Washington D.C., Mar 5, 2021 / 16:06 pm
A statement by pro-life, Catholic scholars published Friday says that the four major COVID-19 vaccines are not only acceptable to use, but also are themselves morally equivalent.
"While there is a technical causal linkage between each of the current vaccines and prior abortions of human persons, we are all agreed, that connection does not mean that vaccine use contributes to the evil of abortion or shows disrespect for the remains of unborn human beings. Accordingly, Catholics, and indeed, all persons of good will who embrace a culture of life for the whole human family, born and unborn, can use these vaccines without fear of moral culpability," reads a statement by several Catholic ethicists published March 5.
The statement adds: “There appears to us to be no real distinction between the vaccines in terms of their connection to an abortion many decades ago, and thus the moral starting point is one of equivalence.”
The eight signers of the statement are Father Thomas Joseph White, O.P., professor of systematic theology at the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas; Father Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, O.P., professor of biology and theology at Providence College; Carter Snead, director of the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture at the University of Notre Dame; Dr. Robert George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University; Dr. Maureen Condic, associate professor of neurobiology at the University of Utah; Father Kevin Flannery, S.J., emeritus professor of philosophy at the Pontifical Gregorian University; Dr. Christopher Tollefsen, professor of philosophy at the University of South Carolina; and Ryan Anderson, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
The scholars spoke in reference to the four major COVID-19 vaccines: those produced by Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson, and Oxford University/AstraZeneca.
In the statement, they explored the most controversial ethical aspect of the major COVID-19 vaccines—their connection to cell lines derived from an aborted baby.
The HEK-293 cell line is derived from a baby aborted in the 1970s. It is widely used in vaccine production and testing, especially in common vaccines such as those for measles and rubella.
While the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines had a remote connection to the HEK-293 cell line in the early phases of design—relying upon previous research that utilized the cell line—they were not produced with the cell line, as were the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines. However, some of the testing for both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines used the HEK-293 cell line.
Thus, some pro-life advocates and the U.S. bishops’ conference have argued that while it may be morally licit for Catholics to use the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, they should try to receive a vaccine with a less direct connection to abortion, such as the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.
Furthermore, the USCCB has said that it is acceptable for Catholics to refuse a COVID vaccine out of conscience, if they believe that doing so has an impermissible link to abortion.
Bishops themselves have differed in their statements on the vaccines, with some echoing the USCCB’s call preferring one vaccine to another. Others, such as Bishop Robert McElroy of San Diego, have said Catholics could receive any of the vaccines without hesitation. The Bishop of Bismarck, meanwhile, said that Catholics should refuse the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because of its connection to abortion.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said in December that it is “morally acceptable” to receive COVID-19 vaccines connected to abortions, if no ethical alternative is available.
Meanwhile, on Friday, the Catholic scholars stated that “[t]hose who have special reasons to take the J&J [Johnson & Johnson] 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.”
Their statement could appear to diverge from that of the USCCB, which said that Catholics should prefer a vaccine with a more remote connection to abortion if possible. The USCCB’s doctrine chair, Bishop Kevin Rhoades of South Bend, has clarified that “What’s most important is that people get vaccinated,” in a March 4 video message.
The connection of all four vaccine candidates to abortions is extremely remote—“a technical causal linkage,” the scholars wrote—and Catholics receiving any of those vaccines is not “in any way endorsing or contributing to the practice of abortion.” On that particular matter, they affirmed their agreement with Bishop Rhoades.
Catholics “can use these vaccines without fear of moral culpability,” they stated, adding that there are “little if any moral reasons against accepting” one of the four COVID vaccines.
Furthermore, the HEK-293 cell line is connected to more public goods than many might realize, the scholars said. The cells are used to test processed foods, for testing in the cosmetic and pharmaceutical industries, and “their use in biomedical research is ubiquitous,” they wrote.
The cell lines are not “body parts” of the aborted baby, but are rather “biological products that have been modified and reproduced many times over, and they do not retain the natural function of the tissue from which they were derived.”
The HEK-293 cell line does not rely upon continued abortions, but is continuously derived from the baby believed to have been aborted in the 1970s, they said. The baby was not aborted in order for its body to be used for medical research, they noted.
Pro-lifers might prefer one vaccine to another because of a perceived lack of connection to abortion, they said.
“Again, we agree with Bishop Rhoades that such a choice is a matter for their conscience. But we think it a mistake to say both that these vaccines are morally permissible to use and yet that some ought to be preferred to others,” they said.
Furthermore, one could make a prudential argument in favor of receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine given that it is easier to store and transport and requires only one shot rather than two, as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines require.
“Persons with access to these vaccines have strong moral reasons to take them: in doing so, they build up the herd immunity that will provide the greatest possible protection for the most vulnerable among us, including the elderly, those with pre-existing conditions, some minority populations, and the many other seemingly random victims of severe COVD-19,” they stated.
“To be perfectly clear, we are not saying that people are justified in using and promoting these vaccines because the great goods they provide offset the evil of appropriating a prior wicked action. Rather, we believe that there is no such impermissible cooperation or appropriation here. The attenuated and remote connection to abortions performed decades ago and the absence of any incentive for future abortions offer little if any moral reasons against accepting this welcome advance of science.”