Applying a Christian worldview to the vaccination issue

Health | Digging deeper into the difficult questions surrounding this complicated debate
by Marvin Olasky
Posted 3/06/15, 01:01 am

We’re already losing an hour this weekend, thanks to daylight saving time, but don’t think we’ve lost an entire day with this week’s Saturday Series article appearing on Friday. We decided to post this follow-up to last Saturday’s article on vaccinations a day early to coincide with today’s digital release of the March 21 issue of WORLD Magazine, which includes a feature and a column by Marvin Olasky on this important topic (see “Shot selection” and “Stirring up a hornet’s nest”).

Inspired by our readers’ passionate response to WORLD’s reporting on this issue, Marvin decided to make vaccinations the focus of a lecture on developing a Christian worldview that he delivered at Bay Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Bonita Springs, Fla., last night.

The following is a transcript of that lecture. It is long and detailed and includes numerous links to studies, websites, and other valuable resources, but we believe you’ll find it well worth your time to read through it carefully. So bookmark it, share it with others, and let us know your thoughts in the comments section below, or by writing to us at webeditor@wng.org. —Mickey McLean

I’m honored by your invitation to speak with you tonight. It’s great that last year you had Michael Behe and others speaking about the flawed science that underlies Darwinism, because “What do you think of evolution?” is such a crucial question—and one that I like journalists asking of political candidates, because the answers are revealing.

Of course, smart politicians should answer that question with a question: “What do you mean by evolution?” Candidates should certainly believe in microevolution, changes within kinds, because we can see that happening in laboratory situations and over the past several centuries of scientific observation. Christian candidates should certainly be skeptical about macroevolution, because that theory counters what the first three chapters of Genesis reveal. Sadly, liberal reporters give such dissidents automatic membership in the stupid party, even though macroevolution is unproven and, in the absence of time machines, probably unprovable.

A similar “you’re stupid” often occurs in discussions of vaccinations. That will be the specific issue I deal with tonight as an example of the importance of developing a Christian worldview. On the one hand, some think we should automatically do everything officials, scientists, and doctors urge—but that denies the Fall. Ever since one sad day in the Garden of Eden, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23, ESV). All means all, no matter how many diplomas we have on the wall.

But not only those who worship human leaders underestimate the ravages of the Fall. An anti-vaccine reader claimed in a letter to me that God “designed our immune systems to be the ‘vaccine’ that we need. … It comes down to who are we going to put our faith in: man-made chemicals or the God who made us? Of course, those who want to deny the existence of God naturally put their trust in mankind and promote vaccines.”

Biblically critiquing that viewpoint is as easy as 1, 2, 3:

  • Genesis 1: God after creating the world and man within it, “saw everything that he had made and behold, it was very good.”
  • Genesis 2: God tells Adam regarding the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, “in the day that you eat of it you will surely die.”
  • Genesis 3: Adam and Eve eat of it, and on that day they begin to die. (God is merciful in not executing them on the spot.) Eve will have pain. Adam will sweat. God curses the ground.

Ever since then we face health problems and tragedies that apart from original sin we would not have to undergo. Let me quote from the website of Dr. Michael Stone, an Oregon family physician who seems to recognize our fallen estate:

“I have had a family member crippled with polio (now vaccine preventable) as an 11-year-old. … I had a cousin who died hours after the initial symptoms of hemophilis meningitis (now vaccine preventable) in Corvallis, Oregon. I have held babies dying of diphtheria in Thailand where they hadn’t had the diphtheria vaccine, and have watched young children in our under-vaccinated community become ventilator dependent with pertussis in North Idaho.”

But what to do is not as simple as 1, 2, 3. Stone continues:

“I have also watched more than one child following an MMR [measles, mumps, and rubella] vaccine at 18 months (Medford, Oregon) develop severe fever and tumble down the autism spectrum disorder abyss. It is exactly because I live with these two extremes that a balanced conversation about vaccines has to continue. … The vaccination discussion is about balancing parental protection: fear of causing harm vs. fear of neglect, especially when the immunity in my family, my school or my community is low.”

