Dr. Michael Martin and his wife, Linda, consider themselves fairly well-educated about both their Catholic faith and the medical field. Michael and Linda, who is a nurse, belong to St. Louis Parish in Pittsford, and also operate their own medical practice, called Gladbrook Pediatrics.
Last June the Martins were surprised, however, when they learned the Meruvax vaccine commonly used to safeguard American children against rubella was originally developed decades ago using cells derived from an aborted fetus.
After doing some research, the Martins learned that a Japanese company makes the Takahashi rubella vaccine — which is not available in the United States — using a line of cells that were never part of an aborted fetus’s body. Instead, this vaccine uses a cell line from a rabbit. According to the National Catholic Bioethics Center, the rubella vaccine used in the U.S. is produced in “descendent cells” — cells that 40 years ago were taken from one or more aborted fetuses and allowed to grow independently.
Upon learning of the U.S. vaccine’s origins, Linda immediately contacted Jann Armantrout, diocesan life-issues coordinator, to find out the Catholic Church’s stance on this issue. Armantrout told her the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life clarified this position in a July 2005 paper titled “Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared From Cells Derived From Aborted Human Fetuses.”
This document was approved by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and in the paper, the academy advised that — whenever possible — Catholics should use alternative vaccines that were not developed through morally questionable means. The academy acknowledged, however, that such vaccines are not available in all locations, and suggested that parents seriously weigh the health risks of not vaccinating their children against their moral objections to the way the vaccines were developed.
“As regards the vaccines without an alternative, the need to contest … must be reaffirmed, as should be the lawfulness of using the former in the meantime insomuch as is necessary in order to avoid a serious risk,” the document states.
“Until such time that the (alternative) vaccines are available, Catholics need to know that they are morally free to use the vaccines that are available, regardless of their historical association with abortion,” Armantrout said, noting that the church will not definitively tell parents whether to vaccinate their children with a morally questionable vaccine. “If a family comes to believe through informed conscience that they are cooperating in an immoral act, the church has historically recognized the right to exercise conscience.”
If parents decide not to vaccinate their children, they will need to request religious exemptions from the New York state public-health law that requires immunization, noted Sister Patricia Carroll, assistant superintendent for government services and administration in the diocesan Department of Catholic Schools. They’ll have to request the state form, explain the religious principals guiding their request and have the form notarized. Currently, fewer than 1 percent of the 6,000 parents with children in diocesan schools have filed such requests, Sister Carroll noted.
Although the church leaves the vaccination question in the hands of parents, Armantrout stressed that this does not suggest that Catholics are free to accept future development of drugs and pharmaceuticals that use fetal or embryonic tissues and cells. Catholics are called to advocate for ethical alternatives, and the diocese is currently exploring the possibility of making alternative vaccines available, she said.
The Florida-based pro-life group Children of God for Life is pushing for alternative vaccines to be imported to the United States and manufactured by U.S. pharmaceutical companies. The New York State Catholic Conference is currently evaluating the group’s suggestions, Armantrout said.
“My personal opinion is the only way that this is really going to come to pass is if people are aware of the issue and put pressure on their legislators and … the pharmaceutical industry,” Michael Martin said.
A representative of Children of God for Life recently met with the Martins, who committed Gladbrook Pediatrics to receive, store and administer an alternative vaccine if one is imported in the future. Several of their patients — including the Bacchetta family of Rochester’s St. Ambrose Parish and the Wahle family of Penfield’s Church of the Holy Spirit — already have said they would use an alternative vaccine if one were available.
“I would absolutely want the opportunity to have a vaccine that didn’t come from taking a life,” Sally Bacchetta said.
“We all deserve a choice … to vaccinate our children without worry,” Beth Wahle added.