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Faith-Based Objections to Vaccines May Threaten Common Good

ST. LOUIS (RNS) Most of the world’s religions share some version of the golden rule of treating others as you wish to be treated.
That notion was important to the theology of Mary Baker Eddy, who founded the Church of Christ, Scientist in 1879. But another central feature of Eddy’s theology — the belief that healing prayer renders medical care unnecessary — can be in conflict with the golden rule when it comes to infectious diseases such as pandemic flu.
That conflict played out at least five times between 1978 and 1994 in the St. Louis area, when measles outbreaks spread at two large Christian Science schools, killing three Christian Scientists and in some cases, moving beyond campus borders, sickening hundreds.
President Obama has declared the H1N1 virus (swine flu) a national emergency; it’s already sickened an estimated 22 million people and killed 4,000 nationally, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Though officials believe the wave of infections has likely peaked, doctors say the holiday combination of travel and family visits could increase cases of the virus. And as a swine flu pandemic looms, some bioethicists say members of religious groups who choose to forgo vaccines put their neighbors’ health at risk and threaten the common good.
“Viruses and other contagious diseases don’t care about our personal beliefs,” said Nancy Berlinger, deputy director of the Hastings Center, a New York-based bioethics research institute.
At the same time, others point out that constitutional protections for religious worship easily outweigh any pressure on members of religious groups to capitulate to voluntary vaccinations if they choose prayer over medicine.
Epidemiologists call people who can’t be vaccinated, or choose not to be, “free riders” because they benefit from the widespread immunity of large populations that receive the vaccine. Yet, when free riders get sick, it puts even those who have been vaccinated at risk.
That’s what happened in the 1980s and 1990s at two St. Louis-area Christian Science schools. In 1985, three Christian Scientists affiliated with Principia College in Elsah, Ill., died, and 712 students were quarantined on campus, when an outbreak of measles sickened more than 100 people.
In 1989, another measles outbreak at Principia sickened nearly 100 people, including some off campus who were not affiliated with the school.
In 1994, another outbreak spread to Principia School, which serves pre-kindergartners through senior high students in St. Louis. Nearly 200 people contracted measles that year, including a doctor and an infant, both of whom were infected by Principia students off campus. Hundreds of Principia students and their parents ultimately decided to be vaccinated during the outbreaks, but many opted against vaccination.
Compulsory vaccination for diseases such as measles or mumps has ensured widespread immunity, but religious exemptions — allowed in most states — have the potential to disrupt its effectiveness. So far, H1N1 vaccinations have not been deemed mandatory.
Still, Berlinger cited a 1944 U.S. Supreme Court decision that said the “right to practice religion freely does not include the liberty to expose the community or the child to communicable disease or the latter to ill health or death.”
While the law protects Americans’ right to practice religion as they wish, Berlinger said “it also places limits on the practice of religion when it starts to intrude into public health or the health of (a) child.”
She said another ethical concern was that when a population refuses to be vaccinated, public health resources have to be diverted to that population if an outbreak occurs.
“We’re all members of the public, no matter what our personal beliefs are,” Berlinger said, “and there’s a point at which those beliefs start affecting someone else.”
Christian Science leaders stress that there is no church dogma that forces followers to refuse vaccinations or medical treatment. Those who choose to rely solely on prayer for their health care, they say, do so with their eyes open.
That focus on prayer traces its roots to 1866, when Eddy “discovered” what she later called “the science of Christianity” when she was restored to health while reading a New Testament account of Jesus healing the sick.
Today, there are about 1,800 Christian Science churches in nearly 60 countries, including about 1,000 in the United States.
Eddy wrote that people who believe in infectious and contagious diseases mentally prepare themselves to catch those diseases “whenever there appear the circumstances which he believes produce it.”
Eddy believed that matter is “unreal and temporal,” and that only Spirit, or God, is real and true. Because man is made in God’s image, man is spiritual, not material, Eddy said. Disease is an evil product of the world, but it is material, and therefore does not exist in the spiritual world.
“A calm, Christian state of mind is a better preventive of contagion than a drug, or than any other possible sanative method,” Eddy wrote.
A church spokesman said that although most Christian Scientists choose to rely on prayer exclusively to stay healthy and get better when they are sick, the church does not mandate that choice.
“Health care decisions are personal decisions, and no church elders, leaders or officials weigh in on that,” said Phil Davis, the church’s top spokesman. “This is a church that honors individuality and individual decision making.”
Because children and students are in close contact with one another in day-care facilities, classrooms and dormitories, they are a priority group for H1N1 vaccinations. They’re more susceptible to catching H1N1 and developing serious complications because they have less-developed immune systems.
Today, there are about 550 students at the Principia School, and 525 at Principia College. With 550 faculty and staff, it’s the largest Christian Science-based educational institution in the country.
Philip Riley, a Principia administrator who supervises the school’s student care facilities, said the school was not offering the swine flu vaccine on campus, but said anyone who wanted to receive it was free to do so wherever it was offered.
“On the prayerful side we said, `Let’s pray about this for ourselves and community,”‘ Riley said. “On the practical side, we said, `If someone is feeling poorly, you should stay home from school or work.
Don’t come back until a day after you’re feeling back to normal.”‘

Copyright 2009 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

  • Henrietta22

    Treat others the way you would like to be treated? Then why didn’t the Christian Scientist School all receive shots against Measles? They caused deaths in their school, and it spread out of their school sickening people who evidently were not protected by vaccine either. It’s time to grow up in the U.S.A., and use what Medical Science is giving us, so we’ll all have a chance for good health. People don’t stay home when they are sick, they go out and sneeze or cough in your face! Then you’re sick and if you have brains you stay home until you pass infecting someone else. Faith-based objections don’t hold up anymore in our society, when those objections fly back and hurt other people, with disease.

