The United States bishops' conference has said that Catholics can take two of the three available COVID-19 vaccines, even though they were developed with a "remote connection" to "morally compromised" cell lines.

In a statement released Monday, the bishops also said it is morally permissible in some circumstances to receive a third vaccine, developed in close connection with aborted cell lines, but that Catholics cannot allow the pandemic to "desensitize" or "weaken our determination" to oppose the evil of abortion. 

Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, the chair of the USCCB's doctrine committee, and Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas, chairman of the USCCB's pro-life activities committee, outlined their concerns about the vaccines in statement dated December 11 and published on Dec. 14. Widespread rollout of coronavirus vaccine began in the United States on Dec. 14. 

"In view of the gravity of the current pandemic and the lack of availability of alternative vaccines, the reasons to accept the new COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are sufficiently serious to justify their use, despite their remote connection to morally compromised cell lines," said the bishops. 

Taking one of those vaccines, said the bishops, "ought to be understood as an act of charity toward the other members of our community." 

In the statement Monday, the two bishops also outlined concerns regarding the three vaccinations produced by Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca, and outlined the position taken by the Church on other vaccinations developed either in part or entirely from cell lines from an aborted child. 

"The Holy See, through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Academy for Life, has offered guidance on the question of whether it is morally acceptable to receive a vaccine that has been created with the use of morally compromised cell lines," the bishops said. 

"Both the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Academy for Life emphasize the positive moral obligation to do good and in so doing to distance oneself as much as possible from the immoral act of another party such as abortion."

The bishops also noted that "with regard to people involved in the development and production of vaccines, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith explains that 'in organizations where cell lines of illicit origin are being utilized, the responsibility of those who make the decision to use them is not the same as that of those who have no voice in such a decision.'"

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In 1972, a female child was aborted in the Netherlands, and cells from her kidneys were extracted and developed into the cell line now known as "HEK293." "HEK" stands for "Human Embryonic Kidney." Cells from the HEK293 line have been commonly used in biologic research since the late 70s. 

The vaccinations produced by Pfizer and Moderna did not use HEK293 in their design, development, or production, but did use cells from the line in a confirmatory test, said the bishops. 

"While neither vaccine is completely free from any connection to morally compromised cell lines, in this case the connection is very remote from the initial evil of the abortion," said the bishops. 

Conversely, the vaccine produced by AstraZeneca "should be avoided if there are alternatives available," said the bishops, as this vaccine is "more morally compromised." 

"The HEK293 cell line was used in the design, development, and production stages of that vaccine, as well as for confirmatory testing," said Rhoades and Naumann. The two compared the AstraZeneca vaccine to the current rubella vaccine, which also was reliant on "morally compromised cell lines." 

In the case of the rubella (German measles) vaccine, explained the bishops, the risk posed to an unborn child and the community at large by the illness outweigh the morality concerns related to the development of the vaccine. 

"In such a situation, parents are justified in having their children vaccinated against rubella, not only to avoid the effects of rubella on their children, but, secondarily and just as importantly, to prevent their children from becoming carriers of rubella, as the spread of rubella can lead to the infection of vulnerable pregnant women, thereby endangering their lives and the lives of their unborn children," said the bishops. 

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Rhoades and Naumann acknowledged that while Catholics should avoid the AstraZeneca vaccine in preference for one of the other two, it may not be possible for someone to do this without putting society at risk from the coronavirus. If this were to happen, a Catholic would be permitted to receive that vaccine. 

"It may turn out, however, that one does not really have a choice of vaccine, at least, not without a lengthy delay in immunization that may have serious consequences for one's health and the health of others," said the bishops. 

"In such a case, just as accepting a vaccination for rubella with a morally compromised vaccine is morally permissible because of the lack of alternatives and the serious risk to the public health, so it would be permissible to accept the AstraZeneca vaccine," they said. 

A person who refuses to be vaccinated, said the bishops, has "a moral responsibility to undertake all the precautions necessary to ensure that one does not become a carrier of the disease to others, precautions which may include some form of self-isolation."

While the vaccines for coronavirus are permissible to receive despite their moral flaws, it is imperative that Catholics "must be on guard so that the new COVID-19 vaccines do not desensitize us or weaken our determination to oppose the evil of abortion itself and the subsequent use of fetal cells in research," they said. 

"For our part, we bishops and all Catholics and men and women of good will must continue to do what we can to ensure the development, production, and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine without any connection to abortion," said the bishops.