Religious Conscience and Aborted Fetal Vaccines
A Catholic Prerogative

By Debi Vinnedge


In June 2005 the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAFL) issued a statement regarding the morality of using aborted fetal vaccines. Since that time some have challenged a parent’s right to abstain from these vaccines according to the dictates of their Catholic faith. Before beginning this assessment, it is important to understand that the fundamental Catholic rights sought by these families goes well beyond philosophical theories of cooperation in an act of evil. For there are serious repercussions that could have devastating impacts on pro-life, religious, moral, medical and legal rights in other matters that must also be considered.

Currently 48 of 50 states allow medical and religious exemptions for parents who wish to abstain from having their children vaccinated as a requirement for school attendance. Mississippi and West Virginia offer only medical exemptions at this time, while 19 of the remaining 48 states offer “philosophical” exemptions as well.

The primary focus here will be on the nature of conscience and religious exemptions however, since medical factors were also a consideration in the PAFL Statement, this aspect will also be covered in brief. Or you may want to read the epidemiology study that was conducted in 2006 addressing the medical facets of religious exemptions in greater detail.

This dissertation does not rely upon personal opinion, but rather full submission to Catholic teaching as found in the Catechism, papal encyclicals and statements by Pope John XXIII, Pope Paul VI, Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI, as well as the June 2005 PAFL document.

Religious and Conscience Exemptions

While some have attempted to separate conscience from religious rights, according to both Church teaching and civil rulings guiding State and Federal law, they are, in fact, one in the same. Why, you might wonder, is it so important to defend the undeniable position that the duty to follow one’s conscience – the voice of God instructing the heart – is indeed a religious matter?

Oddly enough, despite an abundance of Church doctrine on this issue, some have opined that conscience is not religious. Conclusions have been drawn that while one must respect the conscience of others, since there is nothing in Catholic teaching that using aborted fetal vaccines is immoral there simply cannot be any form of religious exemption. However, it should be noted that neither are there Catholic teachings stating such vaccinations are in fact, moral. Additionally, there are no Catholic teachings that children must be vaccinated. Nor are there Catholic teachings stating that parents cannot abstain from vaccinations. However, in order to claim a religious exemption, State laws do not require that one’s religion opposes immunization. It is based on the religious beliefs of the parent or vaccine recipient, not the Church.

Were it true that one could only obtain a religious exemption for aborted fetal vaccines if the Church held such a teaching in the explicit tenets of the faith, we could expect to see a serious disparity of discrimination against Catholics and for that matter, nearly every other denomination in the 31 states that do not have a separate conscience or philosophical clause in their exemption laws. But such is not the case and there is good reason for the justice afforded by the State.

The danger in asserting such a position is that it opens Catholics in particular to unlawful and unwarranted persecution, not only in the aborted fetal vaccine issue, but also in other matters governed by conscience protection. We begin by examining civil law in its interpretation of religious beliefs and then move on to the teachings of the Church.

Conscience as Religious: Legal Precedent

“Almighty God hath created the mind free.”
— Thomas Jefferson, Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom, Jan. 16, 1786

As noted, while there are conscience or philosophical exemptions listed separately in 19 States, the State’s reason for doing so is not to distinguish between what one holds in their conscience to be different from religious beliefs. Rather, these states allow a separate provision to allow one who simply opposes immunizations in general to exempt on that basis, regardless of their religious convictions.

This is supported by the fact that even the remaining 31 states that do not allow philosophical exemptions recognize conscience to be a religious matter that is sincerely held by the individual. The reason is simple: any law that would prohibit religious exemptions unless the specific tenets of the person’s faith forbade it, (for example, Christian Scientists) would be unconstitutional under laws governing Equal Protection in the Constitution. That is to say, no State or Federal agency is permitted to establish laws that give preference to one religious belief over another.

In 1965, United States vs. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, Mr. Justice Clark, presented the court opinion and cited the precedence from United States v. Macintosh, 283 U.S. 605 (1931) on conscientious objection to war and declared that “In the forum of conscience, duty to a moral power higher than the State has always been maintained.”

He expounded again on previous arguments, stating, “ In a similar vein Harlan Fiske Stone, later Chief Justice, drew from the Nation’s past when he declared that:

“Both morals and sound policy require that the state should not violate the conscience of the individual. All our history gives confirmation to the view that liberty of conscience has a moral and social value which makes it worthy of preservation at the hands of the state. So deep in its significance and vital, indeed, is it to the integrity of man’s moral and spiritual nature that nothing short of the self-preservation of the state should warrant its violation; and it may well be questioned whether the state which preserves its life by a settled policy of violation of the conscience of the individual will not in fact ultimately lose it by the process.” Stone, The Conscientious Objector, 21 Col. Univ. Q. 253, 269 (1919).

