Now that several Covid-19 vaccines are in production, you may be asking yourself the question, “Should I get vaccinated?” Some Catholics are wrestling with this question because these first couple of vaccines have some connection with abortion. Here's a moral framework to help you think this through....
The first vaccines that have been approved for the Covid-19 virus raise moral issues because they have a connection with morally compromised cell lines. Kidney cells from a baby aborted in 1973 were grown (in some cases cloned) in a laboratory. The cells of the dead baby are now gone but the descendant cells (known by the scientific name HEK293) continue to be used in medical research. This was the cell line used in the testing of the first two vaccines approved for use in the US and Canada (those created by Pfizer and Moderna). (A cell line derived from cloned cells was used in the creation of the third leading vaccine candidate.)
This has prompted many people concerned for the sanctity of human life to question if it is ethical to accept any of the vaccines that have even a remote connection to abortion. In other words: Do Catholics have a moral duty to decline an inoculation if it was unethically produced or even tested using a cell line that came from an abortion? In this article I want to direct you to some excellent sources to help you think about this issue as you make your own decision regarding vaccination.
The Catholic Church values the sanctity of life and is opposed to abortion. The US Bishops have been advocating that cell lines derived from an abortion should not be used in developing vaccines. The Bishops have issued a document on this question. This document is worth reading because it covers the most important aspects of this issue. In short, the document states that the vaccines being developed have different moral aspects depending on how closely the vaccines are related to the original abortion.
The abortion connection
When we are considering the vaccines that are available for Covid-19 virus, the ethical dilemma is created by the morally compromised decision almost 50 years ago to generate a cell line from an aborted fetus. Various companies developing vaccines chose this cell line in the development of and/or testing of their vaccines.
To get more technical data on this, you can refer to the work of Fr. Tad Pacholczyk, the Director of Education at The National Catholic Bioethics Center. He has many useful resources that can help you understand this issue. In this document he lists the ethical profile of various vaccines based on whether or not they were developed or tested using abortion-derived cell lines. Some vaccines have a better ethical rating than others.
The two vaccines currently approved for use in the United States and Canada do not rely on cell lines from abortions in their manufacturing process, although these cell lines were used for testing purposes in some of the tests. As we begin to think this through, we acknowledge that as Christians we have a positive moral obligation to do good and in so doing distance ourself as much as possible from the immoral act of another, such as abortion, to avoid cooperation with another’s immoral actions and to avoid giving scandal. And we also have a serious obligation to prevent the spread of contagion which has already killed 1.94 million people worldwide. A vaccine seems to be the best way to slow the spread of the pandemic.
Therefore, the question that we need to pose is this: Is it morally acceptable to use these vaccines? To answer this we need to look at the concept of cooperation in evil. (Fasten your seatbelt as we speed through some philosophy!)
Cooperation in evil
The world is a complicated place, and we often are in situations where our actions may help to support something evil. For example, I purchase my medications from a pharmacy that sells Mifeprex (the “abortion pill”). Am I allowed to buy my medicine from that pharmacy? Purchasing medicine is a good action because I purchase it with the intention of improving my health, and the connection to the actions of others who take the “abortion pill” is remote. In this world, some very remote cooperation in evil is inevitable unless we go completely off the grid and use no products at all from a third party. Practically speaking, this is impossible.
So I can ethically buy my medications from this pharmacy because I am acting with good intention for the purposes of sustaining health. I have no intention of cooperating with abortion and my personal connection to this action on the part of others is remote. This type of cooperation is called passive material cooperation. The ethicalness of actions can be evaluated using moral principles that determine how closely connected the good action is to an evil effect. In this case, the connection is very remote. The closer the connection, the more serious a reason is needed to perform the action.
Another type of cooperation is called formal cooperation, and this means that in some way I directly take part in an evil action of another and intend the immoral act to occur. Suppose my friends want to rob a bank and I agree to drive the getaway car. This is immoral because even though I never went into the bank myself (I just assisted with the getaway), I’m intentionally providing the services that are necessary for the immoral act to occur and personally participating in the robbery. Formal cooperation with evil endeavors is never morally justified.
To apply this to the vaccine issue, we can ask: “Am I cooperating in the evil of abortion if I am vaccinated with a vaccine that relies on cell lines derived from aborted fetal cells?” To get a vaccine is in itself a good action. We get inoculated with the intention of protecting our health, as well as the health of others we may be in contact with. Although abortion is a grave moral evil and I cannot cooperate with it directly in any way, by availing myself of the vaccine, when this is my only option and the gravity of the situation warrants it, I am not directly, or formally, cooperating with the evil of abortion. It is not a formal cooperation in the evil of abortion, then, but a remote material cooperation.
But in the matter of the Covid-19 vaccines, is this material cooperation allowed? According to Church teaching, yes, it is allowed, because in this case the cooperation is so remotely connected with the original abortion and there is a proportionate reason for doing it that getting the vaccine poses no serious moral issue.
The United States Bishops stated in Moral Considerations Regarding the New COVID-19 Vaccines, “In view of the gravity of the current pandemic and the lack of availability of alternative vaccines, the reasons to accept the new COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are sufficiently serious to justify their use, despite their remote connection to morally compromised cell lines. In addition, receiving the COVID-19 vaccine ought to be understood as an act of charity toward the other members of our community. In this way, being vaccinated safely against COVID-19 should be considered an act of love of our neighbor and part of our moral responsibility for the common good.”
The statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Note on the morality of using some antiCovid-19 vaccines, clearly states: “It must therefore be considered that, in such a case, all vaccinations recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience with the certain knowledge that the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive.” (no. 3)
Fr. Tad Pacholczyk states: “Because the abortion occurred long ago, and for reasons unrelated to vaccines, it is untenable to conclude that recipients today somehow cooperate in the original abortive event” (Presentation at the Catholic Bar Association meeting – October, 2020).
He also wrote in December in “Catholic Week”: “The fact that zero material derived from any cell line from an abortion is present in these vaccines, that is to say, inside the syringe which actually jabs the patient, is sufficient in the minds of most to assuage any concern over using them, even if problematic laboratory testing may have taken place along the way.”
The decision as to whether or not to get a vaccine is a very personal decision that no one can take from you. To be clear, this article is not commenting at all on the medical risks or benefits of these vaccines. People can weigh those risks and benefits by talking to their doctor.
Catholics are not morally obliged to get the vaccine. However, accepting the vaccine should be encouraged for the good of one’s own health and for the common good. If a person chooses not to be vaccinated, they need to avoid certain behaviors and take sufficient precautions so that they do not become a vehicle for the transmission of the virus and a risk to the health of those who are more vulnerable.
Whether one gets the vaccine or not, however, one should put pressure on the political authorities and health systems to produce vaccines using ethical cell lines. Everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available.
By Sr Marianne Lorraine Trouve, FSP