Part of being a Catholic is to weigh whether or not any action you take or don’t take in the course of life has not only an explicit moral element, but also an implicit one. For example, if I work honestly and effectively at my job, the most direct measure of morality of that action is that I am doing what I am called to do at that moment, that I am not being lazy, and that I am using my God-given abilities. The implicit moral element is that I am not harming my employer financially (at least not purposely, assuming I am doing my job correctly). If my inaction at work costs the company an account, this is an ancillary result of my laziness. Harm has been done.
The debate about vaccinations is an interesting one. On the one hand, there are a lot of opinions that people have regarding vaccines and most people who arrive on one side or the other believe that people who arrive at different conclusions are wrong. I am not writing this piece to debate whether or not vaccines are perfectly safe and effective. Full disclosure – we do not vaccinate our children. This decision was not taken lightly. However, I am also not against others determining that they feel perfectly comfortable making the decision that vaccines are a safe and effective option for their own children.
My wife and I are quite informed on both sides of the issue. We recognize there are certain risks in not vaccinating our kids. We also recognize the risks in vaccinating our kids. It also bothers me that there seems to be an almost overzealous view of the real risk of contracting many of the things we are vaccinated for. To be sure, the descriptions are scary. But the probabilities of contracting these things multiplied by the probabilities that the worst of the consequences, to be perfectly frank, are not. So it seems to be a reasonable question as to whether or not the certain action of jamming a needle into my kid’s arm and injecting a foreign substance has ramifications that outweigh the probability of harm done from what I am protecting them against. At least I find this a reasonable question. But to my chagrin, many do not find it reasonable at all. According to more and more voices in government and otherwise, not vaccinating is akin to child abuse. It’s a bizarre idea in my mind to take this leap in logic, but it’s definitely the vibe one gets in not-so-subtle ways when simply trying to do what’s best for your family.
I get it. I have not immunized my kid against, say, measles. It is a somewhat uncomfortable choice, but it is an informed one. But yes, the day could come where my kid contracts measles, and all the world will glare at me and shake a finger as if to say “I told you so.” Now, as is more likely the case, none of my kids ever contract measles, all will be ignored, or at most I’ll be considered “lucky.” And in the small chance my kid gets measles, the very highly probably scenario is that it will really suck for a while, and then the kid will recover, and then he or she will have the full immunity that comes with contracting the illness.
I’m not glib about it, and I am not going to spend pages explaining why we made this decision. But I will address the “community” aspect of this. It’s a legitimate concern, and one worthy of consideration from a moral point of view. The argument is this: because I did not vaccinate my kids, I put other people at risk. The people at risk, in particular, are those who have weakened immune systems who cannot get vaccinations and others who received vaccinations in the past, but for whatever reason the vaccine has lost its effectiveness. Doesn’t the moral high ground imply that all of us should vaccinate our otherwise healthy kids?
There’s a very simple answer to this, in my opinion: No.
I am not saying that this is not worth thinking about. And if someone comes to a different conclusion on this moral question, then as a matter of conscience go ahead and get your kids vaccinated even if you otherwise would not.
But I do not believe this is the moral high ground. We are never asked by our Church to do anything to ourselves or to others (in this case, our kids) that causes harm even if it is done with the idea of helping others. Yes, it’s true that we are asked to sacrifice for others, and in some cases lay down our lives for others. And perhaps I can even buy the argument that I should willingly vaccinate myself if it really helps others. But I would never harm, hurt, or kill my own child to save someone else. As a parent I am first and foremost called to defend and protect my family. Period.
OK, OK. I know the immediate response: But you aren’t harming them! You’re helping them! You’re an idiot!
An idiot I may be, but again I am not writing this to get into the pro-vaccine/anti-vaccine debate with all the government propaganda and the anti-big-pharm propaganda and contradicting studies that either side can use to make their point. I am just saying that some of us have decided – whether you accept it or not or like it or not – that we see more harm than good in injecting vaccines into our children. Whether harm or potential harm is real or perceived, whether we’re wrong or right, whether we’re idiots or geniuses, in the end we are doing what we believe is in the best interests of our children. And they are my primary concern.
Now, this doesn’t mean we just don’t care about anyone else. But it does mean, perfectly honestly, that your appeal to me to do the “moral” thing by inflicting what I perceive to be harm on my child so that your child can be safer is not going to fly. This isn’t meant to be harsh, it’s just reality: why would I place your child’s interests above mine? I wouldn’t, and that’s a perfectly reasonable position.
The other part of this that makes this a bit of an empty appeal, in my opinion, is that my kids are simply very unlikely to (a) get this disease and (b) run into an at-risk person while a communicable state. Could it happen? Yeah, I guess it could. But again, the probabilities are very low, and do not outweigh the certainty of getting vaccinated.
Having said all that, the moral question is certainly not an inappropriate thing to ponder. But please, people. Casting final judgment on someone who arrives at a different conclusion than you, either on the vaccine question itself or on the morality of making the decision to not vaccinate, is not helpful. Nor is it doctrinally certain. It is a point of view, and nothing more.
One final point I’d like to make isn’t around the moral question, but is with respect to our freedoms and liberties. We Americans speak a lot of how we’re the land of the free and home of the brave. But we are also pretty quick to punt the whole liberty thing away in exchange for feelings of safety and security, and we seem willing to impose things upon others in return for our own safety and security. While there are many examples of this, the vaccine issue is a prime example. The tyranny of the majority can be a scary thing, especially when the government itself openly encourages citizens to shame, ridicule, and outright bully other citizens to do something these other citizens are not comfortable doing, or are opposed to doing. It should not even matter the reasons for it (why should a moral objection be excused but a decision based on information not be?). On this issue, I have experienced first-hand the comments that are supposed to guilt me into changing my mind, the insults around how uninformed I am, and little acceptance that my right as a parent should supersede their own concerns about what that means for their kids. I can only imagine the founding fathers’ reactions to the scenario where the government mandates the injection of anything into the bodies of individuals, including children, against the will of those individuals and children’s parents. It’s actually pathetic, in my opinion, that so many feel perfectly fine with the idea of mandatory vaccination, showing no feeling of concern at all for the feelings and opinions of others. How is that the moral high ground?
This issue should continue to be discussed amicably, and people should be informed fully of both supporting studies as well as an honest presentation of risks of side effects and studies that aren’t all favorable. Give people all the facts and let them make their own decisions. That is the moral high ground.