Pastoral Q & A: Vaccinations
A parishioner wrote and asked: What is the Christian position on vaccinations? Should we get our children vaccinated?
Now that’s a dangerous question! Emotions run high on both sides of the debate. The pro-vaccination crowd accuses the anti-vaccination crowd of being reckless with the health of our children. The anti-vaxxers respond by accusing the pro-vaxxers of wanting to poison their children. Things get all the more intense when we bring Christian arguments about God’s providence or abortion into the debate.
Wouldn’t it be great if the Bible gave a clear answer to this question? As it stands, there are no Bible passages that give us explicit instructions about whether to vaccinate our children. There are biblical principles that we need to consider and apply, but we must recognize that we’re in an area where Christians do and can disagree. Our church does not hold to a position on vaccinations. Our confessions don’t stake a position on this. There is no single “Reformed” position, rather a diversity of views exist among Reformed people. We therefore have to be careful with the way we debate this issue. We can still be brothers and sisters in Christ and disagree on this question.
In my view, there are at least three biblical principles that we need to consider and apply.
First and foremost, we are not to recklessly endanger lives, whether our own or those of others. This is derived from the Heidelberg Catechism’s explanation of the Sixth Commandment, “You shall not kill” (HC QA 105). Vaccinations are proven to prevent diseases, many of which can be life-threatening. However, it should also be recognized that there may be individuals who might experience life-threatening side-effects or reactions to vaccinations. By way of exception, therefore, it can be granted that some individual children ought not to be vaccinated.
Second, children are entrusted by God to the parents (Psalm 127:3). The parents have the ultimate responsibility to care for their children and make decisions relating to their health and welfare. Parents also have the calling to be responsible in caring for their children. Moreover, they are accountable to God for the decisions they make. If your child dies from a disease you could have prevented by having your child vaccinated, that’s on your conscience. You have to be prepared to accept that risk if you choose not to vaccinate your children.
Third, since the government is mandated by God to uphold justice (Romans 13:1-4), vaccinations are also a matter of public health policy. Justice includes preventing unnecessary deaths due to bad public health practices. At the very least, civil governments have the responsibility to educate the public on the value of vaccinations. Going beyond that, one is faced with an inevitable conflict between the rights of parents and the responsibility of the government to protect the public from harm. At the moment, I don’t know exactly how to resolve that. Perhaps it would be resolved by recognizing parents have the freedom to choose, but still holding them criminally responsible for any public health consequences from their choice.
And what about God’s providence? Yes, we believe that he is sovereignly in control over all things. Nothing happens to us by chance. But we can never use that truth to evade the truth of our human responsibility. I don’t get in the car and say, “I don’t need to wear a seatbelt because God is sovereign. If he wants me to die in a crash, then it’s my time.” We all realize that’s foolish talk with seatbelts — it’s equally foolish with vaccinations. If there’s a means to preserve the life of you or your child, you’re required to use it.
Finally, objections are sometimes raised about the contents of vaccines. One objection says that vaccines contain toxic/poisonous chemicals. Since our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, we ought not to inject these substances into them. However, my understanding is that the levels of these chemicals found in vaccines is so small as to have no negative effect on your overall health. I’m not a medical doctor, but the Australian Medical Association, the Canadian Medical Association, and others all stand behind the safety of vaccines, and I’ll take their word for it. Think about it: if doctors and medical researchers are aware of the content of these vaccines, and they really knew it was harmful and hid it from us, would they allow their own children to be vaccinated? There’s no proof that doctors are secretly leading the way in keeping their children unvaccinated — in fact, the opposite is the case with the vast majority (as illustrated from this research with doctors in Switzerland).
The other objection is far more weighty and has to do with the use of aborted human babies in developing vaccines. This is a reality which we need to acknowledge and come to terms with. While the number of babies that were used to develop certain cell lines for vaccines was small, they each represent a human life unjustly killed. Even if they weren’t expressly killed for medical research, murder made it possible. That said, there are several medical advances commonly used today which have their origins in highly unethical circumstances. One of the most well-known is a treatment for hypothermia discovered by researchers in Nazi Germany. Are we forbidden from using that life-saving treatment because a number of people were murdered by the Nazis in the process of developing it? No, we recognize that Scripture teaches that God can and does bring good out of horrible evil (think of the cross!). We are not approving of the evil when we make use of the good that has come from it. Yes, by all means, if there are alternatives not developed from human fetal cell lines, we would rather use those. Furthermore, we would certainly want to encourage medical/pharmaceutical companies to be ethical. However, this argument need not be an obstacle for Christian parents when it comes to vaccinations.
As you might have gathered, all our children have been vaccinated for the usual assortment of preventable illnesses (except for HPV). My wife and I believe that was the responsible thing to do — and certainly no ill effects have resulted from that choice. I respect the right of other Christian parents to reach a different conclusion, so long as they’re being thoughtful and responsible in the way they reason and act. In the spirit of Romans 14:1-12, we ought to all give one another the same Christian courtesy.