Wanted: A COVID-19 vaccine that’s safe, effective, and moral

Now is the time—while the vaccines are in the process of development and testing—to denounce unethically derived vaccines and to promote morally sound ones.

A patient in New York City is transported at the emergency entrance outside Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan April 13, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic. (CNS photo/Mike Segar, Reuters)

The biopharma sprint toward production of a safe and effective COVID-19 vaccine has everyone’s attention. Some experts predict one of two vaccine producers will be first to reach the finish line: Sanofi-GSK with its Sars-CoV vaccine or Janssen Pharmaceutical (a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson) with its AdVac vaccine. Careful analysis of the respective production platforms of these COVID-19 vaccine candidates exposes their moral disparity. Sanofi-GSK produces their vaccine using a modified virus cultivated on insect cells. No moral difficulty here. The Janssen vaccine, on the other hand, uses a modified virus cultured on PER C6 cell lines developed from retinal tissue of an 18-week-old, intentionally aborted, baby. Definite moral problem there. By exploiting preborn life and violating the dignity of fetal remains, the production matrix of the Janssen vaccine lacks the moral integrity that should be at the heart of scientific excellence.

Using an abortion-dependent vaccine and cooperation in evil

So, a person interested in doing good and avoiding evil might ask: if the first vaccine to pass safety and efficacy issues were produced within an abortion-dependent platform, would it be morally licit to use it? As if on cue, Ted, a solid pro-lifer who’s very good at anticipating moral dilemmas, called my office recently and posed that very question: would it be morally acceptable for me to be vaccinated with a COVID-19 vaccine (like the Janssen vaccine, for instance) when its production employs fetal cell lines derived from voluntarily aborted fetal tissue? In other words, would my act of using a vaccine like the one produced by Janssen Pharmaceutical implicate me in the evil act of abortion?

My response to Ted relied on the Church’s guidelines on using abortion-dependent vaccines from the Pontifical Academy for Life (Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared from Cells Derived from Aborted Human Fetuses, 2005) and on the instruction from the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (Dignitas Personae, 2008). I framed my analysis of Ted’s question within this hypothetical scenario: the abortion-dependent Janssen vaccine is the COVID-19 “winner,” and Ted has already been vaccinated.

First, I defined basic terms. The two parties brought together by an act of cooperation in evil are the wrongdoer and the cooperator. In this case, the woman who voluntarily had the abortion and subsequently donated her dead baby’s tissue to research is the wrongdoer. Ted is the cooperator—the one who, through his act of getting the Janssen vaccine, is brought into cooperation with the evil of the wrongdoer’s act of abortion.

Second, I explained the moral difference between two levels of cooperation, formal and material. Ted’s vaccination would be formal cooperation in evil if, in getting it, he concurred with the woman’s bad will, that is, in her bad intention to abort her baby. But Ted made it abundantly clear that what he intends in getting the COVID-19 vaccine is the specific goods of personal and societal health that come from protection from COVID-19 and suppression of its spread. Since using the Janssen vaccine is the only means by which Ted can accomplish the good he intends (there’s no moral alternative available), he merely tolerates the associated evil of abortion. Therefore, Ted is not cooperating formally (illicitly) in the wrongdoer’s act of abortion because rather than concurring in, or praising or supporting, the injustice of the act of abortion, he simply tolerates it. Ted is a material (or licit) cooperator in the evil of abortion since he is involved with the abortion for a good purpose and with a good means.

In sum, while Ted’s connection to the abortion is only contingent or accidental to its performance, and has little or no chance of provoking scandal (most people have no idea the Janssen vaccine relies on aborted fetal cell lines), Ted is cooperating in the evil of the wrongdoer’s act of abortion only materially, that is, nondirectly or mediately. Moreover, Ted can be confident he is cooperating in a morally licit way because his act of getting vaccinated is far removed, both temporally and morally, from the wrongdoer’s act of abortion performed in 1985.

The duty to denounce immoral vaccines and promote moral alternatives

In my discussion with Ted, I reiterated that availing himself of an abortion-based COVID-19 vaccine is a morally legitimate form of cooperation in evil and, therefore, something Ted had a right to do. Nevertheless, he must never lose sight of the fact that production of vaccines from aborted fetal cell lines represents an unconscionable exploitation of aborted babies.

The 2005 letter from the Pontifical Academy for Life on abortion-dependent childhood vaccines is very clear about the duty to object to these morally tainted vaccines: “It is up to the faithful and citizens of upright conscience (fathers of families, doctors) to oppose, even by making an objection of conscience, the ever more widespread attacks against life and the ‘culture of death’ which underlies them [abortion-dependent vaccines].” Dignitas personae is equally forceful: “Thus…danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available.”

Therefore, to avoid any kind of passive cooperation in abortion, Ted must carry out his corresponding duty to denounce publicly the abortion-dependent Janssen vaccines and/or to lobby for an abortion-free alternative vaccine.

Next I brought Ted from the hypothetical of our discussion to the reality at hand. Until he knows which COVID-19 vaccine candidate comes to market first, Ted should continue to do his homework, distinguishing the morally good vaccines from the bad. At the same time—while the vaccine candidates are in the process of development and testing—Ted can begin to carry out his duty to denounce publicly unethical vaccines (like Janssen’s) and to openly promote morally sound ones.

