But this does not mean that Catholics are prohibited from receiving these vaccines, explained Dr. Jozef Zalot, an ethicist with the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC), a non-profit research and educational institute committed to applying the moral teachings of the Catholic Church to ethical issues arising in healthcare and the life sciences.
Zalot pointed to a 2005 document from the Pontifical Academy for Life which considered the moral issues surrounding vaccines prepared in cell lines descended from aborted fetuses. The Vatican group concluded that it is both morally permissible and morally responsible for Catholics to use these vaccines.
The document also noted that Catholics have an obligation to use ethically-sourced vaccines when available, and when alternatives do not exist, they have an obligation to speak up and request the development of new cell lines that are not derived from aborted fetuses.
This conclusion, Zalot said, is based on a framework for evaluating ethical dilemmas, “when you’re in a situation where you want to do good, but in doing so, there’s some level of cooperation in an immoral act.”
Moral theologians weigh the level and type of cooperation in the evil act – in this case two abortions performed in 1960s from which the cells lines were developed – as well as the good of public health that comes from vaccinating.
“One is morally free to use the vaccine, despite its historical association with abortion, if there is a proportionately serious reason for doing so,” the NCBC says in its Frequently Asked Questions about vaccines, drawing from the conclusions of the Pontifical Academy for Life.
“In practice, the risks to personal and public health could permit its use. This is especially important for parents, who have a moral obligation to protect the life and health of their children and those around them.”
No additional abortions are performed to maintain the vaccines, and no cells from the abortion victims are contained in the vaccines themselves, the NCBC notes.
Other concerns regarding vaccines involve side effects. Internet groups have voiced concerns that vaccines could be linked to negative outcomes including autoimmune disorders, autism, and learning disabilities.
However, the science does not substantiate claims that vaccines pose a significant threat, according to Dr. Paul Cieslak, an infectious disease specialist with the Oregon Health Authority.
Speaking as a Catholic physician and father of six children – all of whom are vaccinated – Cieslak told CNA that while all medications, including vaccines, have the potential for side effects, vaccines are largely safe.
To be approved by the FDA, he said, vaccines undergo clinical trials with hundreds or thousands of people. Once they are licensed for use in the general population, there are additional systems set up to look for possible side effects.
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“When you give vaccines to millions of people, some of them are going to develop a disease or get sick [in a way] that’s completely unrelated to the vaccination,” he said, so further examination is necessary to determine whether the vaccine caused the adverse event.
If something concerning surfaces in the reporting system, known as VAERS, it is referred to the Vaccine Safety Datalink, a group of healthcare organizations around the country. They monitor data on patients coming in with certain symptoms and problems, to see if these symptoms are more likely to arise in patients who have recently been vaccinated.
“Those systems give a lot of reassurance that the vaccines are safe,” he said, noting that 15 articles were published last year “looking into various suspicions that were raised, and basically weren’t finding anything.”
Cieslak said that parents making the decision of whether to vaccinate their children should keep the common good in mind.
“I would argue that there is a rationale rooted in social justice that people should get their children vaccinated for the greater good. The Church does tell us that we are our brother’s keeper, and we can protect other people.”
In particular, those who cannot receive vaccines – children who are too young to receive them, pregnant women, and people with suppressed immune systems – benefit from what is called “herd immunity.” If enough of a community is vaccinated, it becomes much more difficult for a disease to spread through a population. This protects those who are most vulnerable to the disease and its complications.