What to do is also not simple because of the immense suffering involved when things go wrong. I’ve seen “stupid” thrown at parents with autistic children who think vaccines are a contributing cause. That’s not fair. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4, ESV). We should try to comfort. We should pray that God will “grant to those who mourn in Zion … a beautiful headdress instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning” (Isaiah 61:3, ESV).

With that said, let’s dig deeper into hard questions. I’ll refer to medical information available on the internet for free. You can also go to books and hard copies of medical journals, but some of them get pricey, so I’ll restrict most of my citations here to articles and studies readily available to all. We’ll look at anti-vaccine comments. We’ll apply a Christian worldview to the debate. We’ll balance with pro-vaccine comments. We’ll also look at the vaccine-abortion connection.

ALMOST EVERY SATURDAY we publish special reports on our website, so last Saturday we posted articles advocating vaccination from a retired pastor, a Christian doctor, and the elders of a church. We received a huge response, including pain-filled statements like these: “My friend’s two daughters suffer daily seizures that can ONLY be traced back to the vaccines they received before they were five years old,” and, “There are kids getting injured from vaccines; we have several cases in our family alone.” We also received painful statements like these: “You have become a mouthpiece for the corrupt medical industry,” and, “What an obscenely biased opinion piece.”

Some notes pointed me to medical journal articles that raise legitimate questions about vaccine use. For example, Helen V. Ratajczak’s article, “Theoretical aspects of autism: Causes—a review,” in the Journal of Immunotoxicology (2011), states, “Autism is the result of genetic defects and/or inflammation of the brain. The inflammation could be caused by a defective placenta, immature blood-brain barrier, the immune response of the mother to infection while pregnant, a premature birth, encephalitis in the child after birth, or a toxic environment.” Vaccines could contribute to a toxic environment.

The Journal of Infectious Diseases (2013) published Sandra Waaijenborg’s “Waning of maternal antibodies against measles, mumps, rubella, and varicella in communities with contrasting vaccination coverage.” That article states, “Children of mothers vaccinated against measles and, possibly, rubella have lower concentrations of maternal antibodies and lose protection by maternal antibodies at an earlier age than children of mothers in communities that oppose vaccination. This increases the risk of disease transmission in highly vaccinated populations.”

The use and occasional abuse of adjuvants—pharmacological and immunologic agents sometimes added to vaccines to make them work better—is also a cause for concern, according to numerous articles listed under an “autoimmune syndrome induced by adjuvants” heading. Furthermore, while physicians overwhelmingly support the use of vaccines, hundreds do have concerns that they publicly express: One convenient list is at The Greater Good documentary website.

Some anti-vaccine articles have been hit by strong methodological criticism. For example, the Journal of Toxicology and Environmental Health (2011) published G. Delong’s article titled “A positive association found between autism prevalence and childhood vaccination uptake across the U.S. population.” Key quotation from it: “Although individuals probably have a genetic predisposition to develop autism, researchers suspect that one or more environmental triggers are also needed … although mercury has been removed from many vaccines, other culprits may link vaccines to autism.” Key attack on it: “More bad science in the service of the discredited idea that vaccines cause autism.”

The influential British medical journal The Lancet 17 years ago published a piece by Andrew Wakefield and 12 others, “Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children.” That’s probably the most lugubrious title ever to set off an explosion, because it gave scientific grounding to a linkage of MMR shots and autism. It also led to a great increase in the number of British and then American parents refusing to have children vaccinated.

Over the past decade, though, investigators found that Wakefield received large payments from lawyers trying to prove vaccines were unsafe. Ten of Wakefield’s 12 co-authors backed away from the findings. Articles with large samples such as “Autism and measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine: no epidemiological evidence for a causal association,” published by The Lancet in 1999, a year after Wakefield’s article came out, challenged Wakefield’s findings:

“Our analyses do not support a causal association between MMR vaccine and autism. If such an association occurs, it is so rare that it could not be identified in this large regional sample.” 

