and have two children, both of whom are selectively vaccinated. Joe describes himself as a skeptical researcher and a hesitant convert to an eco-friendly lifestyle. Joe has come to embrace several greener lifestyle changes after seeing the financial and health benefits firsthand.

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  1. That "love your neighbor" argument people make drives me crazy! It demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding of the fact that MY ENTIRE VIEW OF VACCINES IS DIFFERENT from that of the person making the argument. Given my perspective of vaccines, perpetuating the vaccination cycle is the LESS loving route to take. They have their right to their own views, of course, just as I do, but trying to convince me to vaccinate my children "for the greater good" automatically assumes I share their perspective.

    We have a "statement of religious objection to routine childhood vaccinations" that we had signed and notarized when our oldest was a baby. That way if a problem ever arose, no one could try to claim that we were making up some fake new "belief" for the sake of convenience. I've uploaded it to my website in case someone else is interested in it for inspiration. It's here: (I don't want to direct-link to the file because it's a Word document and that might throw someone off.)

    1. Thank you for sharing that link, Rachel!

  2. Mark 2:17 When Jesus heard it, he saith unto them , They that are whole have no need of the physician , but they that are sick...
    If ya ain't sick, ya don't need no doctor


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