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Bending your conscience to fit your opinion

Forty-five years ago Australia was participating in a war in Vietnam. Because the volunteer Army wasn't big enough, conscription was used to build up the numbers. On their twentieth birthday (a year before becoming eligible to vote) young men had to register. Every three months a ballot of birthdays in that quarter was held and men whose birthdays came out of the barrel could look forward to two years in uniform. If you missed out you were "deferred" not "absolved" and on at least one occasion the total number of men registered in a quarter was less than the Army needed, so people who had been previously deferred were given two weeks to get their affairs in order and get themselves down to the induction centre.

If someone was called up there were three legal ways to avoid doing the two years' service. (Hiding in Australia or another country was possible, but not legal. Not turning up triggered an automatic two-year gaol term, suspended until you were located.) These were rejection on medical grounds (and you had to have a serious medical problem), full-time university study (in a time of expensive university fees, the default option for the sons of the wealthy), and conscientious objection.

To gain exemption on conscientious grounds you had to argue your case before a magistrate, and you had to prove that you were an active member of a religious faith group that opposed war in all its forms. I was opposed to our involvement in the war and to conscription but I couldn't claim conscientious objection because I wasn't a churchgoer and in any case I had no objection to war in the abstract, just to this particular instance.

You might think that appearing in court with a letter from your minister, priest or pastor would be all you would need but you would be wrong. Your entire life could be examined for consistency with your pacifist claims. A friend of mine was the son of a Methodist minister, and the Methodists were at the forefront of the ant-war movement. He wasn't just any old parishioner either – he was studying full time to be a Methodist minister himself. His application for conscientious objection was denied and he spent two years in prison. His two brothers followed him shortly afterwards. Because he had chosen conscientious objection as his response to the callup he could not use his status as a full-time student as a fallback position, so his studies had to be put on hold until he was released. The reason that his application was rejected was that he had been in the cadets at high school, something that was as close to compulsory as any non-curricular activity could be, and this was seen by the magistrate as being inconsistent with claims of pacifism.

Fast forward a few decades and conscientious objection is back in the news, not against military service but against having children vaccinated.

Legislation across the various states of Australia has recently made it mandatory for vaccination status to be declared before children can be accepted into child care centres and some schools. Unvaccinated children can only be admitted if they have a legitimate reason for not being vaccinated. Medical reasons are obviously acceptable, as some children can have allergies to vaccine ingredients (such as egg in flu vaccines) or have suffered reactions in the past that cause their doctors to recommend caution.

The other reason is conscientious objection. Again, as for objection to war, the objector is supposed to base their objection on religious grounds. The parent gets a form signed by a doctor stating their objection and this form has the same weight as a medical exemption.

I should state at this point that I have no problem with sincerely-held religious beliefs, no matter how silly they might appear, unless those beliefs cause harm to others. Not vaccinating children exposes not only those children to harm but also the children (and adults) they come in contact with who might not be fully immunised for a variety of reasons (too young, immunocompromised, medical exemptions, …).

I would also not have a problem with conscientious objection if the rules now were the same as they were in 1969 – the objector has to support their objection in a court by reference to their religious affiliation and commitment – but now all someone has to do is claim that their religion forbids vaccination and get a compliant doctor to sign the form. Many doctors are refusing to sign conscientious objection forms because the religious evidence is not made available to them.

So which recognised religious groups in Australia are opposed to vaccination? It might be surprising, but the answer is "None of them". The obvious candidates would be Jehovah's Witnesses and Christian Scientists.

The Watchtower Society opposed vaccination in its early years, but in 1952 published the following statement on the matter:

"The matter of vaccination is one for the individual that has to face it to decide for himself … And our Society cannot afford to be drawn into the affair legally or take the responsibility for the way the case turns out."

So, joining the Witnesses doesn't get you out of vaccinating your children.

What about Christian Science?

"Christian Scientists prefer not to use doctors, medicine, or immunizations.  Christian Science Practitioners are used to help people through the false reality of illness"

So, like the Witnesses, the use of vaccines is not forbidden but is left up to the individual. This again does not validate the claim that the religion forbids vaccination. The US-based National Vaccine Information Center advises that Christian Science is an organisation "whose written tenets include prohibition of invasive medical procedures such as vaccination", but lying is what liars do.

One claim that surfaces regularly is that Catholics should not use vaccines because the ingredients include parts of aborted foetuses (a lie – some vaccines use a cell line in manufacture that is derived from a foetus legally aborted in the 1960s). In the early 2000s the Vatican was asked to rule on this, and after long consideration (a knee-jerk was expected) they published a statement which allowed Catholics to use these vaccines and which contained one of the best exhortations to vaccination I have ever seen:

"morally justified … due to the necessity to provide for the good of one's children and of the people who come in contact with the children"

Vaccination isn't just to protect the vaccinated – it's to protect everyone. The Australian Vaccination Network reported the Vatican's statement using the headline 'Vatican says, "Parents must oppose vaccines from human foetal remains"'. Lying is what liars do.

Attempts have been made to create fake religions which have no dogma except opposition to vaccines, but even the most rabid opponent of vaccines should be embarrassed by that. If they can experience embarrassment and shame, of course, which is itself problematical.

So how can you legitimately claim religious or conscientious objection to vaccination in Australia? Simple. You can't unless you lie, and most religions forbid that. While simultaneously allowing vaccination.

Copyright © 1998- Peter Bowditch

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