End the religious exemption to vaccines

Arguments against mandated vaccines don't hold up

MEASLES IS ON the rise. It is a highly contagious, serious and potentially fatal disease that is completely preventable – but only if everyone who can be vaccinated is vaccinated. It is time for Massachusetts to end the religious exemption to vaccines which continues to put our communities at risk.

There really are no valid religious reasons for vaccine refusal. To their credit, almost all organized religions support, or at least have withdrawn their objection to vaccines. Vaccines are no longer made with blood products, pigs, or fetal tissue, ending some religious concerns.

Churches that are cited as supporting a religious exemption include Christian Scientists and the Dutch Reform Church. Neither church is doctrinaire or uniform in the religious concerns they articulate about vaccines. Christian Scientists rely on prayer as the primary method of healing, but the Church does not require that members refuse all medical care, and it encourages members to obey the law. Mary Baker Eddy herself said, “Rather than quarrel over vaccination, I recommend, if the law demand, that an individual submit to this process, that he obey the law, and then appeal to the gospel to save him from bad physical results.”  And, of course, the science itself shows us that the results of vaccines are good, not bad.

Broadly, there are two arguments against vaccines presented as religious. One is that as a matter of personal choice, this is a decision that should be between an individual and their God. The problem here is that vaccines are not a personal matter – we require people to get vaccines for the same reason we require them to stop for red lights – to prevent people from harming others.  In no other area of law is religious freedom a basis to disregard laws designed to protect others. The laws requiring vaccines are not nanny-state laws designed to force people to care for themselves – they exist to protect the community from those who would endanger us all by refusing to do their part to contribute to herd immunity.

The other religious argument against vaccines, when it is used, is that vaccines interfere with a person getting help directly from God. This argument is so selectively applied, however, that it falls apart. This argument should lead us to refuse all human efforts – for other medical care, for providing food, for jobs, for caring for our children – in order to let God take care of us directly.   In most human endeavors, in most religions, we live by the precept that God helps those who help themselves. What is the rationale for making this claim regarding vaccines but nowhere else? There is none save personal antipathy to vaccines.

As dangerous and misguided as vaccine refusal is, we need to recognize why intelligent and reasonable people make this choice. First, fear of vaccines is as natural as fear of flying in an airplane. Almost all of us are more nervous before a flight than a drive, even if we know the statistics that flying is significantly safer. We don’t have a good understanding of how a plane works, and we lack even the illusion of control of our destiny when we sit in that plane. The same is true of vaccines – a technology that we don’t understand – and one that is injected, painfully, into our bodies! Add to this the natural antipathy to being told what to do – by an impersonal and bureaucratic government no less.

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The reality is that vaccines save lives and vaccine refusal is dangerous. The greatest risk comes from the fact that religious exemptions tend to cluster in communities, creating a greater likelihood in those communities that a single case will lead to an epidemic. Unvaccinated children are 35 times as likely as vaccinated children to get measles, and once an epidemic starts, the size of the epidemic will increase by two people for every additional person not vaccinated. Thus, every unvaccinated person counts towards increasing community risk.

Regardless of each person’s religion, we must recognize what a blessing science and government together have given all of us – the opportunity to protect ourselves and our neighbors from diseases that would otherwise cause massive suffering and death.  Let us end the religious exemption today.