Vaccines against COVID-19

Five COVID-19 vaccines in development use cell lines derived from aborted fetuses in order to produce the vaccines themselves.

Nov 30, 2020

By James T. Keane
Five COVID-19 vaccines in development use cell lines derived from aborted fetuses in order to produce the vaccines themselves.

Recent news reports about the origin of these COVID-19 vaccines, as well as discussion at the annual meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops  on the ethical ramifications of vaccines whose development involved the use of aborted foetuses. This issue was thrust back into the spotlight a little more than a month after it first became a prominent question — when President Donald J. Trump contracted COVID-19 and was given two medications whose efficacy was tested with cells procured from an aborted foetus in 1972. One bishop argued that one of the most publicised potential vaccines, from Moderna, is derived from cells from aborted foetal tissue, a claim that turned out to be false.

However, a stickier question arises in the realm of moral theology:

Can a person who truly believes in the sanctity of life from conception to natural death make use of any treatment derived from cells whose origin was an aborted foetus?

The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes the Church’s position on abortion clear: “Direct abortion, that is to say, abortion willed either as an end or a means, is gravely contrary to the moral law,” and “[s]ince it must be treated from conception as a person, the embryo must be defended in its integrity, cared for, and healed, as far as possible, like any other human being.” Indeed, according to Church teaching, whoever directly participates in procuring an abortion is automatically excommunicated. But back to our question: Can a Catholic make use of medical treatments derived from a procured abortion?

The answer is a familiar one: It’s complicated.

The long answer entails the use of terms not usually heard around the water cooler: Formal cooperation with evil; material cooperation,  both remote and proximate; active and passive material cooperation with evil. But the short answer is the most helpful one: If you can avoid using medical treatments derived from foetal cells, you should. If there isn’t another practical option without grave health risks, the Catholic Church considers it morally acceptable for you to take advantage of medical treatment derived from foetal cells.

“The case of using vaccines produced using cells from aborted foetuses runs like this: Vaccinating oneself against a deadly disease is usually part of good stewardship of one’s health,” Lisa Fullam, a professor of moral theology at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, Calif., told America over email. “The moral remoteness of the question of receiving a vaccine grown on cells derived from an abortion decades ago compared to the moral urgency of stopping spread of the COVID-19 pandemic with a safe and effective vaccine makes it permissible at least, and perhaps even obligatory,” Fullam commented. “Even more will die if we refuse a vaccine for reasons other than safety or efficacy. While some might refuse a vaccine or other treatment on ‘prolife’ grounds, in fact many more will die if we refuse a vaccine that will be produced despite those who object to its provenance — and that is not being pro-life.”

Pope Francis might say, the secret is not to flee from the vexing moral questions of life, but to approach them in a spirit of discernment. –– America Magazine

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