Religious Liberty and Medicine

[Editor's note.  Fulcrum7 is not taking a position on vaccinations by allowing this article to be viewed and discussed.] 

When medicine and faith collide the results are not pretty. 

For example, in 2013, 9-year-old Sarah Hershberger was diagnosed with childhood leukemia.  She was originally given a course of chemotherapy, which sapped her energy and made her sick.  Seeing the conventional treatment was killing their daughter, her parents objected.  Being Amish and having a long tradition of using natural remedies, the Hershbergers opted to try them instead, especially since chemotherapy did not seem effective or tolerable.  While most Amish eschew modern technology they do not always resist medical advances in surgery, drugs, or even cancer treatment.

Since Sarah was a minor, the hospital and the oncology team immediately interposed to remove her parents’ authority to make medical decisions.  As the case proceeded to court, the attorney for the Hershbergers argued that, as a matter of religious conscience, the Amish parents should be allowed to render treatment to their child as they saw fit.  On the other side, the hospital and the state argued that the parents have no right to dictate the care of their child when she has cancer.  Additionally, oncologists opined that little Sarah would die within a year if she did not continue with the chemo.  Moreover, the treatment which she was currently on was allegedly 85% effective.  The judge sided with the hospital and forced the parents to return their daughter to the care of the hospital and the state.

Rather than surrender their child into the hands of the hospital, they fled as fugitives to Mexico in the hopes of treating her cancer by non-toxic means.  After about two years of treatment, Sarah returned to the United States with diagnostic studies indicating her leukemia to be in remission.  Despite Sarah being cancer-free,  the family was warned by a judge that the hospital and the state may still choose to make the young girl—now 12-years-old—submit to chemo to prevent the cancer from returning.[i]

This kind of case should deeply move all Christians, especially those who believe in natural remedies and lifestyle to prevent and reverse disease.  This case highlights just how weak religious freedom is in the face of the medico-pharmacological state.  Unfortunately, when it comes to modern medicine, many Christians feel this is where religious freedom rightly ends. Whether it is compulsory vaccination or conventional treatment of cancer for children, Christians, who otherwise stand for religious freedom, often become silent.

Things used to be different in the United States in regard to liberty and medicine.  In 1894, a judge, commenting on the compulsory measures of the medico-pharmacological police state and the individual conscience, wrote:

“Under English and American law [an individual] could not be compelled by force to submit to vaccination any more than to swallow a dose….There was more to be feared from the exercise of arbitrary power than from all of the contaigeous [sic] diseases combined.”

Forced Vaccination

Today, particularly in the case of vaccination, a growing number of parents are choosing to exercise their religious convictions to decline vaccination for their children.  In response, religious organizations and states—like California—have pushed back.  On June 30, 2015, the state legislature of California passed a law eliminating the religious and philosophical exemptions to mandatory vaccination for children attending public or private school.[ii] Other states have tried to pass such legislation but have been unsuccessful so far.  The idea is that the state knows what is best for a child and this is where parental authority appropriately ends. Without question there are parents who shirk their responsibility and neglect their children.  It is equally true that some parents abuse and harm their children intentionally.  However, equating these reprehensible actions with refusing vaccines is precarious.

Medical paternalism has a sordid past.  History tells us that medical wisdom once scoffed at hand washing, prescribed mercury for every condition under the sun, and defended the practice of blood letting.  In the case of vaccination, populations were compelled to submit to the unsanitary arm-to-arm procedure.  Arm-to-arm vaccination is where pus from one arm recently jabbed was sandwiched upon the arm of another freshly abraded. This procedure alone was the cause for one of the worse outbreaks of syphilis in Italy and a massive outbreak leprosy in India.[iii]  More egregiously, medical doctors throughout history persecuted other sects of medicine which disagreed with vaccination and promoted natural remedies.

Unfortunately, any indictment today, concerning the unjust nature of compulsory vaccination, is often met with an appeal to vaccine “safety” and “efficacy,” with “herd immunity.”  It is as if the notion that vaccine safety and efficacy is legitimate moral and political justification to deprive men and women of religious and personal freedom.

