Much of the 1P5 audience, I suspect is quite wary of taking any of the proposed COVID vaccines.
There are any number of pragmatic concerns, not least of which are the potential side effects of any vaccine that is rushed to market.
There are also ethical concerns, however, based on methods used to develop the vaccines. And on this front, the Society of St. Pius X has helpfully stepped forward to reiterate the moral principles surrounding the issue – particularly in the event of using a vaccine derived from fetal cell lines.
And although many Catholics will hold off on receiving such vaccines, or avoid taking them altogether, there are some (I think here of doctors, nurses, and other health care workers in particular) who will likely be required to take a vaccine as a condition of continued employment. For their sake, at the very least, these ethical/moral considerations are important.
The SSPX statement distinguishes the two types of vaccines in development: mRNA/synthetic vaccines, and vaccines derived from aborted fetal stem cells:
The Pfizer / Biontech trial which yesterday showed 95% efficacy, and the Moderna vaccine which reported 94% efficacy, are developed using methods to create a synthetic molecule made in a lab. It is an mRNA (messenger RNA) vaccine, which is developed from the genetic code of the virus itself. Advances in biotechnology have allowed scientists to make it a stable mRNA molecule for a vaccine. This mRNA is delivered to the body’s cells, where our own cells turn it into a tiny portion of one of the virus’s proteins, our immune cells attack it, and allow the body to learn to defend against it – providing immunity.
mRNA vaccines, since they are synthetic, are quicker to develop – hence the rapid roll-out of vaccines that normally would take much longer.
Other promising vaccine candidates, including those from Oxford have been derived using fetal cells.
The cells used by most of the companies now trying to find a Covid-19 treatment, called the 293T line, were derived from the kidney tissue of a fetus aborted in the 1970s. A similar cell line, Per.C6, was obtained in 1985 from the retinal cells of an aborted 18-week-old fetus. These are the same, or similar to, the cells used in the development of other vaccines, such as the Rubella vaccine, as well as clinical treatments of various sorts.
In fact, the most effective drug treatments of the virus, Remdesivir and Regeneron, which helped President Donald Trump’s recovery from the Coronavirus, were also developed using fetal cells.
The Society makes clear that synthetic vaccines developed without fetal cells should be seen as non-problematic; but that fetal cell derived vaccines can, under certain circumstances, be used, but not licitly manufactured:
This seems to be a contradictory statement – however, the Church realizes that if there are no other treatments available for a widespread public health issue, other than those developed from aborted cells, the participation of the recipient in this sin is material, not formal.
Material cooperation exists when a person shares in some way in an evil action, for example by taking advantage of its consequences, but without sharing its evil intent.
In fact, if there are no other alternatives, participation in this vaccine or treatment could even be seen as necessary:
…so that where there is no alternative to such vaccines, and where the health of children or of the community at large requires it, it is not only permissible to use such vaccines for which there is no alternative, but sometimes even obligatory.
The above quotes are taken from the longer piece developed by the Society of Saint Pius X on the Rubella vaccine – In addition, this question was well treated by the Pontifical Academy for Life, in a document approved by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and dated June 9, 2005.
The Society argues, in line with the Church’s guidelines, that if there is an “option to accept a vaccine or treatment of equal effectiveness developed without fetal cells, a Catholic is obligated to choose this vaccine over one that is developed with the fetal cells.”
Conversely, “Where there is no option to choose an alternate vaccine, one produced with fetal cells is permissible.”
Worth noting here is the obligation for conscientious objection, even where the use of fetal cell-derived vaccines is used licitly for reasons of prudence, taken from the Vatican’s own 2005 instruction on the issue:
It is up to the faithful and citizens of upright conscience (fathers of families, doctors, etc.) to oppose, even by making an objection of conscience, the ever more widespread attacks against life and the “culture of death” which underlies them. From this point of view, the use of vaccines whose production is connected with procured abortion constitutes at least a mediate remote passive material cooperation to the abortion, and an immediate passive material cooperation with regard to their marketing. Furthermore, 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.
Therefore, doctors and fathers of families have a duty to take recourse to alternative vaccines (if they exist), putting pressure on the political authorities and health systems so that other vaccines without moral problems become available. They should take recourse, if necessary, to the use of conscientious objection with regard to the use of vaccines produced by means of cell lines of aborted human foetal origin.
Equally, they should oppose by all means (in writing, through the various associations, mass media, etc.) the vaccines which do not yet have morally acceptable alternatives, creating pressure so that alternative vaccines are prepared, which are not connected with the abortion of a human foetus, and requesting rigorous legal control of the pharmaceutical industry producers.
As regards the diseases against which there are no alternative vaccines which are available and ethically acceptable, it is 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. However, if the latter are exposed to considerable dangers to their health, vaccines with moral problems pertaining to them may also be used on a temporary basis. The moral reason is that the duty to avoid passive material cooperation is not obligatory if there is grave inconvenience. Moreover, we find, in such a case, a proportional reason, in order to accept the use of these vaccines in the presence of the danger of favouring the spread of the pathological agent, due to the lack of vaccination of children. This is particularly true in the case of vaccination against German measles.
Arguments will no doubt be made, on prudential basis, as to whether the reason for taking a vaccine is sufficiently proportionate, and much of that argumentation will be rooted in debates over the true severity and lethality of COVID-19, which is still very much in dispute.
It’s not my intent to try to adjudicate such claims here (or in the comment box).
But for those with a compelling reason to take the vaccine, or who must take one as a requirement of their employment, these ethical considerations will need to be taken into account. I’m grateful to the Society for putting the matter before us again in a clear and understandable way.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.