“Putting aside dogmas with their particular conceptions of deity, freedom of conscience itself implies respect for an innate conviction of paramount duty. The battle for religious liberty has been fought and won with respect to religious beliefs and practices, which are not in conflict with good order, upon the very ground of the supremacy of conscience within its proper field.”

In summary, Seeger professed conscience and religious faith as one in the same and Justice Douglas, who concurred with the court, concluded:

“If I read the statute differently from the Court, I would have difficulties. For then those who embraced one religious faith rather than another would be subject to penalties; and that kind of discrimination, as we held in Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398 , would violate the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. It would also result in a denial of equal protection by preferring some religions over others – an invidious discrimination that would run afoul of the Due Process Clause of the Fifth Amendment. See Bolling v. Sharpe, 347 U.S. 497 .

State legislative issues which involved the right of conscience as a determining factor for religious beliefs, likewise defer to Federal precedent. As one of many examples on religious exemptions from vaccinations, Sherr & Lynn vs. Northeast School District, Circuit Judge Leonard D. Wexler cited the Federal precedent of Seeger vs. US among others and stated:

“Scholars have been deeply perplexed by the problems engendered by the necessity of delineating what constitutes the “religion” which the First Amendment protects, and courts have struggled to formulate workable definitions. The Supreme Court, for example, has written that “the test of belief ‘in a relation to a Supreme Being’ is whether a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God.” United States v. Seeger, 380 U.S. 163, 165-66, 85 S.Ct. 850, 854 (1965).

The Supreme Court and Second Circuit have each declared religion to involve the “ultimate concerns” of individuals…. The Court therefore finds that the beliefs which each set of plaintiffs has put forth as the basis for their claim of entitlement to the exemption from vaccination makes available should rightfully be classified as “religious” for purposes of this litigation… The goal, of course, is to protect only those beliefs which are held as a matter of conscience… Any form of governmental investigation into the “objective truth” of a person’s religious beliefs, be it in a judicial form or otherwise, in essence puts the individual on trial for heresy. See United States v. Ballard, 322 U.S. 78, 64 S.Ct. 882 (1944). As the Supreme Court emphasized in Seeger, however, while the “truth” of a belief is not open to question, there remains the significant question whether it is “truly held.” This is the threshold question of sincerity which must be resolved in every case. It is, of course, a question of fact. 380 U.S. at 185, 85 S.Ct. at 863. See also, e.g., Africa, 662 F.2d 1025; Stevens, 428 F.Supp. 896; Riga, Religious, Sincerity, and Free Exercise, 25 Catholic Lawyer 246 (1980).

In summary, Federal and State laws protect the right of conscience under religious freedom, acknowledging that the only litmus test the State can impose is that it is religiously based and sincerely held. In other words, if one simply does not believe in vaccinations for personal reasons, rather than because of a conscience formed by religious beliefs, it would not hold up under scrutiny as religious in nature. Likewise, if a Christian Scientist used the excuse that his faith forbids vaccinations, yet he allowed other medical treatments, the court might hold his belief is not sincerely held. This too would not pass legal muster. But there are very clear teachings about conscience in the tenets of the Catholic faith, which in and of itself makes conscience a religious matter.

Legal Impact on the Church

While some of these legal positions may offend our Catholic sensibilities as an abuse of what we know to be sacred, the protection of religious conscience and freedom by civil law is of paramount importance. For if the right of conscience loses its significance as a fundamental religious right for members of the Church, we risk losing the same protection we fight to maintain in our Catholic Health plans, medical facilities and other civil disputes involving the sanctity of human life.

To cite a glaring example, the Pro-Choice Resources Center recently hosted their annual meeting, which was co-chaired by the ACLU, Planned Parenthood and Catholics For a Free Choice. The central topic of discussion was strategies on how participants should work to safeguard reproductive rights by abolishing the laws protecting the right of conscience. Ira Glasser, Executive Director for the ACLU advocated “finding a better name than ‘conscience clauses’ as part of their strategy to eliminate this as a religious right altogether.

Recognizing these attacks on religious freedom, The US Conference of Catholic Bishops submitted formal testimony in support of Kansas’ Right of Conscience Protection Act, stating:

“The proposed bill and other conscience protections recognize a basic principle: no one, least of all a health care provider committed to healing, should be forced to violate his or her conscience by participating in procedures that he or she deems to be harmful or morally wrong. Out of respect for religious freedom, concern for the ethical integrity of the medical profession, and appreciation for the diversity of our health system and our society, all should agree to help prevent such coercion.” [i]

And in March 2007, Catholic News Services reported on a concerted effort nationwide to abolish religious conscience rights in health care institutions. For example, in Connecticut proposed legislation would require all hospitals – including Catholic facilities – to offer emergency contraception to rape victims, without testing for pregnancy first. The Connecticut Catholic Conference denounced the legislation stating that Catholic hospitals “should not be forced to violate their religious beliefs, especially those concerning the human dignity of every person, no matter at what stage of life.”

