COVID vaccines at Notre Dame
Letter to the Editor | Tuesday, April 27, 2021
On April 7, Notre Dame’s President Fr. John Jenkins announced that the University’s “goal for the fall semester will be to have as many members of the campus community vaccinated as possible, thereby reducing the risk of infection on campus and in the local community.” This is a laudable aim and we support it. As the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) wrote in a “Note” which Pope Francis ordered to be published: “In the absence of other means to stop or even prevent the epidemic, the common good may recommend vaccination, especially to protect the weakest and most exposed.”
The main point of that “Note” was to consider potential moral objections to vaccines that were developed from a cell line recovered decades ago from an aborted fetus. The “Note” concluded that, “when ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines are not available, it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.” Notre Dame’s announced “goal” builds upon this Church teaching.
Of course, “as many…as possible” in this context is not a matter of available raw materials — needles, vaccines, medical personnel. Notre Dame has already shown that it can muster as many of those resources as it could possibly use. What’s “possible” here rather has to do with moral constraints, especially the obligation to respect each person’s right to make their own healthcare decisions, to freely act upon their conscientious convictions and what is genuinely fair to everyone concerned.
The CDF concluded that persons may — not must — get vaccinated. “[P]ractical reason makes evident that vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary.” This is the moral norm governing all medical treatment, as anyone eighteen or over who has been to the doctor well knows: it must be truly consensual. This principle of self-determination is especially salient in the present circumstance. One reason is that all of the vaccines on offer have been approved only for “emergency use” by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA); that is, they are still experimental. Participants in a medical experiment should be volunteers, even in a public health crisis such as that presented by the coronavirus. Indeed, especially then, because the pressures of the moment, shifting and almost always invariably incomplete data, and a certain panic could conspire to make even basic moral constraints seem dispensable.
Besides, several thousand Notre Dame students have already tested positive for the coronavirus. They are naturally immune to the disease and have no need for the vaccine (No one knows for sure how long this natural immunity lasts, just as no one knows for sure how long the vaccine works). Notre Dame’s experience thus far confirms too what all the science indicates, namely, that college-age students who test positive rarely experience severe symptoms. Many are entirely asymptomatic. The Notre Dashboard, for example, reports no hospitalizations so far for COVID-19 pneumonia.
Many Notre Dame students will thus reasonably judge that they risk more from the vaccine than they do from the coronavirus, especially since the vaccines would protect them only from the severe symptoms (or death) that are scarcely real risks for them. In fact, for a low-risk person like the typical Notre Dame student, the chance of a severe reaction to the vaccine is several times higher than the chance of having one after contracting COVID. Notre Dame should respect these students’ voluntary choices.
Doing so would not be unfair to others in the campus community. The vaccines work principally by preventing anyone vaccinated from incurring serious illness, and death. The unvaccinated thus pose no appreciable risk to those students who do choose to get vaccinated, for they (the vaccinated) would be protected by dint of their own choices. Any additional risk here should be regarded by both sets of people as negligible (certainly against the background of risks imposed and accepted — in many situations asymmetrically — by participating in sports, driving and other ordinary incidents of campus life).
The unvaccinated obviously put themselves at risk of contracting the disease and of then transmitting it to other unvaccinated people. But all those at Notre Dame who decline the vaccine would understand, and accept, that risk.
The common good of our campus community would be fully served, moreover, if a sufficient number of students is either vaccinated or naturally immune, to obtain “herd immunity.” No one knows for sure what that percentage is for COVID, and it will vary depending upon the relevant population. In other words, a community comprised of the frail elderly would have to achieve a much higher percentage of immune persons than would, say, a community comprised of several thousand college students, to achieve “herd immunity.” That latter percentage is quite possibly fewer than two-thirds. Given that thousands of Notre Dame students already possess natural immunity, the number of vaccinations required to achieve “herd immunity” is certainly compatible with making vaccination truly voluntary. That goal is not imperiled by making student vaccinations truly voluntary.
Fr. Jenkins announced that the University would accommodate what he called “documented medical and religious exemptions.” It is not apparent what Fr. Jenkins meant by “documented.” A documented medical exemption could be a note from a doctor attesting to a student’s medical history of an adverse reaction to vaccines. It could also be some written form (“document”) whereby any student returning to campus in August who is unvaccinated says so. Such a student could be required to confirm in writing that he or she accepts the risks of living and studying in close quarters while unvaccinated. This document might also include the student’s agreement to abide by reasonable precautions, including perhaps some specific to those who are neither naturally immune nor vaccinated. As the CDF “Note” said, those who “for reasons of conscience, refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses, must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent.”
“Medical” objections would most obviously include anyone whose singular condition is a contraindication for the vaccine. Rightly understood, however, it would include as well all those persons who conscientiously judge that it would better serve their health to refuse the vaccine. So long as their refusal does not unfairly imperil others, these autonomous medical decisions should be respected.
Indeed, some and perhaps many Notre Dame students might judge that, although they would not be formally complicit in abortion if they were vaccinated, they nevertheless are called to give perspicuous witness to the truth about the horrors of abortion by avoiding even this sort of remote cooperation with it. These students’ choices to give such profound moral witness should be respected, and encouraged, at our Catholic university. Even so: this way of thinking does not depend upon holding the Catholic faith, or adhering to any other religion. It is based upon moral and scientific considerations equally available to all persons. For that reason, there is no non-arbitrary ground to distinguish “religious” from simply “moral” objections to the vaccine.
Notre Dame should expand its understanding of “religious” objectors to include those whose refusal to be vaccinated are rooted in moral considerations or other objections of conscience. A religious, moral or other exemption of conscience should be ascertained not by documents, but by a simple conversation seeking only to establish that the individual has a sincerely held, reasonable belief that they should not receive the vaccine. This would be in accord with the teaching of Pope Francis, who has said, “The conscience is the interior place for listening to the truth, to goodness, for listening to God; it is the inner place of my relationship with Him, the One who speaks to my heart and helps me to discern, to understand the way I must take and, once the decision is made, to go forward, to stay faithful.”
We offer these considerations to aid the University’s deliberations about how it will go about achieving its stated goal to vaccinate “as many members of the campus community…as possible.” We know that Fr. Jenkins on one occasion was quoted as saying that Notre Dame would require all students to be fully vaccinated as a condition of enrollment for the 2021–22 academic year, a goal reiterated on April 22 in another campus-wide communique. But these statements must not have been meant literally, for they both refer explicitly to exempting students on religious and medical grounds from any vaccination requirement. “All students” is also simply incompatible with F. Jenkins’ more considered statement of aims: “as many as possible.” Most important, any undertaking to exclude from campus every student who declines to be vaccinated — especially but not only those who already possess a natural immunity — would be immoral.
We trust that Fr. Jenkins and the whole leadership of Notre Dame will act for the genuine common good of our community, in light of the relevant scientific truths and in light of all the relevant moral norms, including those brought to bear upon his decisions by order of Pope Francis.
Adjunct Professor of Law at the Notre Dame Law School and Bishop of the Diocese of Springfield, IL
Professor of Law at the Notre Dame Law School
The views expressed in this Letter to the Editor are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.