It is important to note that, despite all the fanfare in favor of vaccination as the savior from disease, there are very serious problems with it.  Most Americans are unaware of a government program which compensates families whose children were injured from vaccines  by a  court system run by the  U.S. Department of Health and Humans Services (HHS).[iv] This program shields drug manufacturers from liability by forcing plaintiffs to sue the government and prove their child’s injuries were the result of vaccination.  If the plaintiff is successful, damages are paid from taxes on vaccines.  This allows drug manufacturers to produce vaccines without fear of litigation even if their product kills, while at the same time keeping internal data of safety and efficacy out of the public eye.

The National Vaccination Compensation Injury  Program (NVCIP), which has paid out billions of dollars, began in 1986 in response to a number of successful lawsuits against drug manufacturers for death and neurological disorders resulting from the pertussis vaccine.  This was a hotly-contested debate.  On one hand, the CDC and vaccine producers did not want the public to lose confidence in immunizations.  On the other hand, doctors and parents were concerned for the safety of children.  During this crisis, one physician sardonically quipped “Before the sun goes down in New York state, a baby will be rushed to the emergency room in convulsions and will end up with a needle in its spinal cord because of this…vaccine.”[v] Ironically, knowledge of these dangers regarding the pertussis vaccine were well documented in the literature since the 1940s.[vi]

The dangerous nature of the pertussis vaccine was so well-known that many British parents declined it in the 1970s.  As a result, there were increases in the amount of notifications from patients diagnosed with the disease but, unexpectedly, there was a decrease in the number of deaths.[vii]  Additionally, this led to another observation—the children who generally die from pertussis infections are those who lived in economically-depressed and unsanitary conditions. G. T. Stewart, a medical professor and researcher, similarly observed:

“The truth which these harder data show is that pertussis vaccine is only about 50–60% effective and that about half of the child population in Britain is getting along quite well without it. The harsher truth which they evade altogether is that morbidity and death in this infection are associated far more strongly with susceptibilities which accrue from unfavorable living conditions than with low levels of vaccination.”[viii]

The point to be understood here is that when vaccination rates plummeted, due to substantiated fears of vaccine harm, there were fewer deaths despite the lack of compulsory vaccination and herd immunity.

This was not the first time, however, that such an event was observed.  In response to a strident outcry of concerned parents, members of parliament, and physicians, the compulsory small-pox vaccination laws of Great Britain were made of no effect.  From 1898 forward British citizens were allowed to opt out of small-pox vaccination based upon the individual conscience.[ix]  It seems counterintuitive, according to conventional wisdom, that small-pox deaths would decrease in England as vaccinations decreased, but this is precisely what happened.[x]  To be sure there is much more to be said about the history of vaccination, its efficacy, safety and the evolving concept of herd immunity, but time and space do not permit.

Nevertheless, it is important to point out that these concepts of vaccine efficacy, safety, and herd immunity are not above serious scientific scrutiny and should not be used as legitimate arguments to stymie the conscience.  However, this is what Christians do when they suggest that moral scruples toward vaccination must be sacrificed for the “health” of the “community.”[xi]  The General Conference of the Seventh-day Adventist Church—in its official statement on vaccination—goes further than inculcating “science” in support of vaccination, but asserts that the Bible and Ellen White affirm “herd immunity” and mandatory vaccination too.  And though the conference does not speak for the individual, they make it clear that any member who refuses is not in harmony with the doctrine or teachings of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.[xii]

The problem with this statement is that it minimizes religious freedom and overlooks serious objections to vaccination.  Some conscientious Christians refuse vaccines because a few contain aborted fetal cells.[xiii]  Others resist because substances like mercury, aluminum, and formaldehyde are toxic to the body and go against their understanding of the health message.[xiv]  Still others refuse because some vaccines contain animal matter which is banned in Leviticus 11.  Finally, some look at the risks involved and decide to place their faith in natural means, along with trust in God, to prevent disease.  Should all these concerns be abrogated to pay homage to conventional wisdom?

Ironically, in the early history of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, many church members regarded vaccines with skepticism and declined them.  Though others had no problem with vaccines, they regarded the encroachment upon religious freedom by the medical-pharmacological state as unfortunate and perplexing.[xv]

One does not have be against medicine and science to be pro-religious freedom, but sometimes individuals must draw a line in the sand and determine which of the two should have ascendency.  Nevertheless, we should not sweep the important questions of faith and medicine under the rug for fear of being a pariah.  Whether the issue is compulsory vaccinations or cancer treatment, we should discuss these issues looking for solutions that do not sear the conscience or alienate the believer.