Call to action

In talking to Ted, I outlined a plan of action—concrete ways he can fulfill his duty to engage pivotal actors in his fight for a moral COVID-19 vaccine.

Political leaders:

Look up the letters to President Trump from pro-life congressional and Senate leaders advising the president not to capitulate to criticism of his ban on taxpayer funding for aborted fetal-tissue research. If you find your congressperson or senator among the signatories, rally your pro-life friends to call or write these politicians urging their continued pressure on both the Trump administration and on FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn to approve only a vaccine derived in an ethical manner.

Urge the federal lawmakers representing you to introduce legislation that would require all American universal vaccines to be produced free of reliance on aborted fetal tissue/cells.

Organize a peaceful demonstration in front of the FDA headquarters, stressing the theme: what Americans need now is a COVID-19 vaccine that’s safe, effective, and morally sound. Or a variant theme: What Americans don’t need is another universal vaccine that relies on the use of aborted fetal cell lines. As the 2005 letter from the Pontifical Academy of Life points out, the childhood vaccines for rubella (or for measles, mumps and rubella [MMR]) use the WI-38 cell line with “human diploid lung fibroblasts coming from a female fetus that was aborted because the family felt they had too many children,” while vaccines against hepatitis A, chicken pox, poliomyelitis, rabies, and smallpox use the MRC-5 line with “human lung fibroblasts coming from a fourteen-week male fetus aborted for ‘psychiatric reasons’ from a twenty-seven-year woman in the United Kingdom.”

Church leaders:

Invite your friends to join you in writing or calling your bishop, as well as Bishop John F. Doerfler, chairman of the USCCB Subcommittee on Healthcare Issues. Ask these religious leaders to keep up the pressure on the Trump administration, on the Food and Drug Administration, on the Centers for Disease Control, on the National Institutes of Health, and on legislators to consider seriously your moral objection to abortion-dependent COVID-19 vaccine and your moral preference for an abortion-free vaccine.

Pharmaceutical companies and academic centers:

Write a letter of protest to the pharmaceutical companies or universities that are in the process of producing/testing abortion-dependent vaccines. Write a letter praising the vaccine producers who have invested their time and resources in vaccines that do not rely on aborted fetal cell lines. Pose this hypothetical: if your vaccine and another that is abortion-dependent should reach the finish line about the same time, what are the possibilities of mass-marketing both vaccines, providing those who conscientiously object to abortion-dependent vaccines a morally viable alternative?

Hospitals and hospital systems:

Write or talk to the ethicist or ethics committee at your local hospital(s) or at the hospital system level. Enlist their help in finding efficient and creative ways to lobby pharmaceutical vaccine producers to insure the COVID-19 “winner” vaccine will not only be safe and effective but unhampered by the exploitation of preborn life.

Pro-life organizations:

Financially support organizations committed to: the dignity of preborn human life through accurate scientific analysis and moral critique of all the COVID-19 vaccines, the development of an abortion-independent COVID-19 vaccine, and the promotion of ethical alternatives to fetal tissue research.

My final counsel for Ted? Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you (St. Augustine).

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About Sister Renée Mirkes 21 Articles
Sister Renée Mirkes, OSF, PhD a member of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity, directs the Center for NaProEthics, the ethics division of the Saint Paul VI Institute, Omaha, NE. She received her masters degree in moral theology from the University of St. Thomas, Houston, TX (1988) and her doctorate in theological ethics from Marquette University, Milwaukee, WI (1995).


  1. Seriously? Write a letter, talk, peacefully protest…but go ahead and shell out money to buy and use the abortion dependent-vaccines. It’s fine.
    When people stop buying them and using them, the vaccine makers will stop making them. How hard is this to understand?

  2. Two things Sister does not mention: 1-CoVid19 is not, for most people, a fatal disease, so I don’t think that accepting a vaccine acquired from a morally repugnant source is justified. And 2-Accepting this kind of vaccine only supports the company financially and encourages their development more such vaccines. Refusing it, en masse, might—I say might—move them toward using ethical methods.

  3. While abortion sourcing is a valid concern for the vaccine, it is not the only one. I worry that we are going down the same today as with Obamacare, where people in the stupak faction simply wanted abortion out the bill, and then they would approve Obamacare. Well we are now finding out there are lot of other ugly consequences from that bill, the chief of which so far was obergefell, but arguably runs up to the totalitarianism of the moment.

  4. Cindy Cunninham:
    “Two things Sister does not mention: 1-CoVid19 is not, for most people, a fatal disease, so I don’t think that accepting a vaccine acquired from a morally repugnant source is justified.”
    Neither is chicken pox fatal to most folks but we’re still waiting for an ethical alternative to that vaccine. It’s been a long wait.

    The trouble with the varicella virus is the older you are when first infected, the more serious toll it might take on you. None of my children were vaccinated against chicken pox because of the unethical manufacture of the vaccine but the majority of them have still not caught chicken pox & now face that possibility as adults.
    Thank you Sister for this article. There’s a number of vaccines out there also to be concerned about.

