Here is why I think I make a terrible advocate for ethical vaccines. I’m the girl who doesn’t have her act together as a mother. Maria is kid number three, and I have still not figured out how to comply with the recommended vaccination schedule. Hannah had to get her shots at the local health clinic, so there were all types of confusion and delay. Alex was on-time for the first year of life, but then we moved- his paperwork got lost, he got behind, etc. Maria was up to date, until I had to frantically cancel her fourth month appointment at the last minute. Since we have the “good pediatrician” in our HMO, it was impossible to reschedule until two weeks before her scheduled six-month visit. So I just figured, why bother? Took her into her six month appointment- but this novel move on my part throw off her HiB vaccine schedule, her double first flu shot—oh my!
This is just the normal, vaccination schedule. The Vatican’s 2005 requirement that I make a “moral conscience objection” to unethical vaccines is hard for me. I’m the girl who gets all fuzzy headed in the doctor’s office anyway, and that is before I had to restrain jumpy three year old in a room full of enticing, mental objects. On December 10, I swallow my pride and started the MMR discussion with my kind Arabic doctor. “I’m a Catholic and I have a religious objection to the rubella vaccine”, I bravely begin.
My kind, female doctor squints her eyes at me. “Are you sure? Because we treat a lot of Catholic here and this is the first time that I’ve ever heard of it.”
And so it goes, with me vainly trying to recall the specifics of the cell-line debate and straining to read the ethical vaccine notes in my terrible handwriting on the back of a gum wrapper. (I’m sure the slaughtering of the product names & transversing of letter names is really helping my position.)
“I’ve just never, ever heard of this. Let’s look on the computer and see.” My doctor briskly googles “MERCK” and up comes “from human lung tissue” on the computer screen. “See, no problem!” she announces.
“I’m pretty sure there is a problem. I can’t remember all the specifics, but I’m pretty sure I read something- it was official.” I fear the sudden dread that only a convert can feel- “If no other Catholics are doing it, am I wrong? Is the document from the Vatican that I’ve poured over from days revoked, or something? What am I missing?”
Maria did end up getting her Polio shot that day (I’d check the ethics on that earlier at her 2-month visit. The doctor told me to research the Vatican issue and get back to her. “We’ve got plenty of time to cross the rubella bridge” she assures me.
Ten days later, I show up with a different kid. “Did you figure out the rubella problem” my doctor cheerful greets me. I look at her with wide, deer in the headlight eyes. “It’s Christmas preparation season, I’m in full survival mode,” I think. “I’m still working on that” is my answer.
Now it is January 4, flu shot day. I have a vague notion that I should pull the safe vaccination schedule out of Maria’s file. “Ah, I’ve got enough to do,” and get back to the process of getting clean pants, mittens, and hats on everyone, in addition to locating the missing car-keys and walking the distraught elderly dog.
So now we are in office, waiting for the nurse appointment for two flu shots. (Alex has already has his on his 3 year old visit in December. Maria had the first of her two flu shots.) I’m so excited to finally figure out that I can simply request “preservative free” shots for my four year old. This makes me feel like a good mother for half a second. Then I read, “the best time to get a flu shot is between October and November” in the thrilling vaccination literature. “What type of mother waits until January to get her girls inoculated?” I think dejectedly.
As the nurse walks in, Alex suddenly started wailing “I WANT MY SISTER!” The baby starts to whimper in her stroller. “He’s touching me! He’s touching me! Mom, I DON’T WANT TO GET SHOT TODAY!” Hannah can’t figure which is worse. I’m thinking “it’s a good thing we live in the suburbs because your statement could have different implications in downtown D.C.” Then I sit down on an empty chair, grab a wiggling Alex in my lap and start to marvel at how strong the boy has gotten lately.
Over all this commotion, the nurse, whom we later realize is named Florence, “Your daughter is behind on her shots…”
“Oh, I know,” I cut her off. “Hannah’s being home-schooled. She doesn’t need the rest of her shots until age 5. Her doctor gave us the okay.”
Florence looks at me like I’ve grown two –heads. “I’m talking about the baby!”
“Oh,” I’ve realized that I’ve just spilled the beans that daughter number two is also off her recommended vaccination schedule.
Florence starts listing all the multiple shots that Maria (age 7 months) needs. I’m totally confused. I think she just needs her HiB shot. Eventually, this shot includes other vaccines. There’s something called a Prevnar? Things are being said. Alex is screaming now “I want my SISTER,” he’s wrestling hard in my arms. After each mention of the work “shot” Hannah starts whimpering louder. My brain feels like it’s wrapped in cotton gauze. I remember checking the validity of Maria’s polio vaccine. I can not remember hearing any of the other vaccine names during her earlier visits.
I throw out a truce. “We’re just here for the flu shots. Can’t we handle the rest of the vaccines during our scheduled appointment on January 14?”
“Well, it’s your choice.” Florence juts out her chin farther and implies in her tone of voice that a) it is technically my choice, but b) only an imbecile would willing chose to come back to the doctors office with this unruly mass of humanity, and c) my decision to take such course of action clearly warrants a call to Children’s Services.
