Thursday, July 12, 2012

Praying, in Vain, for Exemption

In polite conversation, especially with strangers, there are some topics that you should just avoid. Anything related to politics or religion can, unless you really know your audience, produce rather, shall we say, heated disagreements. Okay, let's be real. When politics and religion come up, people can get vehemently argumentative. There tends to be such a strong personal investment in political and religious beliefs that to question the belief is seen as somehow questioning or even denigrating the individual. From personal experience, it's hard to avoid that even when sticking to the facts and avoiding personal opinion. So people tend to steer clear of such conversation topics in order to play nice, keep the peace and avoid jeopardizing friendships.

Vaccines have become a topic similar to politics and religion. Anytime I meet someone new and the subject arises (and even with good friends, on occasion), there's always this sense of trepidation. Has the person I'm talking to read something on the interwebz that they found convincing enough to distrust vaccines? How personally invested are they? If they've been fooled by anti-vaccine propaganda (which, admittedly, can be quite convincing to someone who has not been following things for a while), what arguments will they use to justify their beliefs? The rationalizations will very likely draw politics or religion (or both) into the mix, and given how intertwined are personal identity and political/religious beliefs, sticking solely to facts and reason aren't likely to sway the person. In such cases, fighting fire with fire, so to speak, might work, but it's a risky proposition, especially when using religious arguments.

The problem is that once you start bringing religion into an argument dealing with non-religious policies and topics, you get bad religion and bad policy. Take, for instance, a religiously-based list of anti-vaccine arguments [EDIT 8/12/14: updated link to a cached version of the page, as the original appears to have been taken down] recently forwarded to me.

The author of the article, I found out after reading it, is Mary Tocco, about whom I've written before. She starts off with a statement that doesn't seem to have anything to do with vaccines:
Public law 97-280 passed by Congress of the United States of America declares the Bible to be the “Word of God” and directs citizens to “Study and apply the teachings of the Holy Scriptures”.
This refers to a 1982 resolution passed by Congress and signed by Pres. Reagan declaring 1983 the "Year of the Bible". Similar resolutions have been passed by the Federal and/or State Congresses on a pretty regular basis. The most recent that I found, a resolution in Pennsylvania, is the target of a law suit challenging that the resolution is a violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, since it specifically endorses the Judeo-Christian religion. The resolution may stand, though, since it isn't a "law" and because it more particularly falls into a "ceremonial" category (hat tip to Ken at Popehat for help clarifying this legal issue). I'm not a lawyer, though, so don't quote me on any of this. Better to ask someone like Eugene Volokh, who Ken says is a bit of an expert on such issues.

I guess it was an attempt to establish the premise that the U.S. is a Christian nation (it isn't, but that's a topic for someone else to cover). At any rate, Ms. Tocco goes on:
It is a fact that the vaccine manufactures and the abortion industry have been working together since the 1960’s using aborted baby tissue to develop vaccines on.
The suggestion here is that the "abortion industry" (I was unaware that there was an established abortion industry in the same way that there is an auto industry) is regularly supplying aborted fetuses to vaccine manufacturers, who then use these fetuses to develop vaccines. This is false. Back in the 1960s, there were two fetuses that were intentionally aborted by the parents; however, neither fetus was aborted for the purposes of vaccine development. What's more, no future abortions are needed, either, because cell lines (WI-38 and MRC-5) were grown using samples from those two fetuses. To say that the diploid cells in some vaccines today are aborted fetal tissue is like saying that the orange juice you had for breakfast was actually a 6,000 year old orange tree.

Ms. Tocco compounds her error when she lists the vaccines that, according to her, contain fetal tissue (emphasis added):
The vaccines currently being made with aborted baby tissue are the Hepatitis A, Measles Vaccine, (MMR) Rubella vaccine and some flu vaccines.
The vaccines that contain human diploid cells from one of these two now-half-a-century-old cell lines are:
  • WI-38: Adenovirus (not on recommended schedule), MMR (MMR II), and MMRV (ProQuad)
  • MRC-5: DTaP-IPV/Hib (Pentacel), Hep A (Havrix), Hep A (Vaqta), Hep A/Hep B (Twinrix), MMRV (ProQuad), Rabies (Imovax - not on recommended schedule), Varicella (Varivax), and Zoster (Zostavax - for adults only)
Notice that there are no flu vaccines containing human diploid cells. This is an error that Ms. Tocco has made before.

