Mary Doyle RocheMay 24, 2021
Rafael Maeder Moreira, 12, rubs his arm after receiving the Covid-19 vaccine at the Annenberg Foundation in Los Angeles on May 13. (CNS photo/Lucy Nicholson, Reuters)Rafael Maeder Moreira, 12, rubs his arm after receiving the Covid-19 vaccine at the Annenberg Foundation in Los Angeles on May 13. (CNS photo/Lucy Nicholson, Reuters)

Questions about whether to vaccinate children against Covid-19 and require vaccination for in-school attendance should be understood against the backdrop of previous vaccination controversies, as well as the overall context of making preventative health care decisions on behalf of children.

There are pockets of resistance to childhood vaccination in general in the United States, with some parents claiming a personal belief exemption from school requirements. Some of that resistance is fueled by now-debunked theories about the potential side effects of the early childhood vaccination regimen. But some parents simply opt for what they argue is a more natural approach, looking at illnesses like measles, mumps and chickenpox as natural rites of passage in childhood. These parents make decisions about vaccination based on the assumption that children, or at least their children, can recover from these illnesses without lasting effects or damage.

Some parents make decisions about vaccination based on the assumption that children, or at least their children, can recover from illnesses without lasting effects or damage.

There are moral and ethical concerns about Covid-19 vaccines, including urgent issues with regard to distribution and universal access. There is also the question of ethical conduct in research, and some clergy have focused on Johnson & Johnson’s use of fetal cell lines to develop a vaccine that is potentially much easier than others to distribute. This is not the first time that clergy members have weighed in about vaccination. Several issued statements when a vaccine for the HPV virus, the virus that causes cervical cancer, became available in 2006. They asserted that parents should have considerable autonomy over decisions regarding their children and questioned whether vaccination for a sexually transmitted virus would send the wrong signal to young people about having sex before marriage. And many parents do assume that their adolescent children are not sexually active, or sexually active with partners who might carry a virus.

Health care for children and young people has been compromised in other cases involving issues of sexual activity or drug use. Prohibitions against condoms and needle exchanges to prevent the spread of H.I.V. are perhaps the most striking examples. Some Catholic leaders also continue to tout harmful conversion “therapies” for L.G.B.T.Q. persons, obstruct access to transgender medicine and, as recently reported by the National Catholic Reporter, lobby against resources for suicide prevention extended to L.G.B.T.Q. young people in spite of that population’s tragic rates of mental illness. Some continue to promote abstinence-only sex education or avoid the topic in academic curricula altogether. There are also Catholic parents and schools who continue to hype a sports culture that may place children at risk for serious injury. Some Catholics adopt these positions in spite of a tradition of moral reasoning that encourages key roles for experience and evidence in decision-making.

Am I asking other parents and children to bear a risk—however slight, in the case of getting a Covid vaccine—that I am unwilling to take?

The point is that children take risks of varying degrees all of the time, and parents and schools make decisions that can increase risk in one way or another. The issue is how to assess the risks and burdens of our decisions against the benefits. Whether adults are making decisions about vaccination, youth sports, mental health counseling, sexual health, accompanying a gender nonconforming child or encouraging social justice activism, we should ask the following questions and answer them as honestly as possible.

Am I asking other parents and children to bear a risk—however slight, in the case of getting a Covid vaccine—that I am unwilling to take? For example, if I am unsure about the Covid vaccines and yet want my children to attend school, sports or other activities, am I relying on the herd immunity provided by other vaccinated children? (Note that hundreds of children over the age of two years have participated in the clinical trials for the Covid-19 vaccine that provide evidence for F.D.A. approval.)

Am I imposing risk on other children, whose underlying health conditions might be cause for much greater concern—if, in this case, they become infected with Covid-19? Do my choices increase the risk of illness or harm to my child or to other children? Can I be specific about the goal I hope to achieve in taking this risk and why it is worth it?

Am I really listening to my children and how they might be struggling? How do I encourage their self-care? How can I respond faithfully to whatever trust I enjoy with them?

To whom do I turn for guidance in this decision? This does not mean simply listening to those who agree with me; I can learn from those who share important values, make wise judgments based on the evidence and will tell me truths I may not want to hear. For example, if I have entrusted my children’s health to a pediatrician in the past, how might they guide me in this decision?

How can my family live in more practical solidarity with other parents and families, especially those who have much less control over the risks they face? How can I build intergenerational solidarity in my family and community? That is to say, how can my decisions honor the interdependence of young and old and also embody the reciprocity we owe one another?

The Catholic Church advocates for parents to have considerable autonomy over decisions that impact their children. In practice, this support tends to mean that parents have the freedom to follow the church’s teaching when asked to comply with government mandates, especially around the education of their children (see, again, sex education and HPV vaccination).

At its heart though, the church teaches everyone to inform and follow their conscience by consulting reliable information, seeking out the wisdom of prudential people and bringing all of this to prayer. In the case of vaccination for children, this means listening to doctors, scientists and those who have a track record of promoting the well-being of children, And it means placing trust in the one who said, “Let the children come.”

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