West Virginia’s Senate is reviewing a bill that would allow public school students to receive religious exemptions from vaccinations.
Debate over parents opting out of their children’s vaccinations have centered around the issue of “herd immunity” ― the fact that a large majority of a population must be immunized in order for that community to be protected against infectious disease. Despite what researchers have called a potential “public health crisis,” the majority of states currently offer religious exemptions. If the bill passes, West Virginia would become the 47th.
John Grabenstein, Senior Medical Director for Adult Vaccines for Merck Vaccines, published a paper on religious beliefs surrounding immunization in the peer-reviewed medical journal Vaccine in 2013.
Anti-vaccinators could argue that Grabenstein’s role with a company that manufactures and distributes vaccines poses a conflict of interest, but the paper notes that the researcher is himself a practicing Roman Catholic and has spent decades investigating the religious aspects of immunization.
Grabenstein found that only two religious groups ― Christian Scientists and the Dutch Reformed Church ― have demonstrated a precedent of widely rejecting vaccinations, but even these are not explicitly laid out in their doctrine.
Certain leaders and groups in other faiths have expressed objections to immunization, but these typically aren’t based in scripture or doctrine. But that doesn’t seem to matter for health officials reviewing the requests for exemptions. In most places, it’s fairly easy for parents to cite religious reasons for opting their children out of the vaccine mandate. Many states require parents to fill out a basic form, while some only ask for a signed statement or even just the child’s name, birthdate and Social Security number.
And such exemptions are on the rise across the country. National nonmedical vaccine exemption rates rose 19 percent between 2009 and 2013, according to the American Journal of Public Health. Nonmedical vaccine exemptions nearly doubled in Texas over the last five years. And in New Jersey, the number of school children whose parents sought exemptions on religious grounds rose from 1,641 in the 2005-06 academic year to 8,977 in the 2013-14 year.
Mark S. Movsesian, a law professor at St. John’s University in New York who specializes in religious liberty issues, said the reasoning behind many of these exemptions is mis-represented.
“The people who are claiming these exemptions ― it’s not religious exemption, but ‘personal belief,’” he told Deseret News in 2015. “My impression is that’s what most of the objection is about.”
A 2013 survey of pediatricians found much the same to be true. The report, published in the journal of the American Academy of Pediatricians, found the majority of doctors said parents refusing or delaying vaccinations for their children do so because they believe the vaccine is unnecessary, taxing on their child’s immune system or for fear the shot will cause their child pain.
Individuals may hold personal, spiritual objections to vaccinations ― but what grounds these sentiments doesn’t appear to be religious tenets. Here’s a brief rundown on where groups from several religious traditions stand on vaccinations:
As Grabenstein found, the religious group most commonly associated with anti-vaccination sentiment is the Church of Christ, Scientist. Christian Scientists routinely turn down vaccinations, which has been linked to a number of measles outbreaks among members of the faith. But the church does not list any formal objections to vaccinations on its website. And Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the movement, was reportedly in favor of vaccines. “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,” she’s been quoted as saying.
A large contingent of the Dutch Reformed Church, a Protestant denomination, have historically turned down vaccinations. They hold that vaccines can interfere with a person’s relationship to God.
The Catholic Church has in the past expressed moral objections to vaccines manufactured using voluntarily aborted fetuses. The church urges Catholics to find alternatives in such cases, but it argues that faithful shouldn’t turn down immunizations and “sacrifice the common good of public health,” according to National Catholic Reporter.
There’s a common misconception that the Amish, who are wary of some modern technology, don’t vaccinate. They do. Some unvaccinated pockets of the traditionalist Christian community have been at the center of measles outbreaks in the past, but as a whole the religious community has nothing against getting immunized.
A handful of conservative Christian groups, including the anti-LGBTQ, anti-abortion rights Family Research Council, have argued that certain vaccines targeting sexually transmitted diseases will encourage promiscuity among young people. Some Christian groups, including the Catholic Church, reject the use of birth control for similar reasons.
Most major branches of Judaism hold that people have a moral responsibility to maintain their health ― including getting vaccinated. According to Orthodox Jewish group Chabad, the preeminent Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson wrote on the importance of vaccinations in 1956: “It is with regard to matters such as these that the axiom ‘Do not set yourself apart from the community’ applies. You should act according to that which is done by [the parents of] the majority of children who are in your children’s classes.”
However, a measles outbreak hit Southern California in January and specifically appeared to be spreading in the Orthodox Jewish community in Los Angeles. None of the 18 L.A. County residents who got the virus could provide proof of vaccination, according to Los Angeles Times. This may be indicative of a trend among ultra-Orthodox communities of turning away from vaccinations, which has been correlated to a number of measles outbreaks in recent years. Members of these communities occasionally cite fears that vaccines carry potential health risks, but such concerns are not rooted in religious belief.
Some vaccines contain pork gelatin, the consumption of which both Islam and Judaism have rules prohibiting. But leaders in both faiths have come forward saying that receiving a vaccine with pork-derived material does not constitute oral consumption.
In California, which recently eliminated nonmedical exemptions to immunizations, a handful of Nation of Islam leaders objected to the changes, citing widely-rejected fears that certain vaccines could increase the risk of autism among black men. In their objection, the leaders said the mandate carried echoes of the government’s Tuskegee Syphilis Study, an infamous study conducted between 1932 and 1972 in which federal researchers withheld treatment from African American men who had the disease. They did not cite specific religious objections to the law, however.
Other faiths and traditions
Hindu, Sikh and Buddhist texts and doctrine contain no teachings in opposition to immunization. In 2010, Buddhist leader the Dalai Lama helped initiate a polio eradication drive in India.
One group, the New Jersey-based Congregation of Universal Wisdom, explicitly forbids vaccinations and even surgery and medicine of any kind. Chiropractor Walter P. Schilling founded the church ― which worships “a Supreme Master of all levels in creation,” according to its website ― in 1975. Schilling lets interested parties apply for membership using a simple form found on the group’s website.
Objections to vaccinations are sometimes rooted more in culture than religion. Among the Hmong people, a minority ethnic group from southeast Asia who began immigrating to the U.S. during the Vietnam war, the notion of vaccines is largely foreign. The concept of preventative medicine, in general, isn’t a part of traditional Hmong healing. The Hmong also tend to be wary of putting objects and substances in their bodies, which they believe can interfere with reincarnation.
Objections to vaccinations can also be found among some left-leaning holistic health proponents and pockets of spiritual and New Age communities. Some of those objecting to mandatory vaccination laws point to the debunked conspiracy theory that some vaccines cause autism. Disbarred former doctor Andrew Wakefield helped spur the anti-vaccine movement with his 1998 British Medical Journal study linking the MMR vaccine to autism. The BMJ later retracted the study, calling it “fatally flawed both scientifically and ethically.” And Wakefield was discovered to have made up much of the data in order to reap financial benefits from a lawsuit against the vaccine’s manufacturers.