Exploring the moral and ethical impacts of receiving the COVID-19 vaccine

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PROVIDENCE — As vaccinations for COVID-19 begin around the country, Catholics have been asking about and discussing the ethical and moral dimensions of vaccines that are developed in part with human cell lines derived from aborted fetuses.
Three of the most successful cell lines that have been used to develop numerous drugs and medical treatments originate from cells taken from aborted fetal organs in the 1960s and early 1970s.
In a Dec. 21, 2020 note, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said it is morally acceptable for Catholics to receive COVID-19 vaccines developed or tested using cell lines originating from aborted fetuses when alternatives are not available.
The CDF said that receiving COVID-19 vaccines like those developed by Pfizer and Moderna is morally licit when the “passive material cooperation” with the evil of an abortion “from which these cell lines originate is, on the part of those making use of the resulting vaccines, remote.”
Also, two bishop-chairmen from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a joint statement on Dec. 14 explaining that the reasons to accept the vaccines are “sufficiently serious to justify their use, despite their remote connection to morally compromised cell lines.”
“Receiving one of the COVID-19 vaccines ought to be understood as an act of charity toward the other members of our community,” the bishops wrote.
Bishop Thomas J. Tobin noted the USCCB guidance in a recent statement where he said that individuals “should be encouraged to receive the vaccine to promote their own health and safety and that of others.”
Said Bishop Tobin, “This is consistent with the Catholic commitment on promoting the common good. Nonetheless, if individuals have serious moral objections to, or health concerns about, receiving the vaccines, those concerns should be respected and the individuals should not be forced to be vaccinated if so doing is contrary to their conscience.”
Father Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, O.P., explored the bio-ethical dimensions of the COVID-19 vaccines in a recent essay he wrote for Public Discourse. Father Nicanor, a professor of biology and theology at Providence College, also answered some questions on the topic from the Rhode Island Catholic:

Rhode Island Catholic: Why are cell lines derived from original decades-old aborted fetal cells used in medical research and vaccine development?

Father Nicanor: Growing human cells in a laboratory environment is not easy, and the earliest attempts to do so in the middle of the previous century often ended in failure. To make their task easier, cell biologists sought to obtain the freshest and youngest human cells they could find, which in many cases were cells obtained from human fetal remains.

Rhode Island Catholic: Are there better alternatives? What makes it difficult not to use fetal cell lines in developing vaccines?

Father Nicanor: I have spoken to scientists who have tried to identify other human cell lines for the production of specific viral tools, and no robust alternative has been found. No alternative cell lines are available that are as well characterized as the HEK293 cell line for some basic cell techniques.

Rhode Island Catholic: What conditions must be in place, in your estimation, for medical researchers to ethically use these fetal cell lines?

Father Nicanor: This is a prudential question that each medical researcher has to discern. It depends on whether or not there are feasible alternatives to what he or she has to do to accomplish the research plan that has been proposed. I know that some medical researchers have lower thresholds for scandal and moral complicity while others are able to handle more. We live in a society where we have to learn how to live virtuously while surrounded by vice.

Rhode Island Catholic: What options do people of conscience have if they only have access to a vaccine derived from one of the fetal cell lines?

Father Nicanor: It is clear now that there will be many different non-controversial vaccines on the market. They can wait to get access to those if the only ones available to them at the moment have been linked to abortion.

Rhode Island Catholic: How is a Catholic who chooses to receive a vaccine made from a fetal cell line obligated to make their opposition to abortion clear? How can they make that opposition clear?

Father Nicanor: This depends upon the individual Catholic. It will be different depending upon who they are and what they do in society. A Catholic housewife will face different challenges from those faced by a Catholic politician.

Rhode Island Catholic: What rights does the state, or rather society, have as far as mandating vaccinations of potentially-deadly contagious diseases like COVID-19?

Father Nicanor: Society has a duty to protect its members. In principle, therefore, it would be morally acceptable for a society to mandate vaccinations if that would be required to protect the weak, the elderly, and the vulnerable. In reality, especially in the USA, it would be better to convince people to do so for the sake of the common good.

Rhode Island Catholic: How can we balance the common good, the right to protect oneself and one’s neighbors from diseases, with the imperative to defend the right of life and human dignity, especially of the unborn?

Father Nicanor: Safe and effective vaccines protect life! And if these safe and effective vaccines shield the unborn child from the virus — we do not know this yet — then they would also protect the unborn. As the Vatican itself has explained, the abortion linked to HEK293 happened so long ago that Catholics do not have to worry that their actions to protect themselves and their families with these vaccines would imperil their moral integrity or their salvation.