Likewise, similar bills appeared in Minnesota and Oregon legislature in recent months through the lobbying efforts of NARAL and Planned Parenthood. Kelsey Wilson of the Oregon Catholic Conference noted the importance of conscience protection and stated, “If House Bill 2700 passes as is, the state would force us into violating our fundamental moral and religious teaching,”
The report further noted:
“A recent issue brief on “professionalism and conscience” by R. Alta Charo, a professor of law and bioethics at the University of Wisconsin Law School, called the debate over conscience clauses “the latest struggle with regard to religion in America” and came to a conclusion that could send a chill up the spines of those fighting for conscience protection.” [ii]

And most recently, the Obama administration is attempting to deny Catholic hospitals the right to refuse to perform IVF procedures or dispense contraceptives. It is crucial therefore that the Catholic Church should not just quietly allow parents this same right, but defend it ferociously – or most assuredly, we will lose it altogether. Even an average pro-choice attorney will easily recognize any instance of a Catholic institution refusing to allow the rights of moral conscience to its members as a reason to discredit other Catholic institutions fighting to maintain the same rights under religious protection laws.

More troubling is the likelihood that a denial of religious exemptions by Catholic schools could result in litigation against the Diocese, thus bringing unnecessary public scrutiny and scandal to the Church. Historically, religious exemptions have been upheld in the courts, discriminatory actions have resulted in punitive damages and unconstitutional laws were ultimately changed. Thus it would not seem prudent to invite the State or Courts to dictate what Catholic schools can or cannot do, or worse, to decide what our Faith does or does not profess.

Coercing Catholic parents or imposing on them an obligation, which they in their most intimate relationship with God find offensive to the Creator, is not only an act of Christian injustice it is a violation of both civil law, which provides religious exemptions to all citizens, and Magisterial law, which affords parents the right to a Catholic education.

“As those first responsible for the education of their children, parents have the right to choose a school for them which corresponds to their own convictions. This right is fundamental. As far as possible parents have the duty of choosing schools that will best help them in their task as Christian educators. Public authorities have the duty of guaranteeing this parental right and of ensuring the concrete conditions for its exercise.” (CCC 2229)

Book III, Title III Can. 793-799
Can. 793
§1. Parents and those who take their place are bound by the obligation and possess the right of educating their offspring. Catholic parents also have the duty and right of choosing those means and institutions through which they can provide more suitably for the Catholic education of their children, according to local circumstances.
§2. Parents also have the right to that assistance, to be furnished by civil society, which they need to secure the Catholic education of their children.

Can. 794
§1. The duty and right of educating belongs in a special way to the Church, to which has been divinely entrusted the mission of assisting persons so that they are able to reach the fullness of the Christian life.
§2. Pastors of souls have the duty of arranging everything so that all the faithful have a Catholic education

Can. 796
§1. Among the means to foster education, the Christian faithful are to hold schools in esteem; schools are the principal assistance to parents in fulfilling the function of education.

Can. 797
Parents must possess a true freedom in choosing schools; therefore, the Christian faithful must be concerned that civil society recognizes this freedom for parents and even supports it with subsidies; distributive justice is to be observed.

Can. 799
The Christian faithful are to strive so that in civil society the laws which regulate the formation of youth also provide for their religious and moral education in the schools themselves, according to the conscience of the parents

Book IV Chapter VIII, Can. 1136
Parents have the most grave obligation and the primary right to do all in their power to ensure their children’s physical, social, cultural, moral and religious upbringing.

Some have expressed concern that a school could be held liable if an unvaccinated child should infect others, but the schools are actually protected under the State law that affords citizens the right to exempt. Conversely however, if a school should refuse a religious exemption and if under coercion of expulsion, the parent does vaccinate their child and the child suffers an adverse medical reaction, the school would very likely be held liable.

That is not to say that the Church should allow religious exemptions because of legal issues or simply because the State does. Certainly there are many things that are “legal”, but that does not mean they are moral and the Church rightly stands firmly in opposition to unjust laws. However, a law that is designed to protect religious freedom is not unjust and actually protects the Church and Her members. But more importantly, the reason why all dioceses should allow Catholic parents a religious conscience exemption is because the Magisterium does. The incontrovertible evidence supporting this fact is at the very heart of Catholic teaching on conscience.