Other articles that I’ll mention later have come to the same conclusions. In 2010, The Lancet retracted the entire study, citing ethical misconduct by Wakefield. Journalist Brian Deer has written three articles in the British Medical Journal explaining “how the case against MMR was fixed.”

Depending on your perspective, Wakefield either awakened many people to vaccine problems or spread fears that spiked in his wake, with sensation-seeking reporters and Hollywood celebrities such as Jim Carrey and Jenny McCarthy aiding and abetting concern. Any of you can hop online and quickly find fiery websites such as Natural News (“The pro-vaccine mafia is quick to sweep all cases of vaccine-related injury and death under the rug as extremely rare anomalies) or The Healthy Home Economist (“Fully vaccinated children are the unhealthiest, most chronically ill children I know”).

The People’s Chemist is also punchy.

Here are some other vaccine-criticizing websites, in alphabetical order:

Many groups criticize the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program, a no-fault system the U.S. government set up to compensate parents of children injured or killed by vaccines. The goal is not only to compensate families but also to protect from lawsuits pharmaceutical companies that might otherwise stop producing vaccines. Last year the program paid out 365 awards worth a total of $202 million. Money can’t buy love or take the place of children lost, so while it’s good that families at times impoverished by big medical bills get some cash, the system gives an appearance (justified or not) of covering up for manufacturers.

Another sensible objection: Some vaccines promoted today are for diseases that aren’t very dangerous. Some parents who accept the side-effect risks of vaccinations against smallpox or polio do not want to be accused of neglect if they say no to the chicken pox vaccine. Efficiency-seeking epidemiologists may push for every shot because universal coverage could reduce missed days of school or work and perhaps hospital costs as well, but parents know one size does not fit all.

Overall, some vaccine-critic websites seem reasonable and some seem over-the-top, but my survey does not lead me to dismiss them nor ignore the dissident articles in medical journals. After all, my own Ph.D. is in the humanities, and although I’ve spent hundreds and probably thousands of hours delving into academic articles, I can neither fix broken legs nor necessarily spot erratic evidence in medical discussions. Furthermore, I’ve seen the tarring and feathering of those who dissent from theories of feathered dinosaurs evolving into birds, so why shouldn’t the same happen concerning vaccines? Can a Christian worldview help us here?

LAST WEEK I READ a new book titled Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It. Author Ian Leslie got off to a bad start by arguing that “Early Christian theologians railed against curiosity: Saint Augustine claimed that ‘God fashioned hell for the inquisitive.’” That’s supposedly from Augustine’s Confessions, but Augustine actually said he disagreed with the person who said “God fashioned hell.” Augustine actually commended the curious person and said he’d rather “answer ‘I know not’ [than] raise a laugh at him who asks deep things.”

Leslie makes up for his early mistake by usefully distinguishing between puzzles, which are solvable, and mysteries, which are not. My starting point in comparing the vaccine and evolution debates: Distinguish between puzzles and mysteries. Scientists learn how to solve puzzles. Look at modern science, which Christians largely invented. Our Bible-believing forebears from Isaac Newton on saw how God rules nature with regularity we can discern. We need not fear Neptune stirring up waves whenever he’s angry. We learned to investigate the puzzles inherent in particular diseases. The Puritan divine Cotton Mather 300 years ago pioneered in promoting inoculation.

Christians, though, never thought science could solve mysteries, like the mystery of the Trinity or the mystery of our existence. The problem in recent years: Many scientists have overreached. Listen to Carl Sagan’s proclamation that material existence “is all that is or was or ever will be.” He was pretending he had solved a mystery. Christians rightly rebel against that. Honest laboratory research deserves great respect for its puzzle-solving ability, but here’s an unsolved one: Why in recent years has the percentage of autistic children grown?

Many say it’s largely a change in nomenclature and designation. For example, “Autism and diagnostic substitution: Evidence from a study of adults with a history of developmental language disorder,” an article by D.V. Bishop and others in Developmental Medicine & Child Neurology (2008), argues that many children now diagnosed as autistic would have been diagnosed with “developmental language disorder” in the past.

