How does the ability to ‘shop’ for a vaccine impact decision-making for Catholics?

COVID-19 vaccine Ball Lunla/Shutterstock

With coronavirus vaccination sites allowing people to “shop” for a particular vaccine, one ethicist said this can help Americans make prudential decisions.

Joseph Meaney, president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, told CNA in an interview that providing vaccine choices should be applauded for both ethical and public health reasons. 

“There are both prudential and ethical reasons to choose one vaccine over another, and we should be facilitating that,” Meaney said, adding that “there are definitely reasons to prefer certain vaccines over others” for reasons of ethics and efficacy. 

“From all the evidence we’ve seen, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have a higher rate of effectiveness than the Johnson & Johnson vaccine,” he said. 

Axios reported on Wednesday that many COVID-19 vaccination sites in the United States are offering Americans the choice of multiple vaccines. According to a Kaiser Family Foundation poll released last month, at least half of U.S. adults who were open to getting vaccinated against COVID-19 had a preferred vaccine. 

Regarding the choices of whether or not to get vaccinated, or of preferring one vaccine over another, Meaney encouraged Catholics to remember “the duty to preserve our health” as well as “our responsibility to educate ourselves to make an informed choice.”

“A lot of those personal issues matter a great deal, whether they’re vulnerable or not, whether you live with people who are at risk or fragile,” he said. “It does reflect a lot on the individual and their personal situation.”

Informed consent, Meaney said, “is a cornerstone of medical ethics.” He added that allowing people to choose between options will lead to better choices. 

“I think that’s one of the best things about giving people choices, is they can make a freer choice,” he said. “The more open we are in this process the better.”

Ethicists have discussed the responsibility for Catholics to seek COVID-19 vaccines with lesser or no connections to cell lines that are believed to be derived from an abortion in the 1970s. 

Some vaccines, such as those produced by Pfizer and Moderna, used the controversial cell lines in some tests but did not directly use the cell lines in design or production. Other vaccines, such as those produced by Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca, used the cell lines in design, production, and testing.

In December, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith stated that “when ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines are not available,” it is “morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.”

The document called the vaccines’ connection to abortion-derived cell lines “remote,” and said that “in such a case, 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 U.S. Confernece of Catholic Bishops cited the document in a March statement, writing that “Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines raised concerns because an abortion-derived cell line was used for testing them, but not in their production. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, however, was developed, tested and is produced with abortion-derived cell lines raising additional moral concerns.”

The US bishops said that “if one can choose among equally safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, the vaccine with the least connection to abortion-derived cell lines should be chosen. Therefore, if one has the ability to choose a vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccines should be chosen over Johnson & Johnson’s.”

Fr. Tad Pacholczyk, the NCBC’s director of education, explained in a March 4 interview with EWTN’s The World Over that many people might have sound reasons to receive a vaccine with a greater connection to the controversial cell lines. They might not have the ability to choose a vaccine, he said, or they might be allergic to ingredients in another certain vaccine. 

“Certainly if all things are equal – if you have equal accessibility, equal efficacy between different vaccine candidates, and other details are largely the same,” he said, “you would want to look at using the one [vaccine] that is least associated with cell lines from abortions.”

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He added that “[vaccine] accessibility is a big deal, and you can’t get all three of these vaccines, or even more than one, in many locations.” Furthermore, with coronavirus variants spreading, “[t]hat means that vaccines are going to have to be tweaked and tuned, and it means that you are sometimes going to have choices where you’re going to realize that a better candidate will be the one that is associated with cell lines from abortions,” he said. 

“So here, there’s a need, as always, to make a judgement of prudence around these questions.”

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