Ethics issues raised as hospital sued for requiring vaccinations to get kidney transplant

Carol Thompson
The Detroit News

Grand Rapids — The mother of a west Michigan teenager is suing Helen DeVos Children's Hospital for officials' decision to require the girl be vaccinated before receiving a kidney transplant.

The teen's adoptive parents are arguing the hospital's requirement violates their religious beliefs, although a medical expert said the transplant puts her at greater risk of death from infectious disease. 

Jenna Campau of Fennville adopted the 17-year-old identified in court documents as A.C. from Ukraine in 2021, according to the complaint Campau filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan. The teenager has one kidney, chronic kidney disease and other medical issues and receives dialysis at DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids. 

DeVos hospital doctors have said the teen needs a kidney transplant, according to the lawsuit, but must meet pre-transplant requirements including receiving vaccines such as those for COVID-19, influenza and human papillomavirus. 

Campau and her husband argue that requirement violates their civil rights protections because they hold religious objections to "any vaccine or medical product that is produced or researched using aborted fetal cells and also genetic modifications or therapies that involve combing (sic) human and cells or DNA," the lawsuit states.

It is common practice for hospitals to require transplant patients be vaccinated because those patients could get very sick or die from infectious disease after surgery, said Leonard Fleck, a bioethicist who works as a professor at Michigan State University's College of Human Medicine. 

"Patients have the right to take risks with regard to making judgments about their own health care," Fleck said. "But some kinds of risks are too likely and too serious for a physician to cooperate with the patient in allowing them to take that risk."

Family friend Maija Hahn, right, prays with Alisa Campau, 17, of Fennville, during a Monday, May 16, 2022, press conference outside the Federal Courthouse in Grand Rapids. Campau, who was adopted from Ukraine last year, needs a kidney transplant, but Spectrum Health refuses to do the transplant because she and her adoptive family refused to have her receive the COVID-19 vaccine for religious reasons.

There are no fetal cells in any of the three available COVID-19 vaccines, according to a Michigan Department of Health and Human Services pamphlet

During the development of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, researchers used cell cultures derived from fetal cells that came from elective abortions in the 1970s and 1980s to test the vaccines. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was manufactured using those cultures, the state health department said. 

Campau also cites the Book of Leviticus, saying the family opposes vaccines that contain products from "unclean" animals according to the Biblical Old Testament book. 

Jenna Campau of Fennville, center, speaks during a Monday press conference with attorney James Thomas, left, and adoptive daughter Alisa Campau, 17. The adoptive parents are arguing the hospital's requirement violates their religious beliefs, although a medical expert said the transplant puts the teen at greater risk of death from infectious disease.

She is asking a judge to declare the hospital's refusal to provide the teen with a transplant unlawful. A Connecticut nonprofit called We The Patriots, USA said it is paying for the lawsuit. The organization said it works for religious freedom, medical freedom, parental rights and other issues.

During a Monday press conference, Campau said she is concerned the teen will turn 18 and be removed from the pediatric transplant list before the case is resolved. She said DeVos staff threatened to call child welfare about the family's refusal to vaccinate the teenager.

A Spectrum Health spokesperson declined to comment on the case because of patient privacy concerns.

"At Spectrum Health, the health and safety of our patients are of utmost concern," the health network said in a statement.

The case highlights ethical questions for health care workers who ultimately are called to protect patients from harms, Fleck said.

Transplant patients must take anti-rejection medications so their bodies do not reject the foreign organ, Fleck said. Those medications weaken the patients' immune systems and make them especially vulnerable to severe illness or death from infectious diseases like COVID-19. 

"That means that the organ is lost and the person is lost," he said. "For that reason, the expectation is that individuals will be fully vaccinated, certainly against something as common as COVID is right now."

Organs available for transplant are relatively scarce, Fleck said, which also raises ethical issues in determining which patients are eligible for transplants.

The median wait time for a kidney transplant is 3.6 years in the United States, according to the National Kidney Foundation. Almost 101,000 people were awaiting kidney transplants in 2016. Only 17,107 kidney transplants took place that year.

"From the point of view of health care justice, a surgeon, physician, would want kidneys to go to individuals who have good prospects for seven- to 10-year survival," Fleck said. "A patient who is refusing the COVID vaccine would have a substantially reduced likelihood of surviving seven to 10 years, especially if we see COVID as something that's not going to end in the next week or two, or month or two. It looks like it's going to be with us for a long time."

Freelance writer Chris duMond contributed.