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Timothy Perenich lives in Clearwater Florida with his wife and children.  Timothy is co-author of the book Vaccination, which was published in 2017.


[i] “New Chapter Begins For Amish Girl With Cancer,” CBS NEWS [website], October 9, 2015, accessed May 21, 2018, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/new-chapter-begins-for-amish-girl-with-cancer/.

[ii] “HSC 120325,” California Code, accessed May 21, 2018, http://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/codes_displaySection.xhtml?sectionNum=120325&lawCode=HSC.

[iii] Franco M. Buonaguro, Maria L. Tornesello, and Luigi Buonaguro, “The XIX Century Smallpox Prevention in Naples and the Risk of Transmission of Human Blood-Related Pathogens,” Journal of Translational Medicine 13 (2015): 33, doi:10.1186/s12967-015-0400-9.  A. W. Hitt, “Lepers of India,” The Present Truth 15, no. 38 (September 1899): 600.  

[iv] “Health Resources and Services Administration: Vaccine Injury Compensation Data,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, accessed May 21, 2018, https://www.hrsa.gov/vaccine-compensation/data/.

[v] “Toxic DPT Vaccine Threatens Children,” Sunday Democrat and Chronicle (Rochester, NY), March 8, 1987.

[vi] H. B. Grace, “Convulsions and Hemiplegia in Pertussis Prophylaxis,” Canadian Medical Association Journal 63 (August 1950): 129–131; J. Vahrmann, “Neurological Complication After Combined Diphtheria and Pertussis Immunization,” British Medical Journal 2 (September 9, 1950): 60–609; John M. Sutherland, “Encephalopathy Following Diphtheria-Pertussis Inoculation,” Archives of Disease in Childhood 28 (April 1953): 149–150; J. Wilson “Proceedings: Neurological Complications from DPT Inoculation in Infancy,” Archives of Diseases in Childhood 48 (October 1973): 829–830. This topic is treated with thorough detail in the book Vaccination: Biblical Revelation, Ellen G. White, History, and Science (Restoring the Right Hand Publications, 2017), 137–143.

[vii] T. M. Pollock, E. Miller, and J. Lobb, “Severity of Whooping Cough in England Before and After the Decline in Pertussis Immunisation,” Archives of Disease in Childhood 59 (1984): 162–165.  

[viii] G. T. Stewart, “Whooping Cough and Pertussis Vaccine: A Comparison of Risks and Benefits in Britain During the Period 1968–83,” Developmental Biological Standard 61 (1985): 395–405.  

[ix] E. P. Hennock, “Vaccination Policy Against Smallpox, 1835–1914: A Comparison of England with Prussia and Imperial Germany,” Social History of Medicine 11, no. 1 (April 1998): 49–71.  

[x] “Statistics of Small-pox and Vaccination,” The British Medical Journal 2 (July 3, 1897): 25–26. This article highlights a presentation made before the Royal Statistical Society by Alfred Milnes, M.A. who stated, “The statistics of vaccination and small-pox from 1872 onwards were then often cited to show that the greatest decline of small-pox had been coincident with the greatest amount of refusal to comply with the Vaccination Act.”

[xi] “Relation of Religion to Public Education,” Part III, Liberty 56, no. 1, January–February 1961, 25–26.  

[xii] General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, “Official Statement Guidelines: Immunization,” The Official Website of the Seventh-day Adventist World Church, March 2, 2015, accessed May 28, 2018, http://www.adventist.org/information/official-statements/guidelines/article/go/0/immunization/.  

[xiii] Helen V. Ratajczak, “Theoretical Aspects of Autism: Causes—A Review,” Journal of Immunotoxicology 8, no. 1 (2011): 68–79.

[xiv] “Vaccine Excipient & Media Summary,” CDC, January 6, 2017, https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/downloads/appendices/B/excipient-table-2.pdf; See also: “Vaccines, Blood, and Biologics,” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, updated March 29, 2018, https://www.fda.gov/BiologicsBloodVaccines/Vaccines/ApprovedProducts/ucm093833.htm.

[xv] This information has been thoroughly addressed in the book Vaccination: Biblical Revelation, Ellen G. White, History, and Science (Restoring the Right Hand Publications, 2017), 69–96. It can be found at www.restoringtherighthand.com.