In December 2020, the COVID-19 vaccine was first administered in the United States and people finally began to feel a sense of hope. Now that it is being provided more widely, people are beginning to wonder if a national COVID-19 vaccine mandate is in store. If this were to become a reality, though, the majority of states may allow for religious exemptions from the vaccine, potentially threatening the widespread immunization necessary to put an end to this pandemic thus keeping many people at risk. In the case of a national COVID-19 vaccine mandate, religious exemptions must not be tolerated, as the vast majority have no basis in scripture, and the health of the country must be prioritized above the unjustified beliefs of a few.

As evidenced by a 2013 study, most major world religions have no explicit scripture or laws implying any opposition to vaccinations, the major religions being Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Jainism. These religions along with atheism, agnosticism and a lack of religious affiliation, cover nearly 99% of the U.S. population, so it makes little sense that any religious exemptions to vaccines could be sustained when the health of the country is at stake. Furthermore, both the Catholic Church and world Islamic leaders have openly endorsed the administration of vaccines, noting the health of many is a higher priority than the beliefs of few. But, in a perceived disagreement between religion and scientific teachings, the distribution of support is concerning. About 55% of those with religious affiliations would agree with their religious teachings over science — only 29% would agree with science instead. The fact that so many are willing to hold their beliefs above scientific evidence is, frankly, pretty scary.

If objections to vaccines on religious grounds are not generally rooted in religious scripture or promoted by leaders, where do they come from? Most are largely related to either the ethical dilemma of receiving vaccines made from human cell tissue or the belief that the body is sacred, should not absorb certain chemicals and should be healed by G-d or natural means. 

As far as the first objection goes, it primarily applies to vaccines that use the HEK-293 and HeLa cell lines. The former comes from the tissue of a fetus electively aborted in 1973, and the latter comes from the cervical tissue of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman who was diagnosed with cervical cancer in the mid-twentieth century. Both cases create ethical dilemmas — vaccines using the HEK-293 cell line may be objectionable to those religiously opposed to abortion, and vaccines using the HeLa cell line are morally questionable because Henrietta Lacks’s tissue was taken and developed nonconsensually. 

However, these ethical concerns do not apply to the primary COVID-19 vaccines in circulation. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are both developed with chemical, not biological, synthesis so they do not contain any human cell tissue. While the moral concerns regarding the HEK-293 and HeLa cell raise compelling points that should be explored and developed, they do not pertain to the COVID-19 vaccine, which must be administered widely and urgently.

As far as the objection relating to the sanctity of the human body goes, it has no grounds in scripture or religious laws, as previously stated.

Suppose you’re standing in front of a crowd of 100 people, and you’re offered a mysterious liquid. You are told truthfully that the liquid is not dangerous to your health or well-being, but it doesn’t taste very good and you don’t know exactly what’s in it. If you do not drink the liquid, all 100 people will be forced to eat a cookie that could potentially kill them or cause them great harm. If you do drink the liquid, 35 of the 100 people will be forced to eat the cookie. What do you do?

My assumption is that most would drink the liquid, despite it being unappetizing and unknown. Similarly, most do not know what goes into a vaccine, and some minimal negative consequences, such as chills, tiredness and joint pain, can result from receiving one. But, when drinking that metaphorical liquid has the potential to save a significant number of people (studies have shown that one dose of the main COVID-19 vaccines may offer 50-80% protection against symptomatic COVID-19), an individual’s own perceived sacredness of their body matters little. 

Anyone who uses their religion to get out of a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available has no solid grounds on which to argue. The majority of religions practiced in the U.S. have no indication of opposition to vaccines. There are no constitutional obligations to allow people to opt out of a vaccine if receiving it would have a significant positive impact on national health. Ethically, it makes the most sense to be administered the vaccine. So, in the case of a national COVID-19 vaccination mandate, religious exemptions must not be sustained because, by nature, they aren’t religious at all.

Ilana Mermelstein can be reached at imerm@umich.edu

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