Christian Science, Australia’s only church allowed to refuse vaccination on religious grounds, will be unaffected by new Federal Government rules that will strip childcare and family benefits from those who boycott national vaccination programs.
Anti-vaccinationists have turned to online forums to workshop ways of exploiting the exemption, which they see as a loophole in the new rules.
This week, Social Services Minister Scott Morrison refused to divulge the identity of the church through fear it would be inundated with new followers keen to find a path towards exemption.
But one expert doubts there will be a sudden surge of converts to the faith.
“I think it’s highly unlikely that anybody would be joining Christian Science just in order to get an exemption from vaccination,” Dr David Smith, from the University of Sydney’s US Studies Centre, said.
“Christian Science is an entire system of religious beliefs that requires quite an intense personal commitment on behalf of the believers.
Open Drum: Vaccination
- Since 2008, 12 Australian babies have died from whooping cough. Toni’s baby Dana was one of them. She is out to stop history repeating.
- Sue is a scientist from Nimbin – the heartland of the anti vaccination movement. She has learnt new ways to talk about vaccines.
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- Mickey is a member of an almost extinct, club – polio victims. Fellow members include Kerry Packer, John Laws and Kim Beazley.
“A lot of other non-vaccination communities in Australia would already have their own religious, secular or otherwise spiritual beliefs that just wouldn’t be compatible with Christian Science.”
Under government guidelines, parents and carers must produce a letter from a church leader stating they are a practising member of the organisation before they can be granted an official exemption.
But some health professionals are concerned the new rules may create more problems than they are worth.
“There’s definitely going to be pressure on this particular exemption and people will be looking at how they can claim that exemption having not done so in the past and be located under that religious exemption category,” associate professor Julie Leaske, from the University of Sydney’s School of Public Health, said.
“I think the Government will be very busy trying to deal with this issue.”
She anticipated there would only be a minor increase in vaccination rates.
“There’ll be a small number of families who are significantly affected by the policy but it’s very unlikely to meaningfully increase vaccination rates,” she said.
“It’s certainly hoped that the estimated $50 million a year in savings will go towards reforms and measures that have a much more meaningful impact on vaccination rates.”
Christian Science and ‘healing by faith’
There were fewer than 1,400 Australians who identified themselves as Christian Scientists in the 2011 national census.
Like Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists belong to some of the smaller religious groups who have their origins in the United States.
The influence they have wielded in national politics there has been a focus of Dr Smith’s research.
There are probably no other religious groups who could claim that not getting vaccinated is actually a religious tendance, according to Dr Smith.
“That is, that it is something that is written into religious scripture, it’s a practice that’s been followed for a long time, that it’s something that a religious believer needs to do to be in good conscience,” he said.
He added that healing by faith was one particular element Christian Scientists were fixated on.
“They believed [it] was a lost element of Christianity that needed to be recovered,” he said.
Dr Smith said believers do not deny all forms of medical treatment.
“[They] especially use kind of routine forms of medical treatment such as dentistry, and they certainly wouldn’t object going to hospital to heal broken bones or something like that,” he said.
Dr Smith said Christian Science does vaccinate in countries where it is legally compulsory for them to do so.
“[But] it’s not surprising that in an Australian context, where there is an option to present a conscientious objection, they would make that objection,” he said.
“And it is a very credible objection because Christian Science’s opposition to all kinds of modern medical treatment is very well known and very well established.”
Media representatives for the Christian Science church in Australia did not return the ABC’s calls today.