No matter how safe and effective vaccines are – and they are – there will always be some people who refuse them. That’s why, in the age of COVID-19 and anti-science disinformation, we have things like state and federal level vaccine mandates: if you don’t want to get vaccinated, the rules say, you’d better have a darn good reason.
A favorite tactic for Americans who don’t want to be vaccinated – the famous “religious exemption” rule – has had a new boost in popularity since vaccine rollouts began, with thousands of employees across the country applying for the loophole. But one Arkansas hospital has decided to fight back against this trend and call the anti-vaxxers’ bluff. They’ve issued workers who claim religious exemption a simple challenge: prove it.
The number of religious exemption requests was "significantly disproportionate to what we've seen with the influenza vaccine,” explained Matt Troup, president and CEO of Arkansas’s Conway Regional Health System to Becker's Hospital Review. “Thus, we provided a religious attestation form for those individuals requesting a religious exemption.”
Sounds simple – but this form is much more than a basic declaration: it requires employees who refuse the vaccine to swear off many everyday medications as well, including such medical mainstays as Benadryl, Sudafed, Tums, and Tylenol.
To appreciate this move, you have to understand how religious exemptions are often justified. It usually comes down to the idea that the vaccines contain aborted fetal cells, or were tested on aborted fetal cells, or some other notion about aborted fetal cells that the vaccine refuser says conflicts with their beliefs.
Before we continue, let’s get something out of the way: that’s not true. COVID-19 vaccines do not contain any cells from aborted fetuses, and the human cells they were tested on during research and development were grown in a lab.
“It is true that decades ago, scientists decided to use fetal tissue to start the cell lines we use to test drugs today,” wrote infectious disease expert and practicing Catholic Dr James Lawler in an explainer earlier this year. “However, the description of ongoing modern fetal tissue harvesting to create vaccines is dishonest sensationalism.”
However, for those who insist that even this historical link to abortion is too much to condone, a religious exemption may be granted: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 demands it. Under the law, employers are required to accommodate workers if they object to work requirements based on religious beliefs that are “sincerely held.” All Conway Regional Health System is asking is proof of that sincerity.
“The intent of the religious attestation form is twofold,” Troup said. “[To] ensure staff requesting exemption are sincere in their beliefs and to educate staff who might have requested an exemption without understanding the full scope of how fetal cells are used in testing and development in common medicines.”
In fact, Dr Lawler explained, “almost all” medicines we use have some connection to these fetal cell lines. Not only do they provide a standardized testing ground for new drugs, but they’ve also helped us make major breakthroughs in our understanding of disease and congenital abnormalities. On top of that, of course, they’ve also given us things like Preparation H and aspirin – two medicines that Conway Regional Health anti-vaxxers would have to abstain from.
Even though the number of religious exemption requests is increasing, the numbers are still low: 95 percent of the hospital system’s staff, Troup noted, are already at least partially vaccinated. That might be in part because almost all major religious denominations and institutions are in favor of the vaccine – even the Pope, famously not a big fan of abortion, has turned out to be pretty chill with the whole fetal cell issue.
“As a practicing Catholic, I think the moral balance of indirectly benefitting from an abortion that occurred 50 years ago in order to take a vaccine that will prevent further death in the community is a no-brainer,” wrote Dr Lawler. “We need to focus on saving lives right now. We need to care for our neighbors.”