I return to my cotton gauze memory in vain. Maria starts to cry. “I know this sounds crazy to want to come back,” I say humbly. “We have a religious objection to some of the vaccines. I know the polio is okay, but I can’t remember about the others. I left my information sheet at home. I want to reschedule the shots for next week, when I’ll be sure to have my list.”
“What objections can you possibly have to the vaccines?” Florence says accusingly.
I look at my kids. Everyone is distracted with his or her own interior dramas. “Some of the vaccines are made from products of aborted fetuses” I say.
“Oh no” Florence answers.
“Yeah, the Vatican says so” I sigh. “Here we go again- no one in the medical profession ever believes me,” runs my interior monologue. Florence’s answer causes me to jerk out of my self-pity mode.
“I didn’t know, it’s not a sin if I didn’t know, right?” Florence says in horror. “Well, we’ve got a Catholic nurse on our hands!” I think.
And so out it comes for the next ten minutes, that Florence is completely against abortions. She caused trouble as a nursing student at Catholic University when she refused to watch an abortion being performed as part of her hospital training. I learn about her anguish being forced into an early D& C after to miscarriages (“I just want to wait another week to make sure there is no heart beat,” she said). Florence wrote down her name on a scrap of paper and begged me to mail her a copy of Vatican statement.
Needless to say, Florence’s outlook completely changed. “Let’s just do those flu shots today! We won’t bother those sweet girls with the icky other vaccines until your completely sure.” She gave the shots to both girls like a pro. No one cried. She started to fill me in on her few objections to the Catholic Church “I think divorce should be okay in cases of spousal abuse. I think women should be priests.” Before I could answer, Alex took advantage of my distraction in reattaching Maria’s stroller buckles to race out of the office and towards the enticing toys of the waiting room. ‘I’ve got to go. We’ll pray for you.” I said in parting. I took one look at the giggling, happy Maria. Not trace of pain from the shot. “I do this every day,” her smile said. “Santicifying the world by my very presence!”
As I chased after Alex, hugging a seven month old, lugging a worn stroller and dragging a four year old in a new Gap dress, I felt a burden being lifted. God had a plan for this day. Everything was useful for a larger purpose. If I was supremely organized about the vaccination schedule, brave and efficient, then we never would have run into Florence. My tentative declaration of faith was enough to open the door to a Catholic who faces this moral issue every day.
I have no idea if I’m the first to hear about this vaccine controversy or the last. In the interest of sharing your mom’s the grief of writing formal letters, please feel free to copy the letter posted below. For a great in depth analysis of this issue, please refer to Et Tu Jen’s excellent post. For the official Vatican statement go here.
I’ve come to the conclusion to request the ethical alternative Polio vaccine, avoid the Chicken Pox vaccine, and accept the unethical Rubella vaccine if no ethical alternative arrive by May 2008. I am just a simple Catholic convert, so please consult your own spiritual advisor on this matter. (and then leave a comment because I’d appreciate knowing what others are doing about this issue.) Please pray for Florence and for all Catholic nurses, doctors and research scientists who are on the front lines of this moral issue every day.
Dear Dr. (insert name):
As a Roman Catholic, and the mother of three of your pediatric patients, I have a religious objection to my children receiving some of the recommended childhood immunization vaccines currently distributed by Kaiser-Permanente.
In the 2005 document, “Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared from Cells Derived from Aborted Human Foetuses (sic),” the Vatican has affirmed that the Rubella vaccine distributed by Merck in the United States, the Chicken Pox vaccine distributed by Varivax, and the Polio virus vaccine distributed by Poliovax, are made from human cell lines obtained by aborted fetuses. (See Attachment A, pages 2, 3. See also Attachment B, Nat’l Immunization Info, pg. 1). The Vatican has urged all Catholic parents to use alternative vaccines and make a conscientious objection to those with have moral problems. (See Attachment A, pages 6-7).
As a result, I respectfully request that my children do not receive the chicken pox vaccine. I request that my children receive an ethical version of the Polio Vaccine, (Pediacel, Pediarix + HiB, or IPOL + any DTap) instead of the unethical versions (Pentacel, Infanrix, or Quadracel.)
I have grave reservations about inoculating my daughter (insert child’s name) with the MMR vaccine. There appears to be no ethical Rubella Vaccine currently available in the United States. (See Attachment C, Ethical Vaccination Schedule.) As you are well aware, failure to immunize my daughter against rubella during her one year pediatric visit in May 2008, will expose all the pregnant women she comes into contact with in the future to be exposed to German measles. The severity of congenital rubella places us pro-life parents in a serious moral quandary. The Vatican has discussed this issue in depth, and has allowed a limited exception in the case of the Rubella vaccine. (See Attachment A.) During our one year visit, I will wish to confirm that no alternative exists to the Meruvax, MMR-Priorix, MR Vax, Eolarix, or Biavax II, Rubella vaccines before I consent to have my daughter, Maria inoculated.
Thank you for you concern in this matter. Thank you, also, for you attentive care to my children’s welfare.