She continues to play the "oogy" card:
 Many other vaccines are contaminated with animal viruses that are foreign to the human body and can cause serious health problems.
No citations that this is true. In the past, there have been instances where a vaccine was contaminated with an animal virus (SV40 in polio vaccine in the 1960s and PCV in rotavirus vaccines in 2010). In both cases, production was halted and additional safety protocols put in place to prevent such contamination in the future. Also in both cases, the contaminating virus was not capable of causing disease in humans. These were two rare instances of contamination, and, in the case of PCV, it wasn't even the complete virus, but only parts of the virus. This is not a regular occurrence and is not a cause of concern, Ms. Tocco's implications being otherwise.

Now we're on to the part where Ms. Tocco gets all Biblical on her readers. I don't just mean she takes a righteous tone. No, she begins citing Bible passages to support her arguments. The problem with doing this is that, almost any time someone does this, the passages are taken out of context to argue whatever the author wants to say. Conflicting passages are generally ignored or rationalized away. As I said earlier, this approach is makes for both bad religion and bad policy. If you are not a believer, her arguments probably won't mean a whole lot, but if you are a believer, you should be offended at how Ms. Tocco abuses religion to promote a pro-disease message. For my research and citations, I'm using the Bible Gateway (a good resource for quickly finding passages) and the English Standard Version, one of the more literal and accurate translations of the Bible.

The Bible teaches that the truthfulness of an issue is to be sought and should stand on no less than two or more witnesses. (Deuteronomy 19:15).
Deuteronomy is a book of laws for the Israelites in the time following their escape from Egypt. Chapter 19, verses 15-21 deal with witnesses. Specifically, Deut. 19:15 involves people purporting to witness a crime, basically saying that a single person is insufficient to establish that a crime has occurred. For that, you need at least two witnesses. Deut. 19 goes on to state that if a witness maliciously accuses another of a crime or wrongdoing, then both people are to appear before a judge. If the accusations are false, then the liar is to be "purged" from the community. This is where the whole "an eye for an eye" bit comes from; the community is to do to the liar what the liar intended should happen to their victim. I'm not sure what, exactly, Ms. Tocco would like done to those she accuses of some imagined crime, but seeing as she has already been shown to be in error, she might want to rethink her approach, if she would honestly adhere to the rest of the Bible, and not just her selective pickings.
A diligent study on vaccine safety and effectiveness reveals that there are many informed and qualified researchers and doctors who have found and teach that there are many serious health risks involved with vaccines.
I'm not quite sure which researchers and doctors she refers to here. The majority of the medical profession (researchers and physicians) know that while there are some risks associated with vaccines, these are extremely rare. They also know that the risks of the diseases are far greater than risks from vaccines. You can hear some personal stories of just how bad these diseases can be at The CDC Pink Book also provides a clear description of what vaccine-preventable diseases can do.
The Bible teaches us that children are a gift from God (1 Timothy 5:8).
1 Timothy is a letter from the apostle Paul to Timothy, teaching how to conduct oneself in the church (1 Timothy 3:14-15). Now, Ms. Tocco's specific citation doesn't actually teach that children are a gift from God. Instead, it states that any person that does not provide for their family members is worse than an unbeliever. That said, even if her citation were accurate, she uses it to support her argument that using vaccines is supporting the murdering, for profit, of children. Again, this is false. But it does present a good opportunity to present the opinion of the largest, most powerful organization opposed to abortion. Of course, that is the Catholic Church. Although the Vatican declares that vaccines containing diploid cells do have grave moral problems and that alternatives must be used when possible and developed where they do not exist, they also note that there is a greater moral problem with not using these vaccines. In short, their use is "morally justified as an extrema ratio due to the necessity to provide for the good of one's children and of the people who come in contact with the children". Refusing the vaccine puts "the health of their children and of the population as a whole at risk". Ms. Tocco, and those sharing her beliefs, may want to keep that in mind when making the argument that parents, rather than the government, are responsible for the health and welfare of their children.

