Leading Article: No immunity from responsibility

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The Independent Online
Most people will be mystified by Father Leo Chamberlain's decision to withhold vaccination against rubella from boys at Ampleforth College. When they discover that his reason for doing so is that the vaccine cultures were derived three decades ago from an aborted foetus, many will also be contemptuous. But the case of the Ampleforth headmaster raises interesting issues not only of morality, but also of public policy.

The argument for Fr Chamberlain's position must be that it is wrong to derive benefit from an immoral action, no matter how far removed the benefit is from the action. But many Catholic theologians doubt how to apply this principle to the rubella issue. Some say that since the foetus in question was aborted to save the life of the mother, the church would not have objected.

What is more, Fr Chamberlain's view that parents may administer the vaccine to his pupils' sisters shows a recognition that morality alone cannot decide the matter. The underlying reality is that vaccination against rubella has saved, and will probably continue to save, many lives. Although the illness poses less danger to teenage boys than to pregnant women and their unborn children, there is always a risk that unvaccinated Ampleforth pupils may unwittingly transmit the virus. The school may also be making more abortions necessary, by increasing the number of unborn children exposed to rubella by the same route.

Legally, of course, the school's headmaster is entitled to pull Ampleforth boys out of the public vaccination programme. One point alone, though, ought to convince him that he has made a mistake. Whatever his arguments, there is a risk that the publicity surrounding his letter will do great harm to the broader immunisation programme, as less informed people decide to deny their children protection for the wrong reasons. Experience suggests that stirring up controversy over immunisation costs lives. Responsible teachers and churchmen should avoid doing so.