Medical Missions, Conscientious Objection, and Everything In-Between: Religion and Vaccination

Elesha Coffman

In response to a meningitis outbreak, Princeton University may soon administer an emergency vaccine that is licensed in Europe and Australia but not yet approved or available in the United States. Naturally, this story reminded me of Jonathan Edwards, whose presidency at Princeton was cut very short when he died from a smallpox inoculation that he had received in an attempt to encourage the community to do likewise. In the more than 250 years since his death, religious Americans have played important roles on all sides of vaccination debates, and they are poised to do so again.

Like Edwards, Dr. Marcus Whitman and his wife, Narcissa, believed in both the gospel of Jesus Christ and in the promise of vaccination. Early missionaries to Oregon Country, the Whitmans had tense relations with the Cayuse and Nez Perce tribes. Those relations broke down completely in 1847, when a measles outbreak killed many Indians while largely sparing the white settler community. When Dr. Whitman failed in his attempts to inoculate against the epidemic, Indians came to believe he was actually poisoning them and murdered the couple and several other settlers. Though it's impossible to draw a direct connection from this event to the present, Washington and Oregon have broad vaccine-exemption laws and two of the highest rates of non-vaccination in the country, over 6%.

Mandatory vaccination for American schoolchildren began back on the east coast, in Massachusetts, in 1855. According to a journal article cited in this CDC source, "By chance, the rise of smallpox coincided with the enactment of compulsory school attendance laws and the subsequent rapid growth in the number of public schools. Since the bringing together of large numbers of children clearly facilitated the spread of smallpox, and since vaccination provided a relatively safe preventive, it was natural that compulsory school attendance laws should lead to a movement for compulsory vaccination." Since then, challenges to both compulsory vaccination and compulsory education have come from some of the same groups, such as the Amish.

Religious freedom was not, however, the only source of objection to vaccines. Britain had begun requiring vaccinations even before Massachusetts did, and the legislation there spawned an anti-vaccine movement that included clergy who found animal-derived vaccines "unchristian," parents who feared for their children, skeptics who believed that smallpox was caused by atmospheric conditions, and others who were deeply suspicious of doctors, the government, or both. To accommodate this strong resistance, the British Vaccination Act of 1898 allowed for conscientious objectors, a designation subsequently applied to people who refused military service for religious or other reasons.

Anti-vaccination activism crossed over to America, backed by religious groups ranging from the Christian Science Church to Alexander Dowie's Zion City, but here, too, resisters cited multiple reasons for their stance. In the landmark 1905 Supreme Court case testing the vaccination law, Jacobsen v. Massachusetts, the plaintiff was a Swedish Lutheran minister who claimed that the vaccine had seriously sickened him as a child, thus he refused to be vaccinated again during a 1902 smallpox outbreak in Cambridge. The court found against Jacobsen, declaring that the state could encroach on individual liberties in order to protect the "safety of the general public." This position has been affirmed in numerous other cases--although, because 48 states (all but Mississippi and West Virginia) allow for religious exemptions to their vaccination statutes, many potential challenges to the laws have never come to trial.

More recently, fundamentalist, charismatic, and prosperity churches have been sites of vaccine opposition and, as a result, disease outbreaks. Last summer, Eagle Mountain International Church in Newark, Texas, which is associated with Kenneth and Gloria Copeland (pictured) made headlines including "Measles church counseled faith, not shots." Twenty-one Texans caught the once nearly eradicated disease. The same thing happened at a northwest Indiana church in 2005. Adding another religious layer, in both of these churches the outbreak began after a mission trip to a developing country, Indonesia in the Texas case, Romania in the Indiana case. (Recent pertussis outbreaks in California, Washington, and elsewhere have been linked to vaccine refusal, often on religious grounds, but not to specific religious groups.)

Throughout this history of vaccination and vaccine-resistance, religion has been only part of the story, but an important part. The spread of vaccine resistance is also in some ways related to the widening of definitions of both "religion" and "religious freedom." In the same CDC source cited above, the authors note, "Decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court in two conscientious objector cases indicate that a bright line may not always exist between the religious and the philosophic and that at least some amount of philosophic opposition to vaccination may rise to the level of being religious." And so, in a narrative full of unintended and often tragic consequences, we have come to a place in which belief in a fraudulent medical study counts as religious, is legally protected, and is causing serious illness and death. As states tighten laws to rein in newly dangerous diseases, expect more legal challenges, and more public discussion of the scope of religious and personal freedom, ahead.


Anthony Petro said…
This is excellent, Elesha -- and just in time for a unit THIS WEEK on vaccinations in my Religion, Health, and Medicine class!

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