I recommend to Ms. Tocco to reread her Bible, particularly 1 Timothy 1, which warns against those people "desiring to be teachers of the law, without understanding either what they are saying or the things about which they make confident assertions."
The Bible also teaches that there have been times in history when evil government and government employees have attempted, through force or color of law, to intimidate, harm or destroy the children of God’s people. (Exodus 1 and 2 and Matthew 2).
Exodus 1-2 describe the enslavement of the Israelites by the Egyptians (for purposes of this post, we'll accept the events as accurate, though there is considerable historical scholarship to suggest that many of the events in Exodus are not exactly true). Matthew 2 tells the account of how a ruler, after hearing a prophecy he doesn't like, attempts to avert fate by slaughtering all of the male children in Bethlehem. This shares similarities with a number of other ancient stories, perhaps most notably those of Oedipus and Krishna. By citing these passages from the Bible, Ms. Tocco equates vaccination with slavery and infanticide.
The Bible teaches that the body is “The temple of the Holy Ghost which is in you, which ye have of God, and ye are not your own. For ye are bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body, and in your spirit, which are God’s.” (1 Corinthians 6:19-20)
The cited passage actually applies to sexual purity, insofar as Paul writes to the church in Corinth that getting down and dirty with a prostitute is a sin, because in such acts, your body becomes one with the prostitute. At any rate, expanding this beyond the limited context of Paul's letter, if one's body belongs to God and not to one's self, then eschewing vaccines is poor stewardship of the body, as it leaves one susceptible to dangerous diseases and the havoc they can wreak on one's health. Ms. Tocco's contention that vaccines violate this principle come from her lie that vaccines contain "known neurotoxins". This presumably refers to aluminum adjuvants or thimerosal (which is partly metabolized into ethylmercury). For something to be neurotoxic, it must be able to get to the brain or nerves at sufficiently high levels to actually cause damage. While large amounts of aluminum and mercury can cause damage to neural tissues, no vaccine even approaches these amounts. In fact, with regard to mercury, all childhood vaccines are available with either zero thimerosal (e.g., all "live" virus vaccines, such as MMR or varicella) or, at most, only trace amounts left over from the manufacturing process.
The Bible teaches that there are clean and unclean animals and that God’s people are not to put the unclean into their bodies. Many vaccines are made from the blood of diseased animals, decomposed animal parts and are not sterile.
This has to be one of the most absurd statements in Ms. Tocco's entire post. Like before, she is trying to play on people's aversion and squeamishness around disease and death. Of course, vaccines are not made of decomposed (i.e., rotting) animal parts any more than the aforementioned OJ is made of rotting oranges. And vaccines are most certainly sterile. If they weren't, we'd be seeing a lot more adverse reactions due to contaminating bacteria, fungi and other nasty stuff not supposed to be there. The basis of her "vaccines are unclean" is Deuteronomy 14, which lists which foods are ritually clean (and thus safe to eat) and those which are ritually unclean (and are therefore an abomination to eat). This is purely about diet, not immunization. Although, I have to wonder if Ms. Tocco eats any pork or shellfish (or other non-piscean seafood). And, since she's so intent on following Biblical laws, I must assume that she also supports the stoning of rebellious kids (Deut. 21:18-21), the stoning to death of rape victims who are engaged to be married (Deut. 22:23-24) or forcing unwed women to marry their rapists (Deut. 22:25-27). I think you should be getting some idea of why selectively quoting the Bible as justification for your beliefs is a risky proposition.
The Bible teaches that when man’s law contradicts God’s law, His people must obey God over man. (Acts 5:29) [snip]
The Bible teaches us that we are not to harm or wrong our neighbor. (Romans 13:10 and James 2:8)
Although Acts 5 has the apostles declaring that they must follow God's law (in teaching about Jesus) rather than the laws or dictates of the Pharisees, Romans 13 states otherwise (Ms. Tocco apparently didn't read verses 1-7):
Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God's servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God's wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God's wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.
So, while she argues on the one hand that people should follow God's law, she argues on the other that people should not follow God's law. She really needs to make up her mind about this. At any rate, her reason for citing Romans 13:10 and James 2:8 is to say that we shouldn't harm those around us. Her reasoning, though, falls prey to the Nirvana fallacy:
If vaccines were truly effective, the neighbor would not be in danger from someone who is not vaccinated.
She seems to think that those supporting vaccines claim that vaccines are 100% effective. Due to the complexity and variety of people, however, they aren't. Many come very close (e.g., MMR is about 99% or more effective for measles after two doses). Others are less effective, being about 80%-90% effective (e.g., pertussis vaccine). The effect, then, is that there will be some people who are vaccinated who will, nonetheless, be susceptible to infection from those who, having chosen not to vaccinate, become infected and spread the illness, as in the various measles outbreaks that have occurred over the last several years (e.g., Minnesota and Indiana). But let's assume, for a moment, that vaccines were all 100% effective. Ms. Tocco apparently cares nothing for those others who, like her, refuse vaccines and whose health is thus threatened by others who have not immunized. She also does not seem to care about those who cannot be vaccinated because they are too young or are suffer from severe illness. While she did not intend it, her citation of Romans 13:10 and James 2:8 actually undermines her argument and condemns her.

