Refusing a vaccine developed using stem cell lines derived from abortions may further the common good, lead to greater levels of vaccination, and contribute to defeating Covid-19. This appears counter intuitive but it may be part of a virtuous circle that can end embryonic stem cell research and a return to a normal society.  

The discussion around ethical vaccines has largely disappeared from the public square. Indeed, it hardly made the public square at all in relation to the Covid-19 vaccines. It was expected that the Church might provide the loudest voice on this given the previous concerns raised and positions taken by the Church on vaccines developed from cell lines that have been derived from aborted babies.

To the surprise of many, this has not happened. The Vatican, through the Pope and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, both intervened to promote the taking of Covid-19 vaccines for the common good. A whole host of Catholic commentators were equally forthright in their propositional stance that, irrespective of how they were derived, the Covid-19 vaccines ought to be taken – many going as far as saying that it would be a responsibility or a moral obligation to take those vaccines.

Instead, the focus of the public furore has been about vaccine safety. I am not an expert on the safety of the vaccines – yes, I agree with concerns about the speed of development, I wonder about the longer-term effects that cannot be known, from what I can understand the risks due to clotting are a concern but debatable. The issue of safety is not my concern, though maybe it should be.

So, why would I consider not taking the vaccine if the Church says it is ok to and I am not focused on the safety aspect? My original position, prior to the most recent pronouncement of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in December 2020, was aligned with the position promulgated in 2005 by the Pontifical Academy for Life, and Dignitas personae released in 2008 by the CDF. My position has largely been unchanged since.

I agree with the CDF in 2008 when they state that vaccines developed from stem cells derived from aborted babies can be taken in the absence of an alternative ethical vaccine, because of the requirement to support the common good and the health of others. The 2008 statement was clear and emphatic that if the individual was to, in good conscience, take the vaccines, that it must be accompanied by the duty “to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available”.

The different degrees of responsibility for cooperation with the evil of abortion is explained in the Dignitas personae and the Pontifical Academy for Life document from 2005, Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared from Cells Derived from Aborted Human Foetuses, where they assess material, formal, mediate, proximate, remote active and passive cooperation with the evil of abortion.

There is much to be examined and remembered in the explanation from 2008, but the crux of the deliberations is that doctors or parents who resort to the use of these [Rubella in this specific incidence] vaccines for their children “carry out a form of very remote mediate material cooperation, and thus very mild, in the performance of the original act of abortion”.

For these reasons, it was considered in 2005 “right to abstain from using these vaccines if it can be done without causing children, and indirectly the population as a whole, to undergo significant risks to their health” and that if there is a risk to health, it is permissible to use them “on a temporary basis” because “the duty to avoid passive material cooperation is not obligatory if there is grave inconvenience”.

In 2005 and 2008, the position of the Vatican was that one can take such vaccines but it was not obligatory. The position had some nuance, provided guidance and, importantly, left room for conscience to play its role for those who were left with “an unjust alternative choice” of protecting their children or having passive material cooperation in what the Church affirms is an evil act.

But the Pontifical Academy were very clear that while one could take the vaccine, there was a “grave obligation to use alternative vaccines and to make a conscientious objection with regard to those which have moral problems” as well as the “need to contest so that others [ethical vaccines] may be prepared”.

This makes sense and would allow me, in conscience, to accept a vaccine of illicit derivation knowing there was an ethical position – that had some likelihood of having an impact – to be taken rather than passive acceptance of the vaccine and doing nothing to address its problematic origins. It would be a bitter pill to swallow, but swallowable, if there were mitigating acts that I could carry out, although feeling stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Much changed between the 2005/8 advice and the guidance given in 2017/20. Somehow, both the CDF (2020) and the Pontifical Academy for Life (2017) moved their position on these vaccines significantly. They maintained that when other vaccines are not available, “it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted foetuses in their research and production process” but the need for any form of objection or protest is omitted.

There is no call to put pressure on authorities to take recourse to alternative vaccines. The emphasis in 2020 is on the duty toward the common good – implying there is a duty to take a vaccine – any vaccine – if it is available, rather than no obligation to avoid such a vaccine.

For some, this may sugar-coat the bitter pill but for others it makes that pill much harder to swallow. The gravity of the evil of abortion is acknowledged as previously but rendered inconsequential in the moral considerations. Between 2005 and 2020 for the CDF and the Pontifical Academy, the vaccines or the cell-lines from aborted foetuses transformed, over time, or through some form of increased moral distance, from being ethically relevant to a mere footnote. The responsibilities that come with passive material cooperation are now omitted. It is not clear whether they have been overruled but the result has been an aching silence from the Church, from many (but not all) pro-life groups and individuals who have a public voice, in seeking alternative ethical vaccines.

In 2020, what was tainted in 2008, has been laundered clean with time. The willingness to accept Covid-19 vaccines is no longer publicly affirmed as an ‘unjust alternative choice’. What this has done for others who may have reluctantly considered swallowing the bitter pill is landed them in a position where there is no means, with conscience, to take the unjust alternative while balancing that with the grave responsibility of making a meaningful conscientious objection that will be heard.