Conscience as Religious – The Catholic Church

If one looks at conscience as something separate from religious in the matter of abstaining from aborted fetal cell line vaccines, it would only be a superficial judgment because the illumination, formation and action of conscience cannot be arbitrarily applied in the same manner to all circumstances. When conscience is directed by moral reasoning, prayer, knowledge and Church teaching or direct Divine intervention, it becomes intimately united to the very heart of all religious matters: the right to know, love and serve God according to His instruction.

Thus, the separation of conscience from religion, particularly in this matter, is a false distinction. Why is this so? When one considers the vast teaching of the Magisterium on respect for the sanctity of human life, immoral research on human embryos and aborted fetuses, it is certainly reasonable and laudable that Catholic parents in forming their consciences would submit all their actions to opposing these attacks by the Culture of Death. The Magisterium has assiduously instructed the faithful to be unequivocally pro-life by word, by action and by example. And thus they respond with the steadfast conviction instilled in their Baptismal vows, affirming their faith and love for Christ, for the Church, rejecting Satan and all his works.

In forming their conscience, these parents who do not wish to participate even remotely with abortion heed the call of the Holy Father and all the Church teaches Her children in wisdom and love. These teachings would include but are not limited to:

  • Respect for the Dead (including reverence for the remains of these babies being utilized)
  • Respect for the Souls of Others (to avoid giving scandal)
  • Scientific Research (against exploitation of voluntarily aborted babies and ESCR)
  • Respect for the Sanctity of Life
  • The Duty to educate their children in the Catholic Faith
  • The Right to Choose a Catholic School
  • The Duty to obey one’s conscience
  • The Duty to avoid Sin and the Near Occasion of Sin (venial and mortal)

Some have felt that parents abstaining from aborted fetal vaccines have formed an erroneous conscience. However nothing could be further from the truth because their decision is clearly not antithetical to the teachings of the Church, because the fear of committing sin is present, because the parents have obtained counsel from Church authority and because they have ultimately formed their conscience based on Truth and moral goodness.

If a person does all these things in prayerful consideration of what God has put into their hearts, how can such a conscience be in error? That is dangerously close to saying that what the Church teaches must somehow be in error as well if faithful Catholics are to be condemned for following Her instruction. Does not the Church require that Catholics adhere to Her teachings?

Then why should the same institution punish a Catholic who is doing exactly as they have been instructed? It is by faithful obedience to their conscience, piety and the Divine act of sanctifying grace that such decisions arise, not by some mere arbitrary whim of personal reasoning. To contend otherwise would be to challenge the most intimate relationship man has with God.

“Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. (CCC 1777)

“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things….The virtuous person tends toward the good with all of his sensory and spiritual powers; he pursues the good and chooses it in concrete actions.” (CCC 1803)

In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law. (CCC 1778)

If it were only by mere human reasoning that man understands the dictates of the divine law or natural law, would that not be analogous to making man as gods? Who inscribes these dictates into the heart and soul of man if not God?

“The natural law is written and engraved in the soul of each and every man, because it is human reason, ordaining him to do good and forbidding him to sin…But this command of human reason would not have the force of law if it were not the voice and interpreter of a higher reason to which our spirit and freedom must be submitted.” (Leo XIII Libertas Praestantissimum, 597)

“The natural law states the first and essential precepts, which govern the moral life. It hinges upon the desire for God and submission to Him, who is the source and judge of all that is good.” (CCC 1955)

That is not to say man has no reasoning independent of God for we do many things in our everyday life that do not involved divine intervention. For example, if I feel like reading a book or going to a movie, I most likely do so without a great deal of contemplation.

But the choice of book or movie may very well be dictated by what my conscience is telling me. And how would that conscience be formed? It may or may not involve Church teaching directly, but hopefully that decision will be made by what I know to be good for my spiritual well being. If I were forced to read a book or view a movie that disturbs my conscience and would adversely affect my spiritual formation, such a mandate would clearly violate my religious freedom. However, if my conscience were not bothered by this demand, it would not violate my religious sensibilities either.

The crucial point here is that while conscience in and of itself may be a facet of human reasoning, the course of action that follows a prayerful examination of conscience may very well involve the application and practice of one’s religion.

“On his part, man perceives and acknowledges the imperatives of the divine law through the mediation of conscience. It is through his conscience that man sees and recognizes the demands of divine law. He is bound to follow this conscience faithfully in all his activity so that he may come to God, who is his last end. Therefore he must not be forced to act contrary to his conscience. Nor must he be prevented from acting according to his conscience, especially in religious matters. The reason is that the exercise of religion, of its very nature, consists before all else in those internal, voluntary and free acts whereby man sets the course of his life directly toward God. Acts of this kind cannot be commanded or forbidden by any merely human authority.” (Dignitatis Humanae, Pope Paul VI, 1965)