By picking and choosing Biblical citations in an attempt to argue religious reasons not to vaccinate, Mary Tocco achieves only bad argumentation and worse religion. There is no sound Biblical justification to refuse immunization. But, as I'm personally not a Biblical scholar (much like Ms. Tocco herself), I thought I'd see what the official doctrines were for the major U.S. religions, including differences between denominations. Where I could not find official policies or references available online, I sent emails to representatives of these organizations. We've already seen that the Catholic church supports vaccination. The Presbyterian Church does not have any objections to vaccinations, and in fact supports them, according to their Social Witness Policy Compilation, Chapter 11, Children and Youth, 1991 statement:
3. Calls on the church and its members at all levels to advocate and support the development and implementation of public and private policies for the needs and rights of children, built on a prevention/investment strategy aimed at meeting the needs of all children and families for adequate health care (including immunizations, prenatal care, and nutrition), adequate and safe housing, quality child care and education, and protection from abuse and exploitation.
The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America urges that:
As citizens, we ought to support those disease-preventing and health-promoting public health measures that can be taken only at community, state, and national levels. We also have responsibility to support similar efforts that address disease prevention, health promotion, and treatment on a global scale.
The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (PDF) also holds vaccination in a positive light, calling it a "blessing of science" and a "wonderful achievement". American Baptist Churches (PDF) views vaccines as a form of preventive medicine that should be practiced. The United Methodist Church supports disease prevention through vaccines; and even the Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses (but see also here) support vaccination. Likewise, Islam strongly supports vaccination. The Central Conference of American Rabbis of Reform Judaism concludes that vaccines are not only acceptable, but are also an obligation. The more conservative Rabbinical Assembly (PDF) supports vaccines, going so far as to state (emphasis added):
Failure to immunize children against vaccine-preventable disease is a serious, compound violation of Jewish Law: there is no basis in Halakhah to support a parent’s request for a religious exemption from state-mandated immunizations.
There is no religious basis, at least in the three dominant religions in the U.S. and their various sects, to refuse immunization. And when it comes to interpreting the Old Testament, I think I'll bow to the wisdom of those who make it their purpose in life to study it: the rabbis. Just as before, Mary Tocco is wrong.

1 comment:

  1. I'll have to confess (hehehehe) that I didn't read your whole post. I didn't read it because I get a little "hot under the collar" when I read about people misusing religious texts to their advantage. The biggest thing that should be pointed out to people like Ms. Tocco is that we, Christians, (if she is one) do not live by the rules of the Old Testament anymore. We live by the New Testament, namely, the word of Christ. Is she still offering sacrificial lambs to Yaweh?

    Like you pointed out, a lot of her statements regarding the Bible are totally out of context. Thank you for placing them where they belong.


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