  • pagansister

    The parents can pray WHILE the kids are getting their shots!

  • nnmns

    She said another ethical concern was that when a population refuses to be vaccinated, public health resources have to be diverted to that population if an outbreak occurs.

    That’s when, to the greatest extent practicable, I’d let those who refused to be vaccinated rely on prayer. Only to protect the public would I put medical people at risk or use limited resources to heal such people. Let them go home with the faith they came with.

    That focus on prayer traces its roots to 1866, when Eddy “discovered” what she later called “the science of Christianity” when she was restored to health while reading a New Testament account of Jesus healing the sick.

    So a coincidence happening to a persuasive person causes a religion that’s probably caused a lot of deaths and crippled lives.
    I want to know whether the CS’s pray about amputations, to get limbs to re-grow. If “matter is unreal and temporal” then it should be no problem to apply a little more unreal matter to get that arm or leg back. And what must they think when those limbs don’t re-grow?

  • jestrfyl

    OK, did anyone NOT see this coming? If so, go back to watching TV. This is so predicatable it is not even news.

  • not quite

    Chalk it up to Natural Selection.
    Those with whackadoo belief systems don’t survive to pass on their whackadoo to the next generation – just as God intended.

  • interpreter

    The swine flu is part of last plague #5 (new diseases). I intend to get my vaccine.

  • pagansister

    interpreter: #5 plague? Such a loving god!
    I will get the vaccine too…but since I’m in the older generation we can’t get it yet. God hasn’t got anything to do with it.

  • spiritual_life

    The fact is there are far more people in St Louis area declining vaccination than there are at the Christian Science schools there. The millions of Americans declining the H1N1 vaccine far outnumbers the entire Christian Science membership. The risk of H1N1 has been over-hyped by the media, government officials and drug companies. It’s important to remember that vaccines aren’t perfect. About 1995, three children died immediately after the administration of measles vaccine in West Bengal. Samples of that batch of vaccine were found to be “safe and efficacious.” However, adverse and even fatal reactions have been known to occur. Statistically, the risk is small, so no one cares about adverse reactions–until it happens to them. The article asserts that measles outbreaks at a college sickened hundreds off campus, but later we learn that it was actually only two people off campus whose sickness could be directly linked to the college. An interesting article on the subject can be found at

  • nnmns

    There are obvious risks if you don’t and possibly very small risks if you do, or maybe none. Welcome to real life.

  • Confessoressa

    If you have a compromised immune system, get the shot. If you don’t, don’t get it. Or, determine for yourself if it’s worth the risk.
    Personally, I didn’t get the shot, got the flu and survived just fine.

  • Henrietta22

    Don’t take any flu vaccine if you have a cold, and haven’t been free of cold for at least three days to a week.

  • Abelard Lindsey

    This is an example of the criminal fraud that the medical community is. The potential harm from the H1N1 vaccine is far greater than the chance of dying from H1N1 flu itself, which is statistically less than dying in a car accident in any given year.
    I will never, ever accept any vaccine for any reason whatsoever. I have never had a flu vaccine and have no intention of ever getting one.
    Also, the flu vaccines have thimerosol in them, which is responsible for a whole host of medical problems, including autism in kids (yes, this is real and anyone who claims otherwise is either misinformed or lying through their teeth).
    The fact that the medical community is based on criminal fraud should not be surprising to anyone. We have seen the exposure of fraud in other government-funded scientific and contracting milieus such as NASA, defense contracting, and climate research. The medical industry is no exception to this.

  • pagansister

    Your choice, AL. Not a problem. BTW, autism hasn’t been proven to be caused by vaccines. IF that were the case, all kids who have been vaccinated would be autistic. Many illnesses are now on the increase because of parents who won’t vaccinate their kids…of course the kids can’t attend school…but hey…who needs school? The illnesses like measles, whooping cough (both can kill a child) are spread by those that do not get the shots….so they are a danger to others. Not their fault….the parent’s fault.


    I am a practicing Christian Scientist and appreciate the opportunity to comment on this article. I think it’s important to point out that our church does not tell members whether or not to get vaccinated – it’s an individual decision. Some Christian Scienists do; some don’t. It’s clear that many people, irrespective of their religious beliefs, are choosing not to get the swine flu vaccination for reasons.
    My reason for not getting the vaccination is simple. My personal experience tells me that the systematic prayer taught in Christian Science is effective both in the prevention and cure of disease. My family has successfully relied on Christian Science as our primary form of health care for five generations.

  • Sharon Donohue

    In spite of having been a practicing Christian Scientist for many years, my reasons, and my family’s reasons for staying free of vaccines has nothing whatever to do with Christian Science. I am also a practicing nutritionist and study at least 20 hrs per week to keep up on health related issues. Good health requires staying as free as possible from any drugs or toxic substances that have the capacity to harm the body. This absolutely includes vaccines of all kinds. I would urge anyone and everyone (including Christian Scientists)to read the research of Dr. Andrew Moulden MD, PhD on the subject of vaccines. On-line goto I consider his research (of many years) to be outstanding. Everyone owes it to themselves to get educated and not just parrot the status quo.
    And as always, I would ask, why so many people “off campus” came down with measels. The problem is that vaccines do not ever guarantee immunity. So, there are usually many vaccinated people who come down with what they have been vaccinated against.

  • http://HOMEANDGARDENMORE.INFO Connor Guillot

    I cannot thank you enough for the blog post.Much thanks again. Will read on…

  • IT IT II

    The GLOBALIST EUGENICs agenda,
    and the deadly sinister role of ‘VAC–scenes’
    has been FULLY EXPOSED.


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