Others, though, say many more children are autistic. They attribute the result to environmental disorders, or older parents, or many other things. Whatever the cause, it’s very likely that this puzzle will be solved. Now that we’re on the lookout for autism, we’ll learn a lot by whether the numbers change over the next decade. Additional epidemiology research in the present will also inform us.

This issue, in short, is very different from the evolution/creation debate, where we may never know about the origin of species with scientific certainty. We will probably accumulate more facts, but interpretation of those facts will continue to depend on presuppositions. Creationist faiths of various kinds and evolutionist faiths of various kinds will continue to compete, and no one will be able to say which are true on the basis of laboratory results or contemporary observation and analysis.

Christians should continue to be skeptical of absolute religious claims like Sagan’s. Evolutionists will continue to be skeptical of Christian claims. But we need not be perpetually skeptical about the claims of vaccine proponents or opponents. We will learn more. Still, pediatricians and parents cannot follow the wait-and-see advice of Rabbi Gamaliel in Chapter 5 of Acts. They have to decide now, while armies clash by night. Can a biblical worldview help us decide? Here are five observations.

First, as philosopher David Naugle has argued, Christian scholarship should be primarily Hebraic rather than Hellenic. The Hebrew mindset emphasizes the concrete while Hellenic thought veers toward abstraction. Naugle rightly asks, “Should we think and live, primarily, with Greek or Hebrew lenses and hearts?” He answers, “Christianity is Jewish.” That means we solve puzzles by working from the facts on the ground and holding theories lightly. If we’re convinced either that vaccines are fine or vaccines are rotten, we should try to go low on the ladder of abstraction and pay particular attention to specific detail that challenges our assumptions. Rather than assume “big pharma” is wrong because companies have a lot of clout, or “big law” is wrong because some attorneys are ambulance chasers, recognize that sin lurks at every door. Look at the evidence.

Second, don’t view only the visible. Both sides in the vaccine debate can use personal experience of the visible. One person says, “My children were vaccinated without incident.” Another says, “Mine had problems”—and some of those can be severe. One difficulty, though, is that these days most of us have no personal experience with the severe results of what happens in the absence of vaccinations—that has become invisible to us. The title of one article on this subject, “The anti-vaccine movement is forgetting the polio epidemic,” is worth remembering. Diseases that once crippled or killed millions are no longer before our eyes or even in the memory of most of us. (But here’s an important caveat: Since public health in the United States has improved so greatly over the past century, we should not automatically credit vaccines with the bulk of disease reduction.)

Third, the Bible tells us to think not only of ourselves and our children but also of our neighbors. One of the commenters on WORLD’s vaccine articles last Saturday was Dr. Paul Lim, the father of three young children. Lim became one of my medical heroes when I saw him at work in an Ethiopian hospital. He commented on our article last week about seeing “firsthand the devastating effects of children who did not have access to vaccines.” He wrote about vaccinating his own kids, which protected “the most vulnerable children around us (such as children with cancer who are on chemotherapy). Best current evidence and wanting what’s best for my children compelled me as a physician and a father to vaccinate my children for their own sake. Loving my neighbor as myself compelled me as a Christian and a physician to vaccinate my own children for the sake of others as an added blessing.”

Fourth, concerning how to apply biblical teaching, we should be neither know-nothings nor know-it-alls. Know-nothings minimize the significance of the Bible in our lives by claiming ambiguity or irrelevance when the Bible is clear, as it is regarding abortion or same-sex marriage. Know-it-alls overuse the Bible, playing here a verse, there a verse to bulwark their own positions and cut off discussion even when the Bible does not give us clear warrant. The Bible certainly teaches that bodies and diseases are real and healing is a positive (Jesus did it). The Bible also teaches that it’s good to use our brains and creativity both to decorate the Temple and to maintain our bodies, temples of the Holy Spirit. But the Bible does not tell us how to gauge the safety of particular vaccines and do risk/benefit analyses.

