Hartford, Conn., Jan 31, 2020 / 04:28 pm (CNA).- The Catholic bishops of Connecticut issued a statement Tuesday clarifying Church teaching on vaccines, as legislators in the state consider a proposal that would eliminate the option for religious exemptions from vaccines.
The bishops said that while the Church considers vaccines to be moral and encourages their use, religious freedom is also an important right to protect.
“The Catholic Church encourages the use of vaccines, and our Connecticut Catholic schools require mandatory vaccinations,” the bishops said Jan. 28.
The bishops issued their statement ahead of a Feb. 19 hearing, during which Connecticut lawmakers will hear arguments from hundreds of people regarding the proposal to eliminate the religious exemption for vaccines, the Hartford Courant reported.
The bill, which would eliminate the exemption if passed, is being drafted ahead of the hearing but may be amended afterward. The Hartford Courant reported that at one time, lawmakers were considering “grandfathering in” children who already enrolled in school with a religious exemption for their vaccines, allowing them to stay enrolled in school. However, the paper reported, legislators seemed to be reconsidering that proposal.
“(State Health Commissioner Renee) Coleman-Mitchell and other state officials have cited concern for children with compromised immune systems who cannot receive shots for medical reasons,” should the exemption remain, the Hartford Courant reported. If passed, religious exemptions for enrollment in school would be eliminated by October 2021.
In their statement, the bishops recognized that conscientious objection to vaccines often arises with “certain vaccines that use human fetal cell lines, but the use of such vaccines is not immoral according to Church guidance.”
The bishops recommended that concerned Catholics reference the Pontifical Academy for Life’s guidance to Catholics on vaccines.
In these guidelines, the academy states that Catholics should advocate for morally uncomplicated alternatives to vaccines that are made from fetal cell lines, and for which there are no alternatives.
The academy notes that conscientious objection may be used as one way to advocate for moral vaccine alternatives, “if it can be done without causing children, and indirectly the population as a whole, to undergo significant risks to their health.”
It adds that conscientious objection to such vaccines is not a moral obligation for Catholics, especially if and when it would cause “grave inconvenience” in threatening the health and life of children and other vulnerable populations.
“In any case, there remains a moral duty to continue to fight and to employ every lawful means in order to make life difficult for the pharmaceutical industries which act unscrupulously and unethically. However, the burden of this important battle cannot and must not fall on innocent children and on the health situation of the population—especially with regard to pregnant women,” the academy states.
The bishops also noted the importance of religious freedom in debates about vaccines and religious exemptions.
“The Connecticut Catholic Conference, our public policy office, stands as a defender of religious liberty for all,” they said. “In general, the Conference maintains that all religious exemptions should be jealously guarded.”
“Any repeal of a religious exemption should be rooted in legitimate, grave public health concerns. The existence of a health risk in the state of Connecticut is a question of fact beyond our expertise at this time,” the bishops concluded.
States and schools are grappling with religious exemptions to vaccines as the number of people declining vaccines for religious or personal reasons has increased.
In October 2019, the Archdiocese of Seattle announced that it would no longer admit children to Catholic schools who did not have mandatory vaccinations, and that it would no longer allow personal or religious exemptions.
In 2016, California passed a law adding more stringent guidelines as to what counted for medical and personal exemptions from vaccines, which also called for the investigation of doctors who wrote too many exemptions in a year. Since the law passed, the state has recovered a 95% vaccination rate, Forbes reported, the rate needed for herd immunity against vaccine-preventable diseases.
The Hartford Courant noted that an effort to eliminate religious exemptions to vaccines was recently defeated in New Jersey, and that groups in Connecticut advocating for religious exemptions hoped for a similar outcome.
In the U.S., measles outbreaks have occurred in recent years as more people decline vaccinations. As of October 25, 2019, the Connecticut Department of Public Health confirmed four cases of measles for that year in the state. Nationally, the Center for Disease Control reported that 2019 marked the highest measles rate in the United States in 27 years, with most cases of the measles occurring in unvaccinated people.