An Upright Conscience

To be sure, there are many times when “conscience” has been abused as an excuse for defying both civil and moral authority. For example, there are some who will profess that by their own “conscience” that it is proper to have an abortion, cheat on their taxes, euthanize the elderly, cohabitate with their partner or engage in a homosexual relationship. These actions are often justified for a variety of reasons within the mind of the individual performing them, however, each of these violates the very principles of the Natural law. These are not really “judgments” of conscience but rather, free autonomous “decisions”. (cf. Veritatis Splendor)

In light of these exploitations of religious conscience, it is understandable why someone with only a cursory knowledge of the aborted fetal vaccine issue might view those abstaining with cautious suspicion. But if one truly wants to find the truth that has motivated such a devout position, look no further than to the reading found in Aborted Fetal Vaccines and the Catholic Family, A Historical and Moral Perspective.

Parents abstaining from aborted fetal vaccines have done nothing wrong in the formation of their conscience, but rather, something laudable, pious and virtuous. The Church cites the ability to discern one’s conscience based on God’s truth as found in the Cardinal Virtue, Prudence.

“Prudence is the virtue that disposes practical reason to discern our true good in every circumstance and to choose the right means of achieving it. Prudence is ‘right reason in action,’ writes St. Thomas Aquinas. It is called auriga virtutum (the charioteer of the virtues); it guides the other virtues by setting rule and measure. It is prudence that immediately guides the judgment of conscience. The prudent man determines and directs his conduct in accordance with this judgment.” (CCC 1806)

It is thus fitting then that the Church recognizes the gift of prudence to belong to a conscience attuned to God’s will:

“When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking.” (CCC 1777)

In order to have a well-formed conscience, the actions of the person must not be contrary to the Natural law or in opposition to the teachings of the Church, which faithful Catholics fully acknowledge to be an interpretation of the Divine Will.

Certainly then, a parents’ desire to avoid even remote material cooperation with an evil as immense and horrendous as abortion, would qualify as being consistent with a properly formed conscience, especially since it is consistent with Magisterial teaching.

In examining the recent statement by the PAFL, they reference the duty to use the proper application of conscience in 5 different sections of the document:

“They should take recourse, if necessary, to the use of conscientious objection 14 with regard to the use of vaccines produced by means of cell lines of aborted human foetal origin.” (Page 7)

“Such a duty may lead, as a consequence, to taking recourse to “objection of conscience” when the action recognized as illicit is an act permitted or even encouraged by the laws of the country and poses a threat to human life. The Encyclical Letter Evangelium Vitae underlined this “obligation to oppose” the laws which permit abortion or euthanasia ‘by conscientious objection’ (no.73)” (Footnote 14)

“It is up to the faithful and citizens of upright conscience (fathers of families, doctors, etc.) to oppose, even by making an objection of conscience, the ever more widespread attacks against life and the “culture of death” which underlies them.”(Page 7)

“[T]here is a grave responsibility to use alternative vaccines and to make a conscientious objection with regard to those which have moral problems;” (Summary Page 7)

“Such cooperation occurs in a context of moral coercion of the conscience of parents, who are forced to choose to act against their conscience or otherwise, to put the health of their children and of the population as a whole at risk. This is an unjust alternative choice, which must be eliminated as soon as possible.” (Summary page 8)

Nowhere do they state such a conscience is erroneous. Rather, as noted above they use the word “upright” to describe the conscience of one who takes a stand against the culture of death. And what do our Holy Fathers of the Church have to say? Following are some of their statements regarding the profundity of conscience in man’s most intimate relationship with God:

Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI
To the Participants in the General Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Feb 2007

The Christian conscience, in fact, has an internal need to nourish and strengthen itself with the multiple and profound motivations that work in favour of the right to life. It is a right that must be sustained by all, because it is the first fundamental right of all human rights. The Encyclical Evangelium Vitae strongly affirms this: “Even in the midst of difficulties and uncertainties, every person sincerely open to truth and goodness can, by the light of reason and the hidden action of grace, come to recognize in the natural law written in the heart (cf. Rom 2: 14-15) the sacred value of human life from its very beginning until its end, and can affirm the right of every human being to have this primary good respected to the highest degree. Upon the recognition of this right, every human community and the political community itself are founded” (n. 2).

The same Encyclical recalls that “believers in Christ must defend and promote this right, aware as they are of the wonderful truth recalled by the Second Vatican Council: “By his Incarnation the Son of God has united himself in some fashion with every human being’ (Gaudium et Spes, n. 22). This saving event reveals to humanity not only the boundless love of God who “so loved the world that he gave his only Son (Jn 3: 16), but also the incomparable value of every human person” (ibid.). Therefore, the Christian is continually called to be ever alert in order to face the multiple attacks to which the right to life is exposed. In this he knows that he can count on motives that are deeply rooted in the natural law and that can therefore be shared by every person of upright conscience. [iii]

Statement of Pope John Paul II 1980
On the Value and Content of Freedom of Conscience and of Religion
Church’s Thinking on the Subject
3. The Catholic Church has synthesized her thinking on this subject in the Second Vatican Council’s Declaration, Dignitatis humanae, promulgated on December 7, 1965, a document which places the Apostolic See under a special obligation.