Fifth, we should put no gods before God—and that includes another G word, government. Christians largely have been and should be pro-government when the ruler is, as the Apostle Paul wrote, “the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4, ESV). But when government becomes Government, setting itself up in place of God, its grab for more authority diminishes proper authority. When Government substitutes its definition of marriage for God’s, or when it mandates shots for diseases only contracted through sexual contact rather than those communicable by air or touch, it’s overreaching.

Overreaching by scientists and politicians leads some to think the “vaccine debate” in America is largely an excuse for Government to shove aside parents. I suspect such fear led some WORLD readers to write comments last week like, “The children you speak of belong to the parents.” Of course we want parents, not Government, to bring up children—but we don’t own our children, nor does a mother own her unborn child. God gives parents responsibility to protect their children, as much as possible, from harmful diseases, and that means taking seriously the advice of doctors who know the risks children face.

As we go through the evidence, we should be self-aware. Do we worship science and are we craven before Government? That might lead us to put too much stock in official pronouncements. On the other hand, have we moved from rightful skepticism to complete cynicism concerning anything that comes forth from scientists and officials? That might lead us to dismiss all too quickly what we should ponder.

I'VE CITED SOME ONLINE ARTICLES from the anti-vaccine side, so let me quickly cite some from the pro-vaccine side. For example, in “Childhood vaccines: Tough questions, straight answers,” the Mayo Clinic declares, “Vaccines do not cause autism. Despite much controversy on the topic, researchers haven’t found a connection between autism and childhood vaccines.” In the journal Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology (2012), an article straightforwardly titled “Measles, mumps, and rubella” by Sarah J. White and others, states, “The MMR vaccine is safe and well tolerated. … The MMR vaccine is immunogenic and effective against measles, mumps, and rubella infections.”

Last year an article in Pediatrics, “Safety of vaccines used for routine immunization of U.S. children,” systematically reviewed studies and concluded, “There is strong evidence that MMR vaccine is not associated with autism. … We found evidence that some vaccines are associated with serious AEs [adverse events]; however, these events are extremely rare and must be weighed against the protective benefits that vaccines provide.” The American Academy of Pediatrics website has a popularly written examination of the MMR vaccine and autism.

Andrew Wakefield still has his defenders, but medical research during the years after his sensational 1998 article did not back him up. The influential JAMAJournal of the American Medical Association—ran a 2001 article titled “Time trends in autism and in MMR immunization coverage in California.” That piece concluded, “These data do not suggest an association between MMR immunization among young children and an increase in autism occurrence.” The following year, The New England Journal of Medicine published “A population-based study of measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination and autism,” which concluded, “This study provides strong evidence against the hypothesis that MMR vaccination causes autism.” Same thing in 2002 in a Pediatrics article, “Neurologic disorders after measles-mumps-rubella vaccination.” Same verdict in The Lancet’s “MMR vaccination and pervasive developmental disorders: A case-control study.”

Since I cited some of the popular anti-vaccination websites, I should mention some pro-vaccination ones. An article posted at Voices for Vaccines, “Leaving the anti-vaccine movement,” has a strong lead: “I can’t tell you how I became pro-vaccine without first telling you how I became anti-vaccine.” Also worth consulting are the websites of The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, and the World Health Organization.

The most comprehensive reports I’ve seen online come from the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Since that’s the medical “establishment,” some of you may be instantly reverential and others instantly reviling, but the Institute’s work is worth critical consideration. A 214-page study published in 2004 and available online concludes that “the body of epidemiological evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between the MMR vaccine and autism.” On the other hand, evidence “convincingly supported the causal relationship between MMR vaccine and febrile seizures.” These febrile seizures—convulsions brought on by a fever in infants and small children—are frightening, but the vast majority are short and do no lasting harm.

According to the report, most individuals who react badly to vaccines probably “have a preexisting susceptibility. These predispositions can exist for a number of reasons—genetic variants (in human or microbiome DNA), environmental exposures, behaviors, intervening illness, or developmental stage, to name just a few—all of which can interact.” For vaccine advocates, that’s a clue to the puzzle of shot-followed-by-nightmare that many parents see: “Some of these predispositions may be detectable prior to the administration of vaccine; others, at least with current technology and practice, are not. Moreover, the occurrence of the adverse event is often the first sign of the underlying condition that confers susceptibility. … In some metabolically vulnerable children, receiving vaccines may be the largely nonspecific ‘last straw’ that leads these children to reveal their underlying genotype.”

