Why We Must Engage in the Immunization Debate with Grace and Compassion

By now you’ve seen it on Facebook, your nightly newscast, or even at your child’s playgroup. Maybe you’ve even contributed to it.

The immunization debate.

The recent outbreak of measles in the US has reignited an intense, passionate conversation (although I use that term loosely because it implies listening, which has been largely absent from this debate) about the role childhood immunizations play in preserving public health.

polio vac

Family with fifteen children lined up for oral polio vaccine, around 1963. Source

I am old enough to remember lining up as a child in the early 1960s to receive a sugar cube that had been dripped with a pink liquid containing the polio vaccine. It was a great adventure, and I definitely wanted another sugar cube.

I now know that at the time there was a raging debate between Dr. Jonas Salk and Dr. Albert Sabin over whether a polio vaccine made from a weakened, live virus or one that had been made from a killed virus was safer and more effective. The science of that matter continues to be played out in some ways in current scientific literature, but the end result was the eradication of polio in the US in 1979.

There are still living older adults who were affected by polio. Steve Cohen, the congressman from Memphis is one. He walks with a limp because of the weakness in his right leg. He considers the CDC and funding for research around issues like vaccines to be the most effective national defense system the US has against epidemics.

Dr. Nancy Snyderman, Chief Medical Editor for NBC News, recently tweeted,

But today’s intense debate is not about the formulation of a vaccine – it’s one that seems to pit a parent’s personal freedom to choose against the common good of collective health.

The anger expressed goes something like this: “No one can tell me what is best for my child. I will decide. Your science might be wrong.” On the other side are those who say that choice isn’t an option when it comes to public health.

A mother who believes that vaccinations may harm her child in any manner is acting in love, and we must recognize that. Her decision not to vaccinate is not made for the purpose of harming her child or anyone else’s. Being called an idiot by someone persuaded by the science to form a different conclusion will not change her mind. I see no value in vilifying her.

In the same way, people convinced of the “greater good” of vaccinations should not suffer the insinuation that they are not smart enough to avoid being duped by the pharmaceutical companies or don’t care enough about their kids to protect them from harmful chemicals.

The bullying seems to work in both directions. And in both directions, it serves no purpose.

I do believe that everyone involved loves our children and wants the best for them.

Both positions may have merit, but neither attitude will help address the issue the country faces.

So where is the voice of the church and people of faith in this debate? Similar to the evolution and abortion debates, this is not just about science. How do we resolve ethical dilemmas when personal freedoms potentially threaten the community as a whole?

There is vast literature written from theological points of view on how to do that. I would say it is time for the faith community to dust off those books and enter the conversation with grace and compassion. We will not make progress through the media or through the impassioned voices at either extreme.

The resolution of the problem is not easy. But at this point, this is not a debate that can be won through science alone. It is a moral and theological dilemma. It won’t be solved by who can shout the loudest, but we may make strides by learning to listen to each other and understanding each other’s motives rather than rushing to judgment.


One thought on “Why We Must Engage in the Immunization Debate with Grace and Compassion

  1. My fear about religion entering into the “debate” is that it won’t be thoughtful theologians or ethicists who will make the headlines, but that outlets like Fox News — being so fair and balanced — will trot out the evangelicals whose stance is, very likely, “God” will protect those that are deserving of being protected. Who needs vaccinations? Who needs science?” That’s what I fear.

    Don’t get me wrong, I agree that a well-written, well-researched piece by an educated ethicist — religious or not — is always a welcome addition to any debate, I just don’t know if such a thing would reach its intended audience. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to hope for it (or pray for it if that’s your thing), though, would it?


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