This declaration had been preceded by Pope John XXIII’s Encyclical, Pacem in terris, dated April 11, 1963, which solemnly emphasized the fact that everyone has “the right to be able to worship God in accordance with the right dictates of his conscience.”

The same declaration of the Second Vatican Council was then taken up again in various documents of Pope Paul VI, in the 1974 Synod of Bishops’ message, and more recently in the message to the United Nations Organization during the papal visit on October 2, 1979, which repeats it essentially: “In accordance with their dignity, all human beings, because they are persons, that is, beings endowed with reason and free will and, therefore, bearing a personal responsibility, are both impelled by their nature and bound by a moral obligation to seek the truth, especially religious truth.

They are also bound to adhere to the truth once they come to know it and to direct their whole lives in accordance with its demands” (Dignitatis humanae, 2). The practice of religion by its very nature consists primarily of those voluntary and free internal acts by which a human being directly sets his course towards God. No merely human power can either command or prohibit acts of this kind. But man’s social nature itself requires that he give external expression to his internal acts of religion, that he communicate with others in religious matters and that he profess his religion in community (Dignitatis humanae, .3 ).On the same occasion, the conviction was expressed that “respect for the dignity of the human person would seem to demand that, when the exact tenor of the exercise of religious freedom is being discussed or determined with a view to national laws or international conventions, the institutions that are by their nature at the service of religion should also be brought in. This is because, when religious freedom is to be given substance, if the participation of those most concerned in it and who have special experience of it and responsibility for it is omitted, there is a danger of setting arbitrary norms of application and of “imposing, in so intimate a field of man’s life, rules or restrictions that are opposed to his true religious needs” (Address to the UN 34th General Assembly, no. 20)”.[iv]

Pope Paul VI, 1965 Gaudium et Spes:

“For its part, authentic freedom is an exceptional sign of the Divine image within man. For God has willed that man remain “under the control of his own decisions, so that he can seek his Creator spontaneously, and come freely to utter and blissful perfection through loyalty to Him. Hence man’s dignity demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure.”

Pope John XXIII Pacem in Terris

The Right to Worship God According to One’s Conscience
14. Also among man’s rights is that of being able to worship God in accordance with the right dictates of his own conscience, and to profess his religion both in private and in public. According to the clear teaching of Lactantius, “this is the very condition of our birth, that we render to the God who made us that just homage which is His due; that we acknowledge Him alone as God, and follow Him. It is from this ligature of piety, which binds us and joins us to God, that religion derives its name.”’ (l0)Hence, too, Pope Leo XIII declared that “true freedom, freedom worthy of the sons of God, is that freedom which most truly safeguards the dignity of the human person. It is stronger than any violence or injustice. Such is the freedom which has always been desired by the Church, and which she holds most dear.”

The Pontifical Academy for Life – Levels of Cooperation

Some diocesan administrators have asserted that the PAFL document rejects a parents right to abstain from the problematic vaccines, since parents do not cooperate immorally in the evil of abortion. But the PAFL never said any such thing at all.

First and foremost, nowhere in the document did the PAFL “reject” this primordial right for parents. Further, any cooperation in abortion is immoral to some degree and the PAFL in fact, concurs and expounds on this in great detail. But that degree of sinfulness is determined by whether there is “direct material/formal cooperation” which is seriously sinful, or on the opposite end of the spectrum, “complete disassociation”, which is not sinful at all, or, somewhere in between these two. Here is what the PAFL stated regarding parents cooperation:

“As regards those who need to use such vaccines for reasons of health, it must be emphasized that, apart from every form of formal cooperation, in general, doctors or parents who resort to the use of these vaccines for their children, in spite of knowing their origin (voluntary abortion), carry out a form of very remote mediate material cooperation, and thus very mild, in the performance of the original act of abortion, and a mediate material cooperation, with regard to the marketing of cells coming from abortions, and immediate, with regard to the marketing of vaccines produced with such cells.

However, in this situation, the aspect of passive cooperation is that which stands out most. It is up to the faithful and citizens of upright conscience (fathers of families, doctors, etc.) to oppose, even by making an objection of conscience, the ever more widespread attacks against life and the “culture of death” which underlies them. From this point of view, the use of vaccines whose production is connected with procured abortion constitutes at least a mediate remote passive material cooperation to the abortion, and an immediate passive material cooperation with regard to their marketing.

