Duquesne Catholic University backs down – allows religious exemption

The following article appeared in the Pittsburgh Tribune after one courageous family stood in defense of life and their religious right to exempt from aborted fetal tissue vaccines.  Backed by the USCCB, the Vatican statement on Catholic Universities, the Pittsburgh Diocese and a letter to the University from Bishop Robert Vasa asserting Catholic rights on behalf of the student, the school relented on Christmas eve… 

Duquesne grants exemption from vaccine

By Bill Zlatos
Wednesday, December 25, 2002

Lina Bird’s conscience will not cost her a $21,000-a-year scholarship at Duquesne University after all.

Bird, an 18-year-old freshman from Mason Town, W.Va., has been searching for a new school after Duquesne had told her she could not register for the spring semester because she refused to get a shot for measles, mumps and rubella. Bird has refused the vaccine because, she said, some of the vaccine comes from the stem cells of aborted fetuses. On Tuesday, however, Duquesne lawyer Linda Drago called the family to announce that it will let Bird return. As a result, Bird can keep her Chancellor’s Scholarship, which provides free tuition.

“I’m very relieved that it was settled this way,” Bird told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “Your call probably did a lot. It did take them from August until now to figure out a good compromise.”

A biology major, Bird said the measles and mumps viruses for the vaccine are grown on chick embryos, and the rubella part of the vaccine is isolated from aborted fetuses.

“The way they’re grown is not entirely pleasant,” said the vegetarian. “All three (measles, mumps and rubella viruses) have animal tissues involved, so that violates my philosophy of not doing violence to animals.”

Her mother, Virginija, said: “Morally, ethically, and religiously, as a Catholic, I feel this is wrong. I used to get vaccinated, but not since I found this out.”

Although opposed to abortion, the Roman Catholic Church is neutral on whether it is moral to get vaccinations from aborted fetuses, said the Rev. Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Pittsburgh Catholic Diocese.

“Theologians are studying the issue,” he said.

The denomination also upholds an individual’s right to follow his or her conscience as long as it is within the church’s teachings.

“But,” Lengwin said, “it doesn’t mean you have to admit that person to school if you think there’s a safety issue at stake.” He said he discussed Bird’s case with Duquesne officials, but did not play a part in the school’s decision to exempt her. He noted that Duquesne President Charles J. Dougherty has a doctorate in bioethics.

Until yesterday, Duquesne accommodated her vegetarian lifestyle and her disdain for animal research by exempting her from most animal dissections; however, the Catholic university would not budge on the shot.

“It’s very ironic that had I gone to the University of Pittsburgh or West Viriginia University or any of the state secular schools, this would not have come up,” Bird said. “But here at a religious Catholic institution, I’m having a problem.”

Penn State University, for example, requires students to show proof of vaccination for measles, mumps and rubella, said Dr. Margaret Spear, director of university health services, adding that the university allows exemptions for any legitimate reason. Spear said she could not recall any student requesting an exemption on anti-abortion grounds.

Duquesne’s change of heart came less than 24 hours after it had taken a hard line on the issue during an interview with the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.

“The health and well-being of Duquesne University students, employees and their families are of paramount concern,” Duquesne spokesman David M. Mastovich said Monday. “As a result, Duquesne University does not grant exemptions for personal reasons.”

But yesterday, Duquesne changed its tune.

Mastovich confirmed that the university has adopted a new policy. He said students seeking an exemption of vaccinations must provide awritten, notarized statement outlining their objections. “There is a theoretical risk if you allow one student to do it,” Mastovich admitted.

After analyzing what other universities do, he said Duquesne found that many schools allow exemptions on a case-by-case basis.

Bird’s stance made her the darling of anti-abortion groups.

“To me, she’s a little martyr out there standing for a cause,” said Debi Vinnedge, executive director of Children of God for Life in Clearwater, Fla. — a group that seeks to end the use of aborted fetuses in vaccines.

Bill Zlatos can be reached at bzlatos@tribweb.com or (412) 320-7828.