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Faith & Reason:
Subject: Faith & Reason: The MMR debate is about ethics as well as evidence
Mon, 3 Sep 2001 17:41:57 -0700
EXCELLENT - sent by Ray Gallup!

(who is still opposed to any vaccine - single or combo and doesn't want the 'the state' interferring with our lives)
The Independent 1/9/01
Faith and Reason: The MMR debate is about ethics as well as evidence."

An excellent piece by Paul Vallely

Faith & Reason: The MMR debate is about ethics as well as evidence

The Independent - United Kingdom, Sep 1, 2001

WHEN CONFLICT occurs between evidence and assertion, there is often an ethical issue lurking. The growing controversy over the safety of the triple vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella is a case in point. Once again it touches on the relationship of the individual and the state, which has preoccupied political thinkers since Plato, and on the question of the common good, which has exercised theologians since Thomas Aquinas.

The controversy over the safety of the MMR is essentially one about evidence. But an increasingly emotional tone has entered the debate in recent months. In part that has come from parents worried about their precious offspring. But mainly it has comes from spokesmen of the health establishment who, when challenged on the detail of surveys on the triple vaccine, respond only by repeating the dogmatic statement that the MMR is safe. And their bald assertions are reiterated in an increasingly hectoring tone which is beginning to take on a slightly hysterical edge.

What all this disguises is a judgement which it would be more honest to articulate. It is a calculus of benefit against risk. The medical establishment has decided that, in practical terms, a small risk for individuals is for a far greater general good. Hesitant parents are therefore brow-beaten with the argument that it is irresponsible of them to allow their child to be a free rider on the herd immunity of those children who have undergone the risk. Parents have a duty to the common good to ensure that their children are vaccinated.

Yet whether or not most girls individually benefit from the mumps vaccine - and most boys from the rubella jab - is rarely discussed. Mumps is most dangerous to adolescent males who can be made sterile by the disease. Rubella can fatally affect the development of a foetus if the disease is caught by a pregnant woman. Children are thus vaccinated primarily for the benefit of the adults around them, creating a herd immunity from which, if it continues, they too will eventually benefit.

There is clearly a history of acceptance of this utilitarian principle. It is enshrined in Plato's suggestion that the goal of the state ought to be "the greatest possible happiness of the city as a whole and not that of any one class". It is hinted at, too, in St Augustine's idea of "the advantageousness, the common participation in which makes a people". These were the two great traditions of western culture - philosophical and theological - which the medieval thinker Thomas Aquinas synthesised into the notion of the common good, subordinating the good of the individual to that of the community.

This principle still lies behind provisions such as that in the Children Act which states that parents are not the best judge of what is in the interests of their children; the state is. Judges are empowered to disregard parental wishes, as in the case of a child of Jehovah's Witnesses whom the courts decide must have a blood transfusion.

Yet in such a case there is no dispute about the facts. What is in conflict is two cultural positions. Jehovah's Witnesses insist that God does not like blood transfusions. By contrast the mainstream culture asserts that God - though it will employ non-religious language - actually requires them.

But the MMR is not, despite the heated language of the medical propagandists, a clash of cultures or of faith statements. By giving compensation payments to at least three vaccine-damaged children the government has acknowledged that the MMR does carry risk, even if it is statistically an infinitesimal one. So what is the moral basis for eschewing a precautionary approach here, even if the risk is minute? Parents who are told they cannot opt for single jabs are being treated as if they were rare eccentrics involved with a clash of faith rather than normal sane citizens with unanswered questions about the validity of certain empirical evidence. (That is why comparisons with compulsory laws on crash helmets or seat belts are specious here).

The gospels offer an interesting insight on this question of the sacrifice of the individual for the group. In deciding that Jesus must die the high priest pronounces that: "It is expedient that one man should die for the benefit of the people." Jesus himself has previously seemed to agree in saying that no-one could show greater love than one who lays down his life for his friends. Yet there is a key distinction. For sacrifice is not the same as self-sacrifice. The moral agency is entirely different. Which is why the Church subsequently refined Aquinas's thinking to insist that the common good must also encompass respect for the rights of the individual, which cannot be over-ruled by the dictatorship of the majority.

Since most parents evidently feel a greater duty to their child even than to themselves there is clearly an ethical minefield hidden in some of the assumptions which underlie vaccine chiefs' calculations. For unarticulated within them are not just suppositions that it is acceptable for the individual to suffer for the immunity of the herd. They also appear to reinforce the doctrine that parents are just surrogates for the state with respect to child care, and what the state gives the state can take away.

There are fundamental moral objections to all this. If the government's medical mouthpieces were honest, we should see more clearly why they are wrong. That is why they prefer simply to shout louder.

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Sheri Nakken, R.N., MA
Vaccination Information & Choice Network, Nevada City CA & UK
530-740-0561 Voicemail in US
     "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil  is that good men (&
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