As is typical in governmental work, reports expand over time, so you can also access online a report eight years later and four times longer: The Institute of Medicine’s Adverse Effects of Vaccines: Evidence and Causality report from 2012 has 894 pages and wearily notes that “Committee members spent an enormous amount of time reading thousands of articles.” The committee offers a nuanced summary that gives the views of the preponderance of medical researchers without neglecting the reports from mournful parents: Sometimes “the adverse effect is real but also very rare. Stating this another way, if the vaccine did cause the adverse effect in one person, then it can cause the adverse effect in someone else; however, the isolated report of one convincing case provides no information about the risk of the adverse effect in the total population of vaccinated individuals compared with unvaccinated individuals.”

I hope you’ll look through the 2012 report, but here’s the bottom line: “The committee concluded the evidence favors acceptance of four specific vaccine—adverse event relationships. These include HPV vaccine and anaphylaxis [a severe allergic reaction], MMR vaccine and transient arthralgia in female adults, MMR vaccine and transient arthralgia in children, and certain trivalent influenza vaccines used in Canada.” However, “The committee concluded the evidence favors rejection of five vaccine-adverse event relationships. These include MMR vaccine and type 1 diabetes, diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) vaccine and type 1 diabetes, MMR vaccine and autism, inactivated influenza vaccine and asthma exacerbation or reactive airway disease episodes, and inactivated influenza vaccine and Bell’s palsy.”

In short, vaccines can cause problems, but beleaguered parents of autistic children who attribute the onset to vaccines are not satisfied with this report, and I can certainly understand why: My wife Susan reported about autism three years ago and I saw how hard it is. We’ve had more than 50 stories referring to autism in WORLD, and we plan to continue covering the disorder and showing how churches and Christian groups can help. We want to mourn with those who mourn—see Job 5:11. We want to learn more about efforts to detect predispositions.

I'LL CONCLUDE WITH a quick look at three special questions: What do we do when disease threatens our churches and schools? What do we do with the linkage of vaccines and abortions that occurred a half-century ago? How then should we live and pray?

In 2013, the Eagle Mountain International Church in Newark, Texas, a rural community 25 miles north of Fort Worth, suddenly gained publicity it did not want when authorities traced back a measles outbreak to a church attendee. A former church staff member told CNN about beliefs “permeating throughout the church [that vaccines] showed a lack of faith that God would protect and heal you.” Eagle Mountain leaders quickly said the church was not “anti-vaccination.” The outbreak soon ended.

Last year, the Mount Cheam Christian School in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia “was the epicenter of a measles outbreak … with more than 400 confirmed cases in four weeks.” Fraser Health Authority chief medical health officer Paul Van Buynder fumed, “This is a community with a belief system against vaccination.” We’ll find out more about that school, but Christian schools with many unvaccinated children should be prepared for potential outbreaks.

I haven’t seen stories so far this year blaming Christians, and when journalists looked at where “personal belief exemptions” from California school vaccinations abounded, Christian schools were low. Some Jewish schools were high, which led Tablet magazine to ask, “Is putting other kids’ health at risk really a Jewish value?” Tablet then urged, “Come on, Jewish parents. Let’s be a light unto the nations.” Some Christian schools and parents are likely to feel the same pressure.

Second, the abortion issue. Theresa Deisher and others published last year in the Journal of Public Health and Epidemiology an article, “Impact of environmental factors on the prevalence of autistic disorder after 1979,” that argues, “Autistic disorder change points years are coincident with introduction of vaccines manufactured using human fetal cell lines, containing fetal and retroviral contaminants, into childhood vaccine regimens.” This leads to the extraordinary claim: “Rising autistic disorder prevalence is directly related to vaccines manufactured utilizing human fetal cells.” Some websites, including Rational Catholic, have criticized Deisher’s article on various grounds.

