A Parent’s Dilemma: To Vaccinate or Not to Vaccinate

As the measles outbreak focuses national attention on the issue, supporters and opponents of vaccine use cite moral as well as medical arguments.

(photo: Shutterstock/JPC-PROD)

DETROIT  — The recent measles outbreak has sparked concerns about the ethics surrounding the measles vaccine, which is derived from cell lines from aborted fetuses.

The vaccine issue has polarized many Americans, including parents. Families on both sides of the issue are framing their positions in moral terms, arguing there is an obligation either to use or to refuse the vaccine.

“Yes,” said Mary Lou Rosien, a Catholic blogger from North Chili, New York, who spoke to the Register about the matter. “I vaccinate my children because it’s the responsible thing to do — not just for my kids, but to protect others.”

“No,” countered Jo Joyce, a mother from Oklahoma. She had vaccinated her older children, but after physicians urged her preteens to receive the Gardisil vaccine that immunizes against some strains of the sexually transmitted human papilloma virus, she became more vigilant — and her research uncovered serious side effects.

Mary Bedard of New Hampshire  told a sad story: She had taken vaccinations for granted until she attended the funeral of an infant girl, still too young to be vaccinated, who had died of whooping cough. At the funeral, the child's older siblings still had the pertussis cough. They weren’t vaccinated.

And still another mother reported that her daughter experienced febrile convulsions after receiving the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. When she later learned that the cell line relied on tissue drawn from aborted fetuses, she did not permit doctors to vaccinate her younger son.

Since Jan. 1, more than 150 cases of measles have been reported in California and 17 other U.S. jurisdictions, concentrated mostly in Southwestern states. The highly contagious disease was once thought to be eradicated in the United States, but measles has flared up among visitors to Disneyland in Anaheim, Calif.



Susan Peterson, a registered nurse who works as a disability analyst in New York and whose nine children are grown, is a strong proponent of the measles vaccine. Susan explained that she had seen firsthand the benefit of immunizations.

“I came from the era,” she said, “when the [diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus] (DPT) vaccine was new. My older cousin had whooping cough, and even as a small child, I understood that he was very sick. ... Children my age got polio ... and one saw them sometimes with their crutches and leg braces. So I viewed vaccinations as a great good.”

She added, though, that she supports parental rights and does not want to see the federal government mandate vaccinations.

Kristen Leigh Colleti-Geisler, another supporter of vaccination programs, is a nurse practitioner in a North Carolina emergency room, and she has seen firsthand how devastating these diseases are.

“Babies die,” she said in an interview. “Adults with co-morbidities die, and the elderly die.”



Parents opposed to vaccines highlight potential side effects, as well as the link to abortion.

Those who cite safety concerns have read of serious side effects, including seizures, and may be wary of a possible link between vaccines and autism. (A study linking vaccines and autism that was published in The Lancet in 1998 has since been retracted; but some worried parents remain unconvinced that there is no connection.)

For example, in the state of New Jersey, where schoolchildren must be vaccinated unless parents submit a signed statement, more than 9,000 parents have signed a form citing “religious objections” as their reason for not vaccinating their school-age children.

The state of Oregon has the highest statewide percentage of unvaccinated children, with 7% of parents last year requesting exemptions for “non-medical reasons.” And in southern California, where a movement toward organic products and environmentalism spawns opposition to medical interventions, some communities report that more than 10% of school-age children remain unvaccinated.

Rebecca Ledford, a home-schooling mother of four from northern Michigan, worries that the increased rate of neuro-disability among children is tied to vaccines and that diseases such as asthma, ADD, ADHD, acid reflux, diabetes and autism are now mainstream.

Her greatest concern, though, is the ingredients in vaccines, including a form of mercury called Thimerosol that is a component of some vaccines.

“I remember the big push to rid our homes of mercury thermometers because they were no longer considered safe if they should break. So how could it be safe to inject mercury into the body?” Ledford wrote in an email. She added, “When autistic children are tested for heavy metals, they almost always come up severely overloaded with mercury. ... [That] was not something I was comfortable risking with my healthy children.”


Pro-Life Concerns

But pro-lifers, too, have reason for concern. Both the MMR and the MMR+ Varicella vaccines, combination vaccines which guard against measles, mumps and rubella, are derived from WI-38 human diploid lung fibroblasts — that is, lung cells extracted nearly 40 years ago from an aborted 3-month-old white female fetus.

According to reports, the research initially involved many more aborted fetuses. There are currently no alternative shots available in the U.S.

Two Vatican documents state that the Church condemns the use of aborted fetal cells in the manufacture of vaccines, while at the same time permitting parents to have their children vaccinated when no alternative is available.

"Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared From Cells Derived From Aborted Human Fetuses," published in 2005 by the Pontifical Academy for Life, recommends that parents request an alternative vaccine, Attenuvax, to protect children against measles. However, in the U.S., the drug manufacturer Merck discontinued manufacture of Attenuvax in 2009. And vaccines that protect against other diseases, including mumps, rubella, chickenpox and Hepatitis A, are also derived from aborted fetal cell lines.

"Moral Reflections on Vaccines" makes four key points: There is a grave responsibility to use alternative vaccines and to conscientiously object to vaccines with moral problems; when there is no alternative, it is licit to use morally problematic vaccines to avoid serious health risks; the use of such vaccines should not be misinterpreted as a declaration of the licitness of their production, marketing and use; and the use of these vaccines is taking place in a context of moral coercion of the consciences of parents, a circumstance that must be eliminated as soon as possible.

Another Vatican document, Dignitas Personae, published in June 2008 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, specifically condemns research utilizing fetal cells or “biological material” of illicit origin. At the same time, Dignitas Personae grants parents permission to have their children vaccinated but recommends that they express their concern about morally problematic vaccines to the manufacturer or health-care provider.


Other Catholic Perspectives

Dr. Paul Cieslak, a communicable disease specialist in Portland, Ore., and member of the Catholic Medical Association, is concerned that measles is highly contagious. Once an individual has been exposed to the airborne virus, the disease can be transmitted even before the infected person shows any symptoms.

Cieslak warns that there could be a resurgence of measles in the U.S., but he adds that the blame must not be placed on parents who reject morally problematic vaccines. Rather, pharmaceutical companies should be held accountable and should be encouraged to focus their research on vaccines that do not rely on illicit use of cells from the human person.

Cieslak recommends that parents have their children immunized, but parents who wrestle with the decision should be able to opt out and to follow their own consciences on the matter.

The National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) offers a list of frequently asked questions to help parents decide whether to immunize their children. Marie Hilliard, the NCBC’s director of bioethics and public policy, reiterated that since there is no alternative vaccine available at this point, the use of MMR can be tolerated.

“Parents feel the responsibility to protect their children,” she explained. 

“In some nations, an alternative vaccine is available; but here in the U.S., where the only available vaccine is derived from aborted cell lines, parents who fear communicable diseases really have no choice.”

Kathy Schiffer writes from Southfield, Michigan.