The position of the CDF in 2020 which neglected to affirm the obligation of loudly demand ethical vaccines, along with the subsequent silence of the Irish Catholic Bishops in reminding the faithful, the State, and healthcare providers of this obligation, has put some in a very difficult situation.

The initial analysis of the Pontifical Academy in 2008 was directed towards the permissibility of taking such vaccines, but that measured reasoning on permissibility has since been misconstrued as the only consideration in determining whether or not there is an obligation to take said vaccines, and whether it is permissible to avoid taking the vaccine.

This is a very truncated reasoning and has created a binary choice where that was not the intention in 2008. The recourse to making a decision based on conscience involves other considerations as well. ‘Can’ in this case does not imply ‘ought’. The assessment of the permissibility of taking the vaccines is a much narrower assessment than the deeper determination of whether one ought.

The correct moral rejection of abortion cannot be whitewashed as has been done if the 2020 CDF document is to be read without due consideration of the deeper 2008 analysis. The passage of time or the remoteness of cooperation does not render the evil of abortion irrelevant – it merely renders it acceptable in the consideration of permissibility. The evil that created the stem cells has occurred and cannot be undone. The stem cells being used cannot undo their connection. Making a determination of ‘ought’ cannot so easily sidestep the reality of the association of abortion; as well as the contribution to the continuation of similar practices in the present and dilution of the societal attitude toward abortion.

Many false analogies are used in trying to assess moral choices. This has been a tactic in abortion argumentation for a long time. Assessing a similar hypothetical issue can not ethically replicate a specific real-life one. Analogies of stolen cars, or slave-built bridges all have their shortcomings. The question of whether I can use a stolen car to save a life is not the same as whether I must use that stolen car – nor does it consider whether I can wait for an ethical car to arrive. The fact that I can cross a bridge that was built on the back of the slave trade is not to say that I ought to use that bridge.

In 2005 the Pontifical Academy for Life reminded that “on a cultural level, the use of such vaccines contributes in the creation of a generalized social consensus to the operation of the pharmaceutical industries which produce them in an immoral way” and “a moral duty to continue to fight and to employ every lawful means in order to make life difficult for the pharmaceutical industries which act unscrupulously and unethically”.

This surely has not changed?

Omitting to take part in this fight, though many consider that the stem cells originate sufficiently in the past for their origins to be ignored, invites the pharmaceutical companies to act unethically in the future knowing that the only obstacle to the acceptability of their practice is time and that early investment now in such research techniques will yield the dividends after the sufficient passage of years.

Instead of being an economic deterrent to the use of stem cells derived from aborted babies, the position adopted in 2017 and 2020 is an invitation to researchers and companies, as well as governments, including our own, to invest now in such practices to reap the benefits when the investment matures in a way seemingly sufficiently remote from its origins. For the pharmaceutical research industry, investment is considered to reap its rewards in terms of decades in any case. Knowing that the Church – and its one billion adherents – will likely assess malfeasance today as being remote in twenty years aligns quite well with their expectations of the maturation of their research processes.

On an individual level, with no institutional or organised architecture, and a silent Church, to provide a vociferous objection while making an ‘unjust alternative choice’ in good conscience, it feels like the only means of not giving tacit approval to the continued use of unethical stem cells, is to abstain from taking one of the vaccines currently available, and to wait until an ethical vaccine has been manufactured and made available in Ireland.

There are ethical options in the pipeline – CureVac and Valneva being two of a number of potentials that will be available sometime in the near future – and ensuring uptake and sales for those vaccines is important so that the developers see that there is a differentiated demand for ethical vaccines, and economic as well as ethical value in future vaccine developments.

While waiting for these vaccines, the question of the common good remains relevant. It feels like a catch-22. There will be the accusation that, I am putting lives at risk by not taking a vaccine that I can take. Intuitively this feels correct. But realistically, and on deeper analysis, this is a false dead-end. If only a small few object, knowing that somewhere between 60 and 80% (90% at the most) provide for herd immunity for the population, then my conscientious objection puts no lives at risk. If the cohort of objectors is significant – say 10% or greater – that creates a substantial demand for an ethical vaccine that the market will provide and that the Government, if genuinely concerned for the common good, will support and make available.

Objecting now will either be irrelevant to the common good, or will ensure even more people are vaccinated in the end. There is no downside. What feels like a catch-22 is in fact a virtuous circle if enough people make their objections heard: the common good will benefit by having an even greater percentage of the population vaccinated, and the pharmaceutical industry will hear that there is an economic advantage in not using aborted babies for stem cell research.

On the contrary, those who do not follow the grave obligation to demand an ethical vaccine may be putting lives at risk as well as tacitly supporting future unethical research. It is in everyone’s interest.



Dualta Roughneen