Credit: Stefan Amer / Scopio

The HSE must also provide ethical Covid vaccines – and Bishops should lead the way in seeking them

The US Catholic Bishops recently commented that Catholics should opt for the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines over the Johnson & Johnson version if offered the option. The Canadian Group of Bishops followed suit advising that Catholics should “prefer” the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines because, although “unethically-derived” cell lines may have been used in final testing, the connection to the original abortion is “extremely remote.” 

The AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, they state, were developed, produced and tested with cell lines that originally came from human fetuses, possibly after elective abortions, making them – if the option is available – the least ethical option.

However, a group of pro-life Catholic scholars in the US at the Ethics and Public Policy Centre (EPPC) responded to the US Bishops statement by claiming that: ‘[t]hose who have special reasons to take the J&J vaccine should not, we believe, be led to think that they are choosing something that in other ways is more morally tainted than the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. That the group includes heavy-hitters such as Robert P. George and O. Carter Snead means their intervention also carries some weight.

It is clear that there is some debate to be had and that the discussion continues. That the EPPC had to issue an addendum to their statement indicates that they have received some pushback from those who felt they were overly enthusiastic in their position which indicated the origins of the cell-lines that were involved in the vaccine production were morally irrelevant.

Here in Ireland, the Catholic bishops have encouraged everyone to support the Covid-19 vaccination programme across the island of Ireland. In particular, the Bishops encourage “all parishes and Church personnel to promote this programme and to encourage elderly parishioners, relatives and neighbours to avail of the opportunity to protect their health and the health of the whole community.”

While the Bishops’ statement aligns with the recent announcement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) that “it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process” and that “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”, the Bishops omit to remind the faithful of further obligations that exist in relation to the use of vaccines that are tainted with the use of cell-lines from aborted foetuses.

The vaccines available in Ireland at present have a connection with cell-lines that have been derived from aborted foetuses, and these are the only ones available right now. Their use “should not in any way imply that there is a moral endorsement of the use of cell lines proceeding from aborted fetuses”, according to the recent CDF statement.

In fact, the CDF states that “pharmaceutical companies and governmental health agencies are therefore encouraged to produce, approve, distribute and offer ethically acceptable vaccines that do not create problems of conscience for either health care providers or the people to be vaccinated.”

These obligations are particularly outlined in Dignitas Personae, a 2008 document that addresses the moral challenges of such vaccines in more detail. It reminds that while it may be acceptable to use such vaccines, for example, to counter the danger to the health of children, “it is necessary to distance oneself from the evil aspects of that system in order not to give the impression of a certain toleration or tacit acceptance of actions which are gravely unjust” and that “everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available”.

The Bishops have omitted to remind the faithful of this duty in their support of the vaccination programmes in Ireland. More significantly, the statement from the Bishops has let the government and the pharmaceutical industry off the hook in failing to use their position and public statements to mobilize consciences in favour of life. It is not clear that the Bishops are creating distance themselves from the “evil aspects” of the system and that there is an increasing tacit acceptance of historical actions which are gravely unjust – the use of cell-lines derived from aborted babies.

The result of such omissions is that the moral obligation to argue for ethical vaccines is being erased, and that researchers and pharmaceutical groups who choose to avoid illicit stem-lines, possibly at great cost, are not supported. With this, tacit approval of those that take the less ethical route reinforces the industry preference to use illicitly derived cell-lines. Already vaccines derived from illicit cell-lines are dominating the market, and while there are ethically superior vaccines in development, the lack of support and encouragement, as well as dampening the market demand, reduces the likelihood of these ever being available.

While there are ethical and pro-life consequential arguments to be made for ensuring that Catholics and the Church as a body continue to push for an ethically unproblematic vaccine, there are also practical and civil rights arguments that should be of interest to both the Church and the Government. With potential ethically untainted vaccines, such as the CureVac vaccine at the later stage of production, it is likely there will be a vaccine that has no connection to illicit stem cell lines available shortly.

If this vaccine is made available in Ireland there will inevitably be a greater uptake from those reluctant to take existing vaccines for ethical reasons. This is good from a government perspective as there will be greater coverage. Based on the Bishops’ statements, it is good for the common good

But also, it means that there will be fewer people having their consciences and their right to conscientious objection pressured by the variety of sanctions – or what have been Orwellianly described as ‘bonus freedoms for vaccines recipients’ – connected to vaccine passports or certificates that are being threatened.

To remain silent on the requirement described in the Dignitas Personae to “to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available” is an omission. Citizens who seek ethical vaccines should have them provided by the state, and the Bishops should lead the way in seeking to make them available.



Dualta Roughneen

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