As Lina Bird considered offers from some of the top universities in the country, she looked for one with a strong biology curriculum and one that shared her values on moral ethics and life. As her senior year ended, the gifted 18-year-old had settled on the one that best matched her aspirations and convictions: Duquesne University, a Catholic college in Pittsburgh. A Catholic herself, she knew the university would be a source of spiritual growth, and with its outstanding science programs, Duquesne seemed like the answer to her dreams.
The trouble begins
But four days before Lina would move into her dorm, a notice came from the campus health offices that her immunization records were incomplete. It seems she hadn’t received the Measles-Mumps Rubella (MMR) vaccine and the university wanted to know why. Lina explained that she had a medical exemption from her doctor due to a history of adverse reactions, and she also held an official state-approved religious exemption. Since the MMR vaccine is produced using cell lines from aborted babies, the vaccine was in violation of her religious and moral convictions as well as being a potential health hazard. Stunningly, Dr. Loreto Matheo of the Campus Health Services refused to accept either exemption and she immediately blocked Lina’s scheduled move into her dorm. Lina was devastated! Frantic phone calls to Fr. Hogan, the university’s executive vice president for student life, resulted in an immediate release of the blockage to her campus housing while they investigated the matter further. Relieved, Lina moved into Duquesne and quickly settled into her new campus life. As a gifted musician, she rehearsed for the university’s church orchestra and began playing the harp at Mass, ecumenical Christian prayer services and social functions. Her shy, gentle personality coupled with her academic brilliance quickly won the hearts of her professors, and Lina was recommended for an advanced research project not normally awarded to college freshmen. The earlier problems with the vaccination seemed to fade into oblivion.
Denied an evaluation
In early November, Duquesne President Charles Dougherty sent a letter to the girl’s parents advising them that Duquesne had a no-exceptions vaccination policy and would not accept the exemptions Lina had submitted. The letter stated that their policy was clearly outlined in the university vaccination requirements, which were given to Lina shortly after acceptance. However, that policy only stated that Duquesne required her immunization records for admittance—nowhere did it state that they would not accept legal exemptions. Even more outrageous was Dougherty’s assertion that according to his “medical experts” the MMR vaccine was cultivated on chick embryos, not aborted fetal tissue and Catholic Church teaching had never supported any ethical reason for abstaining from the vaccine.
In a heartfelt letter to the university president, Lina stood in defense of her Catholic right to follow moral conscience and outlined the Catholic Church’s position on this issue with numerous citations from the Catechism to countless encyclical references on religious freedom. Lina believed that the Catholic Church made one point very clear: to turn away from an informed and upright conscience would be a grave error.
Lina waited anxiously for the university to reply. Surely they would see she was acting in complete accord with Church teaching. She explained her plight to shocked peers, bewildered professors and sympathetic clergy at Duquesne and waited. Other sources within the Church were consulted, from the local diocese to the USCCB—even the Vatican. All stood solidly behind Lina and her right to adhere to her conscience. One bishop wrote in her defense, “Our theology does defend the right to an individual decision of conscience provided that conscientious decision is not clearly antithetical to the teachings of the Church. Clearly the full informed, conscientious decision of parents relative to vaccinations for their children falls into this category given the origin of the vaccines.”
In a shocking and unjust display of non-Christian behavior and despite the overwhelming support for Lina’s rights, the university president stubbornly held his ground. Lina was to be vaccinated at once or face dismissal. Her re-registration for spring enrollment was permanently blocked, and in an appalling disregard for Lina’s constitutional and religious freedom, Dougherty wrote in a final letter that his concern was for the “common good.”
Faced with the threat of losing everything she had worked so hard for—her scholarship, her dream of working in an ethical research environment, her love of the faculty at Duquesne, Lina confronted the hardest decision she would have to make in her young life. And perhaps much to the surprise of those in authority at Duquesne, but not to those who knew this courageous young woman, she sadly began saying goodbye to her professors and friends at the university. She stood prepared to sacrifice her scholarship rather than corrupt her own moral soul. With a heavy heart but her head held high, Lina remained proud in her defense of Christ, proud in her defense of life.
The university’s actions were a mystery to all who became involved in Lina’s plight. The local press called both the family and Duquesne for an interview that ran in the Pittsburgh Tribune. Hoping that Duquesne would want to avoid any type of public scandal, again the family prayed that this intervention would change the president’s mind. Yet, two days before Christmas, university officials announced that their decision was final: Lina would not be allowed to return to the university without being vaccinated. But as adamant as they were, not even the university administration was prepared for what was about to happen.
A ray of hope
On the morning of Christmas Eve, a stunning phone call came from a Duquesne attorney, announcing that not only would they allow her religious exemption, they would change their policy for future students. They would not officially say why their position was reversed, but the night before the announcement they received a letter from a bishop who wrote in Lina’s defense. That letter spelled out in no uncertain terms the absolute duty of this Catholic university to adhere to the teaching of the Church and to respect the rights of her religious freedom. The good bishop flatly told Duquesne, “In all honesty, knowing what I now know, I could not in good conscience receive this vaccine and I would be very perturbed at anyone who tried to mandate that I receive it, regardless of their ‘good intentions.’”
Was it the bishop’s letter that changed their minds? In any case, Lina had won a major victory, not only for herself but also for other students in the future. It was the latter part that pleased her more than anything else.
Despite the heroic actions of their daughter, the Bird family refuses to think of Lina as a would-be martyr. Their deep faith and trust in God had always assured them that whatever might happen, it would be God’s will and they accepted it without hesitation. And while Lina has received praise from others for what she was prepared to sacrifice, she simply stated in all humility, “I think of this as no different than someone who finds a wallet. The duty is to return it and there is nothing special in that—it’s just what one has to do!”