To say parents do not cooperate immorally would not be correct. Simply because cooperation might be “very mild” in one scenario, “mediate” or “immediate” in other scenarios does not mean that it is not immoral. Rather, these distinctions define the various degree of sinfulness.

Still, some have contended that using the vaccines is not sinful, however this too is not exactly correct because if a parent uses the vaccines in direct opposition to their conscience, the Church teaches that would be sinful. For example:

“The Divine Law,” says Cardinal Gousset, “is the supreme rule of actions; our thoughts, desires, words, acts, all that man is, is subject to the domain of the law of God; and this law is the rule of our conduct by means of our conscience. Hence it is never lawful to go against our conscience; as the Fourth Lateran council says, ‘Quidquid fit contra conscientiam, aedificat ad gehennam.'” [“Whatever is done in opposition to conscience is conducive to damnation.”]

“16. Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells him inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His dignity lies in observing this law, and by it he will be judged. His conscience is man’s most secret core, and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” (Gaudium et Spes)

“Conscience is a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law:
‘Conscience is a law of the mind; yet Christians would not grant that it is nothing more; I mean that it was not a dictate, nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty of a threat and a promise…[Conscience] is a messenger of him who both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.’ (John Henry Cardinal Newman)” (CCC 1778)

Notably, in their statement the PAFL never asserts that the parents’ cooperation is not sinful. Remote cooperation may or may not be sinful, depending on the circumstances. For example, if a parent supports furthering immoral research for the good of curing disease and they use the vaccines with this in mind, then that would be seriously sinful because the person is willing to participate and even advance an immoral act. Yet, if a parent uses a vaccine despite the fact that his conscience tells him not to, that person sins as well, not because he/she used the vaccine in question, but because the person acted in opposition to their conscience.

If a parent needs to use the vaccine because of “considerable dangers to their health” the PAFL permits them to do that “on a temporary basis” because, “the duty to avoid passive material cooperation is not obligatory”. They never stated refraining from such cooperation is not permissible. They simply say it is not obligatory to do so. In fact, their preference was to avoid it:

“Obviously, every type of formal passive cooperation is to be considered illicit, but even passive material cooperation should generally be avoided, although it is admitted (by many authors) that there is not a rigorous obligation to avoid it in a case in which it would be greatly difficult to do so.”

The exact context of their statement on conditions for both using and refusing these vaccines is as follows:

“As regards the diseases against which there are no alternative vaccines which are available and ethically acceptable, it is right to abstain from using these vaccines if it can be done without causing children, and indirectly the population as a whole, to undergo significant risks to their health. However, if the latter are exposed to considerable dangers to their health, vaccines with moral problems pertaining to them may also be used on a temporary basis. The moral reason is that the duty to avoid passive material cooperation is not obligatory if there is grave inconvenience.”

If the PAFL believed there was absolutely nothing wrong with using these vaccines, why would they bother putting such conditions on their use?

Significant Risk?

It is important to keep in mind when reading the PAFL statement that it was not just intended for the United States, but for the entire world. This is a substantial point because the major thrust of their concern was the need to protect pregnant women from rubella in the first trimester of pregnancy, when the disease can be possibly dangerous to the unborn child.

Keeping that in mind, let’s look at some of the facts. A pregnant woman who is not immune to rubella may very well be abstaining from the vaccine for religious reasons herself. However, her right to do so is less than that of another mother exempting her child for religious reasons because:

1) The rubella virus is not harmful at all to children yet the vaccine itself could harm a child (Merck product insert – Contraindications, Adverse Reactions)

2) Rubella can be harmful to the unborn, thus the pregnant mother has a greater duty to the health of her unborn baby than a mother whose toddler would not be harmed by the disease.

3) A pregnant woman is fully able to protect herself and theoretically, had years of opportunity to do so prior to pregnancy. She is tested for rubella immunity at her first prenatal check-up. If she has no immunity she can still protect herself by using immune globulin, which provides protection for approximately 3 months, putting her beyond the critical timeframe for her unborn child. She can also receive the vaccine or simply minimize her contact with potentially unhealthy conditions in the first trimester of pregnancy. This would not be difficult since:

a) Rubella No Longer A Public Health Threat in the United States, announced by the Centers for Disease Control Director, March 21, 2005. Director Julie Gerberbing revealed that both rubella and CRS had been eliminated in the US with less than 10 cases of rubella per year for the past 3 years and only one case of CRS.[v] These outbreaks were among adult immigrants, not US native-born cases and they were self-contained. Even more notably, no children were involved and no other persons were infected.

