As COVID-19 cases pop up across the globe, scientists and health officials are scrambling to create a new coronavirus vaccine. Will religious communities take advantage of their work if they succeed?
Few faith groups formally condemn vaccinations, but that hasn’t stopped many parents from claiming religious exemptions to vaccine requirements. Such exemptions are available in 45 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
However, amid a recent surge in measles cases, policymakers in several countries and states have moved to reduce access to vaccine exemptions.
In 2019, legislators in New York and Maine eliminated religious and personal belief exemptions to vaccine requirements and Washington stopped allowing families to cite personal beliefs to avoid the measles vaccine. Several more states debated and continue to debate similar changes.
The lawmakers behind these policy shifts and proposals have faced stiff pushback from many community members, including some religious leaders. This edition of ReligionLink explores surrounding debates, highlighting 18 experts on the relationship between vaccines and religion.
- Read “More Americans now see ‘very high’ preventive health benefits from measles vaccine” from Pew Research Center on Jan. 7, 2020.
- The survey showed that 16% of U.S. adults, including 20% of white evangelical Protestants, 11% of white mainline Protestants, 25% of black Protestants, 13% of Catholics and 20% of Americans who say they’re “nothing in particular,” believe parents should be able to decide not to vaccinate their children even if it puts others at risk.
- Read “States with religious and philosophical exemptions from school immunization requirements” from the National Conference of State Legislatures, a legislation guide that was last updated on Jan. 3, 2020.
- All 50 states mandate certain vaccines for students, but each offers some form of medical exemption. Additionally, 45 states allow for religious exemptions and 15 grant philosophical exemptions.
- Read “Measles cases and outbreaks” from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a dataset that was last updated in January 2020.
- In 2019, there were 1,282 cases of measles in 31 states, which was the highest number of annual cases since 1992.
- Read “Amid measles outbreak, New York closes religious exemption for vaccinations, but most states retain it” from Pew Research Center on June 28, 2019.
- California, Maine, Mississippi, New York and West Virginia offer no nonmedical exemptions to vaccine requirements.
- Read “Anti-vaccine parents pull all-nighter in protesting vaccination bill” from the Hartford Courant on Feb. 20, 2020.
- Listen to “The History of Vaccines and Religion” from the “Charting Pediatrics” podcast on Jan. 14, 2020.
- Read “Bill to end religious exemptions for vaccinations collapses in N.J.” from The New York Times on Jan. 13, 2020.
- Read “The global crackdown on parents who refuse vaccines for their kids is on” from Vox on Nov. 15, 2019.
- Listen to “Peter Hotez, MD, PhD: Physician-Scientist, Pediatrician, Advocate” from the “Charting Pediatrics” podcast on Nov. 12, 2019.
- Listen to “Global attitudes towards vaccines” from BBC World Service’s “Discovery” podcast on June 24, 2019.
- Read “Religion and vaccine refusal are linked. We have to talk about it” from Vox on June 19, 2019.
- Read “Eager to limit exemptions to vaccinations, states face staunch resistance” from The New York Times on June 14, 2019.
- Read “New York ends religious exemptions for required vaccines” from NPR on June 13, 2019.
- Read “Maine bars residents from opting out of immunizations for religious or philosophical reasons” from CNN on May 27, 2019.
- Read “Measles can be contained. Anti-Semitism cannot” from The Atlantic on May 25, 2019.
- Listen to “The ‘anti-vaxx’ controversy” from the “Legal Spirits” podcast on May 16, 2019.
- Read “States seek to cut off religious exemptions for vaccination” from The Associated Press on May 6, 2019.
- Read “Scientists thought they had measles cornered. They were wrong” from The New York Times on April 3, 2019.
- Read “Here’s where major religions actually stand on vaccines” from HuffPost on March 31, 2017.
Ellen Wright Clayton is a professor of pediatrics, law and health policy at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. She also holds an appointment in the university’s Center for Biomedical Ethics and Society. She has advised numerous federal and international bodies on topics including children’s health and the ethics of research involving human subjects.
James Colgrove is a professor of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University. He is the author of State of Immunity: The Politics of Vaccination in Twentieth-Century America.
Sue Collins is a co-founder of the New Jersey Coalition for Vaccination Choice. She helped defeat the New Jersey Legislature’s effort to end religious exemptions to vaccine requirements. Arrange an interview through the coalition’s contact form.
Farr Curlin is a professor of medical humanities at Duke Divinity School. He’s also a hospice and palliative care physician. Curlin studies the role religion plays in a doctor’s clinical decisions and the relationship between religion and medicine more broadly.
Dr. Aaron Glatt is chairman of the department of medicine and chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau Hospital in Oceanside, New York. He has urged members of the Jewish community to get vaccinated in columns and interviews, arguing against the idea that vaccines violate Jewish teaching.
John Grabenstein is the associate director for scientific communications for the Immunization Action Coalition. He is the author of a 2013 review of religious teachings related to vaccines.
Paul Harris is a Republican representative in the Washington House of Representatives. He sponsored the 2019 legislation ending the personal belief exemption to the state MMR vaccine requirement. Contact Kent Livingston to arrange an interview.
Marie T. Hilliard is a senior fellow with the National Catholic Bioethics Center, where she also serves as director of bioethics and public policy. The center offers a resource guide on Catholicism and the use of vaccines.
Peter Hotez is dean of the National School of Tropical Medicine at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He worked on research teams that developed vaccines for hookworm, schistosomiasis and SARS. Hotez is also the author of Vaccines Did Not Cause Rachel’s Autism: My Journey as a Vaccine Scientist, Pediatrician and Autism Dad.
Brad Hoylman is a Democratic state senator in New York. He sponsored the 2019 legislation that eliminated nonmedical exemptions to school vaccine requirements. Arrange an interview through Avi Small.
Mark Movsesian directs the Center for Law and Religion at St. John’s University, where he also teaches contract law. He co-hosts the “Legal Spirits” podcast on law and religion, which covered the “anti-vaxx” movement in 2019.
Avi Schnall directs Agudath Israel of America’s New Jersey office. He spoke out against ending religious exemptions to vaccines when the issue was before the New Jersey Legislature.
Ryan Tipping is a Democratic representative in the Maine House of Representatives. He sponsored the 2019 legislation that ended nonmedical vaccine exemptions.
Josh Williams is an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Colorado School of Medicine. He researches how religion influences people’s views on vaccines.
Roberto Burioni is a professor of microbiology and virology at San Raffaele University in Milan, Italy. He helps lead online campaigns to educate Italian families about vaccine science.
Susan Close is the state Labor Party member for Port Adelaide in the South Australian Parliament. She previously served as South Australia’s minister for education and child development and oversaw the passage of a 2017 law banning unvaccinated children from enrolling in preschools and child care centers.
Heidi Larson directs the Vaccine Confidence Project at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, where she also teaches anthropology. She previously served as head of global immunization communication for UNICEF.
Rabbi Yakov Litzman is Israel’s deputy minister of health. Vaccinations aren’t mandatory in Israel, but Litzman has expressed support for changing that in recent years.