Should vegans get vaccines? Should vegan parents vaccinate their children? Are vaccines vegan? These questions resurface again and again within vegan communities, particularly online. Whenever vaccines make headlines the discussion begins anew. So let’s tackle it here at Vegan Soapbox.
Vaccines are always controversial in the vegan community because:
a) they’ve been tested on animals, and
b) they’re often made using animal products (specifically chicken’s eggs).
Also, because vaccines are preventative medicine – and not strictly necessary – they are a bit more controversial than some other types of medicine. I’m going to defend my use of vaccines. And I will discuss the general topic of medicine within the context of veganism.
Let’s start with a definition of veganism.
In the case of products, such as food or clothing, vegan means something that doesn’t contain animal products or come from their use. The Vegan Society has a diagram that explains things well:
So strictly speaking we can see that egg-based vaccines cannot be called vegan. But the real question is should vegans use vaccines? We have two definitions to consider: the product as well as the person. At the top of this website, Vegan Soapbox, vegan is defined as “person who seeks to exclude the use of animals for food, clothing, or any other purpose.” Likewise, the Vegan Society explains non-food veganism:
Vegan living seeks to avoid using animals for purposes other than food, too.
In terms of everyday living, this means:
- wearing clothing which is not made from animals
- using products which do not contain animal ingredients and have not been tested on animals. Mainly this applies to household cleaning products, toiletries and cosmetics.
If you accept this definition above, then vaccines may have a place in a vegan lifestyle if:
a) the vegan considers vaccines necessary, and
b) the vegan would chose a vegan vaccine were it available.
Vegan versions will soon be available.
We’ve seen the emergence of synthetics to replace all sorts of animal uses in a variety of fields. For example, soccer balls are now routinely made from synthetics rather than animal skin because the synthetics are better. And while medicine for Diabetes and Hypothyroidism began with animal-based medicines they have been largely replaced with better synthetic options. We see this trend all over the place for two reasons:
a) a society that cares about animal rights/welfare pursues vegan alternatives, and
b) vegan alternatives are often better than the original animal-based versions.
In the case of the flu vaccine, a new option will be available next month that does not use chicken’s eggs. The process was still tested on animals (as required by the FDA for all medicines) and does still use animal products (insect cells) but this new vaccine appears to be more vegan than the current options. We can reasonably assume that the future will include vegan vaccines.
We have every reason to believe that this trend away from animal-use will continue, particularly if our society becomes more inspired to care about animal rights or welfare. So perhaps we should focus on the best methods towards creating a society that cares about animals rather than spending too much time worrying if vaccines and other medicines are vegan. Remember, the overwhelming majority of the animals that die at the hands of humans are those that are killed for food. I’ll say it again because it deserves emphasis: Most aimals killed are killed to be eaten.
But it’s even worse:
“every year, hundreds of millions of animals—many times more than the number killed for fur, in shelters, and in laboratories combined—don’t even make it to slaughter. They actually suffer to death.”
This statement comes from Matt Ball from Vegan Outreach (see an examination of his claim at Counting Animals). The choice of what to eat is a choice most people make several times a day. This is their regular interaction with animals, in many cases their only interaction with certain species. This habitual choice of what/who to eat is the choice that literally defines the cultural attitude towards animal welfare and rights.
When our society becomes more used to making choices that more seriously consider animal suffering and death, we will see a major shift in cultural consciousness wherein animals will be less likely to be regarded as merely tools. This shift will take place in all areas, including medicine. But it starts with the habitual choice of food, not with the intermittent choice of medicine. For that reason, we ought to focus on diet more than anything else.
Veganism is mostly about diet.
I suggest that the vegans who want to abstain from vaccinations on ethical grounds because of the use of animals should keep it about the animals. They should not pollute the message with claims about health that are unconvincing to the vast majority of doctors and parents. Anti-vax vegans should just say “I choose not to use vaccines because the process to create and test them harms animals.” Simple. Making claims about vaccines that aren’t convincing to the mainstream doesn’t help any animals. But it might make the mainstream think vegans are crazy. (And if you don’t vax, please still do the other things to prevent the spread of disease: wash your hands, cover your coughs, keep things clean.)
I vaccinate. And I suggest that other vegans should too. Here’s why: Vaccines work.
Vaccines save human lives. Sure, clean living (good hygiene, clean water and air, eating a plant-based diet) will prevent a lot of disease, but vaccines help in areas where clean living can’t. Moreover, doing things like eating plenty of fruits and veggies actually makes vaccines more effective. So veganism and vaccines work well in tandem.
And it’s not just about our own health. In many cases, we vegans are often healthier than the general population and shouldn’t worry too much about killer diseases like the flu or pneumonia. But others – infants, elderly people, and people with compromised immune systems – do need to worry about vaccine preventable diseases. They are at risk. As vegans who care about all animals (including humans) we ought to do what we can to protect them, including getting vaccinated so we’re less likely to spread dangerous diseases to others who aren’t as healthy as we are.