The history is complicated. The Christian Medical & Dental Associations (CMDA) noted that researchers in 1962 and 1966 did use cell cultures derived from aborted babies to produce vaccines WI-38 and MRC-5. Christians may come to different conclusions on whether the use of those cells to start two vaccine lines a half-century ago means that we cannot avail ourselves of vaccines today. Dr. Gene Rudd expresses a CMDA view: “A fresh supply of embryonic tissue is not required to sustain vaccine production. The cell cultures are self-propagating. Therefore, accepting these vaccines does not endorse or encourage abortions being done today. … To reject these vaccines without satisfactory alternatives would be to expose our families and society to unacceptable disease risks.” These CMDA links have more information:

Christians continue to debate the vaccine-abortion connection. Jay Wile, on his “Proslogion: Thoughts from a scientist who is a Christian (not a Christian scientist)” blog, emphasizes that “Vaccines DO NOT Contain Fetal Tissue.” It is a valid distinction—scientists cultured the cell lines from cells taken from two aborted babies in 1962 and 1966—but that’s too fine a line for Megan Helmer, who last July wrote, “God does not support vaccines,” and gave the abortion connection as a prime reason. Last month, Justin Smith and Joe Carter argued in favor of vaccine use on a Southern Baptist website, and said, “[W]e should continue to advocate for use of alternatives when available and for the development of future vaccines to be carried out by other means.”

I’ll give the final word on this subject to Scott James, a pediatrics professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who has also noted that “MRC-5 and WI-38 cell stocks can be propagated in perpetuity and do no require any additional fetal tissue.” I like his analogy:

“Imagine a scientist who embezzled funds and then used that money to set up a research laboratory. He never steals again, and several years later his research team develops a life-saving treatment. Fifty years later, you become sick and find yourself in need of this treatment, with no sufficient alternative. Would using this treatment cause you to be morally culpable for participating in the embezzlement?”

The embezzlement analogy isn’t perfect since abortion involves murder and the cell lines started with a murdered person’s DNA. Still, James’ conclusion is reasonable:

“The original act of abortion that led to the collection of seed tissues for MRC-5 and WI-38 cell lines was clearly immoral, but it is not so clear that any medical advances involving these cell lines (a list that includes much more than a few vaccines) should be rejected outright.”

You can see this is complicated, and Christians will disagree—which brings me to a final question: How then should we live and pray? “Show, don’t tell” is a journalistic adage, and I’ve tried tonight to do that. Since starting to investigate this subject I’ve obsessively gone through the medical literature. My own advice—remember, my doctorate is not in medicine—is to vaccinate your children for major communicable diseases unless medical indications to the contrary exist. But I respect those who come to other conclusions, and I don’t want Government to take the place of God. We should emphasize the role of education and persuasion, not command and control. We should oppose mandatory vaccination laws and the elimination of religious exemptions. We should understand the difference between a puzzle and a mystery. We should thank God for science and pray that scientists will develop tests to screen babies likely to react badly to vaccinations. We should oppose scientism, an attempt to elevate creatures above the Creator.

You’ve been patient here on a Thursday evening. On this Thursday many children around the world have diseased bodies because of the absence of vaccines. On this Thursday many children in this country who were vaccinated suffer for reasons that are unclear—although the overall reason is the nature of this fallen world. On a Thursday some 3,500 years ago, Egypt’s firstborn died, but the angel of death passed over the Israelite homes that had blood smeared on their doors. On a Friday 2,000 years ago, Christ shed His blood for us. But we’re a month away from Easter, and that reminds us: Sunday’s coming, and many autistic children will someday be resurrected in perfect health.

Zechariah 12:10 (ESV) tells us, “I will pour out on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and pleas for mercy, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

WORLD will continue to follow developments related to the vaccination debate. Look for regular reports starting next Friday.

Listen to a portion of Marvin Olasky’s May 5 lecture at Bay Presbyterian Church in Bonita Springs, Fla. 

Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. His latest book is World View: Seeking Grace and Truth in Our Common Life. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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