I was born in 1958 at the Lamar County, Georgia Maternity Shelter that was attached to the county health department building. It was a half mile from our house. My only return visits to the place of my origin came when I had to get my scheduled vaccinations.
As a child I was terrified of shots. I remember once getting all worried about when my next booster shot was due. I got on my bike, rode to the clinic, and asked the nurse if she would kindly check my record to see when the dreaded event would occur. I have a vague memory of her acting like it was all pretty funny. When she told me that I was a couple of years away from needing to get stuck again, I was greatly relieved.
My measles vaccination was administered not at the health department but in the office of Dr. Crawford, our family physician. Dr. Crawford was a kind but crusty doctor; I think that I remember that he had been an Army doctor before entering general practice. Back then—I don’t know what it’s like now—the measles vaccine was given as an injection in each arm. When Dr. Crawford came at me with the needle, I flew into probably the greatest tantrum I ever threw. I was scared to death. It took him, my mother, and his nurse to hold me down so that the shots could be administered. The nurse then put a little round bandage on each arm as I whimpered.
We were having lunch at my grandmother’s house after the ordeal. I began to point out my bandages to my cousins. My mother said, “Don’t you act proud of those after that fit you pitched.” I managed to slink away without leaving my chair.
So I understand a child wanting to avoid a vaccination.
I can’t quite understand parents wanting to avoid having their children vaccinated.
But some parents do want to avoid it. Some of them are concerned that the shots will actually make their children sick. Some of them don’t think that the shots do any good. Still others are concerned that there may be some link between vaccinations and the development of autism, although no such link has ever been proven.
According to a recent news report, an increasing number of parents are claiming a religious exemption in order to avoid having their children vaccinated. In some states, such an exemption can be claimed to excuse children from the vaccinations but still allow them to attend school. While some parents have a genuine religious conviction about such things, others are claiming the exemption while having no religious qualms at all. They have other reasons, such as a fear of possible negative health ramifications, that will not allow them an exemption so they claim the religious one. (Some states do allow for “philosophical” or “personal” objections.)
While it is probably proper for states to offer a religious exemption, I question whether Christians should ever take advantage of it. It is possible for an unimmunized child to spread a disease such as measles to other children, including children who have been immunized but on whom the vaccine has not for some reason been fully effective. Is not putting the needs of others above those of self basic to the Christian ethic? Is behavior that could endanger others ever consistent with Christian love? As a parent, I understand that our own children’s welfare is paramount in our thinking. But should we ever let fear and probable misinformation cause us to allow our child to be a possible vehicle through whom harm could be done to others?
I certainly have qualms about parents claiming to have a religious reason for refusing the vaccination when they in fact have no such convictions. It sounds like lying to me. Can a person ever lie in order to protect someone else? Certainly. The old but still reliable scenario in which someone comes to your door wanting to kill an innocent person that you are sheltering comes to mind. Were I to be asked if that person was in my house I would lie about it without blinking an eye and without having a twinge in my conscience. Still, using religion as an out strikes me as problematic. Religious convictions should lie at the heart of who we are and they should be a primary source of our integrity. Claiming to have them when you don’t seems very unseemly to me.
I admit that I am one of those people who put a lot of trust in modern medical science. Vaccinations have virtually eradicated many dreaded diseases. We continue to be warned about the potential outbreak of “super viruses” that are resistant to antibiotics. We don’t want to compound our future problems with the return of the plagues of yesteryear.
It is troubling to me that religion and lying about religion may be contributing to the development of future outbreaks of disease.
Christian love and human decency seem to me to require a different approach.