b) Rubella vaccination does not cause fetal harm in pregnant women. For years it was believed that since the rubella vaccine uses a live virus, it could cause CRS and thus, abortion was recommended whenever a woman, unknown to be pregnant at the time, received the vaccine. However, more recent studies have shown that while the rubella virus from the disease crosses the placenta, the attenuated virus in the vaccine does not cause fetal harm. Because of this, in October 2001 the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices stated “therapeutic” abortion is no longer recommended. [vi] And while the ACIP does not recommend vaccinating pregnant women since there is still a “theoretical” risk, there is no medical data to support this theory any longer. In any case the theoretical risk falls far below the real risk (20-25%) of contracting CRS.[vii]

The PAFL laid down the conditions for abstaining from the vaccines, based on health conditions and risk to society. No “significant risk” exists anywhere in the United States; there are no “considerable dangers” to their health as evidenced by the Centers for Disease Control and State Health officials’ own reporting. Thus, without question, the PAFL statement supports a parents’ right to abstain under these proper conditions.

Likewise, they allow parents to use the vaccines under these same limited conditions as well – and those conditions as demonstrated in both this essay and the 2006 epidemiology study, ( ) do not exist in the United States except when the health of the individual child requires he/she receives vaccinations due to a unique medical problem.

When outbreaks of any disease occur, non-vaccinated children are sent home from school until the condition passes, but even the State does not deny admittance to any school under normal circumstances. Further, at present not one health official in any state has determined such conditions exist to warrant non-admission of unvaccinated children to school.

Some have worried that unvaccinated children might pose a threat to teachers and staff, yet if any school is going to require their children to be vaccinated, they certainly should require teachers and staff to do the same, so as not to infect students. Do not these adults bear the same responsibility as the parents of these children? In fact, we would hold that teachers and staff have a greater responsibility to protect children under their care – not the other way around!

In any case, providing that vaccines work, children who are not vaccinated do not pose a threat to other people who are, hence there is no significant risk in allowing exemptions of any kind.

Whether one has a medical, religious or conscience exemption, it is entirely probable that the unvaccinated child would also present the same risk if allowed to attend CCD classes, RCIA classes, or for that matter, Sunday Mass. Are we going to start demanding the Catholic children coming in from public schools with valid exemptions be denied access to religious instruction classes? The Mass? The Sacraments? We should hope not!

Why then, would anyone want to punish families who are actually paying tuition for their education at a Catholic school and yet allow the same exemption to those coming in for free catechesis? Are Catholics at parochial schools not entitled to the same religious rights afforded to their fellow Catholics attending public and other private schools?


In summary, this analysis has presented the undisputable teaching of the Church, which clearly allows parents to abstain. And while we have attempted to address every conceivable concern that has been postured, there is one final aspect that Church authorities have overlooked and needs to be considered carefully.
Many mothers who have refused to use these vaccines are doing so not only because of their pro-life convictions but because they are post-abortive themselves. These women may or may not have found healing through the mercy of Christ, but one thing they all share in common is a deep aversion to abortion, aborted fetal research and the profiteering of the pharmaceutical industry from their mistakes. They cannot bear the thought of using the remains of another aborted child to protect their own, subsequently born children. The Church needs to show utmost compassion for these women and respect both their wish to abstain and their privacy in such a painful matter. To force them to choose between using these products or raising their children with a Catholic education is unusually cruel and insensitive.

Meanwhile, parents refusing to cave in to the Culture of Death are models of Catholic virtue who form the foundation for our future, as they devoutly teach their young the truth and beauty of our Catholic faith. They desperately need our support and our protection, not reproach by the Church they so love. They set an example of what it means to be truly pro-life, struggling valiantly against the constant attacks on our moral and religious sensibilities from every angle and they should not be punished or marginalized for doing so, especially by members of their own Church.

They have devoutly followed what the Magisterium has taught on the sanctity of life in Donum Vitae, Evangelium Vitae, Dignitatis Humanae, Veritatis Splendor, Gaudium et Spes and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. They have modeled their lives in the excellence of the saints and are striving for holiness, perhaps beyond what it is expected of them by man, but faithfully obedient to what is deeply rooted in their conscience, that is, what is expected of them by God.

If this profound manifestation of conscience by these parents is not religious – if this deep affection for goodness, moral truth and aversion to debauchery is not religious – if the duty to know, love and serve God as He instructs is not religious, then religion no longer exists in the very heart and soul of man.

“For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God…His conscience is man’s most secret core and sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths.” (CCC 1776)

Debi Vinnedge is the Executive Director of Children of God for Life, a pro-life organization focused on ending the use of aborted fetal or embryonic materials in medical and consumer products. Their group was responsible for bringing about the PAFL Document cited in this article and is currently working on bringing morally produced alternatives to the world market.

[vi] Levichek Z et al., Pregnancy outcome following rubella vaccination : A prospective controlled study; Teratology 63(6); June 2001; – rubella