  5. While Sister Renee’s counsel is theologically sound, if such a vaccine were produced, I would not be able to take it, no matter how many justifications are given for it. There are scientific issues with that, but on the moral plane, I simply cannot be party to a drug developed using the body of a child who was deliberately killed. I don’t care how many times removed I am from the killing of that child, there are still scientists and businessmen today who are making money off of that child. By receiving that vaccine, I perpetuate that. A good friend of mine is an epidemiologist and he has said publicly that if the Janssen vaccine wins out, he will not receive it, and while he did not say this, I do not think that he would recommend that people get it.

    Again, Sister’s statement is impeccably correct. But I cannot see how receiving the vaccine does not perpetuate the evil that was begun when the child was killed and his or her parts used for profit.

  6. I thoroughly appreciate and share the moral repugnance toward the use of vaccines derived from aborted preborn children. That repugnance is precisely what provokes the second half of Church’s position on the liceity of using abortion-dependent vaccines [2005 letter from the Pontifical Academy for Life and in Dignitas Personae]: the person who uses the morally tainted vaccine has a duty to demonstrate that what he intends in being vaccinated is the good of personal and social health and not the evil of abortion, that is, the individual must “oppose by all means (in writing, through the various associations, mass media) 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 fetus, and requesting rigorous legal control of the pharmaceutical industry producers.” (PAL)
    Or, as Dignitas Personae, states: while grave reasons—preserving one’s health and that of others—could permit one to use a vaccine “developed using cell lines of illicit origin,” one must keep in mind “that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available.”
    To say it is morally licit (one is not sinning) to get a “tainted” vaccine is not to say one must get that vaccine. A person could choose not to get the vaccine out of conscientious objection. What everyone who shares moral repugnance over production and marketing of vaccines that use aborted fetal cell lines could agree on is this: while the COVID-19 vaccine is still at the clinical trial phase, ONE SHOULD CARRY OUT ONE’S DUTY TO PUBLICLY DENOUNCE AN ABORTION-DEPENDENT COVID-19 VACCINE AND PROMOTE THE MANUFACTURE AND MARKETING OF A MORALLY SOUND (ABORTION-FREE) ALTERNATIVE.

  7. Would someone explain to me why it is more repugnant to receive a vaccine derived from an aborted foetus than it is to receive a donated heart, lung, or liver from someone who was murdered?

    If I were to ever find myself on the receiving end of such a vaccine I would say a little prayer for the deceased and tell him or her “Thank you. Through your sacrifice I live.”

    • Richard,
      Do you mean more repugnant or equally repugnant?
      I think most people who describe themselves as prolife see both examples you gave as innocent victims of violence acts. A difference being perhaps that the child was sacrificed intentionally to produce the vaccine.
      If the individual murdered was also killed intentionally for their internal organs then that would be a different scenario from a random homicide victim.

      • Let’s say that the scenario was that the foetus was aborted for other reasons and, after the fact, the cells were extracted from the retina. Would that make this more analagous to my scenario?

        A much used scenario in debate circles 40 years ago when I was in college was whether we could ethically use medical data obtained by Nazis in the camps during WWII. My position 40 years ago, as it is now, is that what happened then was a crime. However, not to use the available information to prevent future suffering only compounds the crime.

        • Richard,
          Sorry for the delayed response.
          I’m not quite sure what point you are trying to make. The deliberate taking of innocent life to achieve an end is certainly more disturbing than harvesting tissues from those killed at random but the question is more about morality than degrees of repugnance.

          Most Nazi medical experiments were bogus. But even if we chose to utilize their results, by doing so we aren’t encouraging present day Nazis to continue to experiment on their victims.

          When we accept vaccines manufactured from fetal tissue we are encouraging pharmaceutical companies to continue in that practice. And as their own documents show, the preborn infants were selectively and intentionally victimized.

          If folks who commit homicides were financially compensated by transplant companies for their victims organs then I suppose it might encourage them to commit further crimes. But it doesn’t work that way in the US. There have been issues in other parts of the world though.

  8. YES! There is a treatment to prevent COVID-19! Half of the problem is the immune system and vaccines potentially worsen the situation. Homeopaths have developed Thymuline 9C made from a hormone made by the thymus gland (immediately behind the heart) and it is responsible for creating T-cells, vitally important for fighting viral infections. us at email@homeopathic.com

    Thymuline is made from a hormone made by the thymus gland (immediately behind the heart), and it is responsible for creating T-cells (which are of vital importance to fight against viral attacks). This is homeopath Dana Uhlman’s research indicating it has been made by a respected homeopathic pharmacy in the USA that sells only to professional homeopaths. They obtained the source of this remedy from the sputum of 13 patients in China. The name of the label is “Novus-CV.” Another series of remedies is by the famous Banerji Clinic in Kolkata, India where there is a very low incidence of COVID-19.

    • M. Noel,
      I really wish homeopathy worked and was based on science rather than 19th century metaphysics.
      Perhaps in some unknown, metaphysical sense diluting a substance until it is no longer chemically present makes it more effective as a remedy, but that’s not within the scope of modern medicine to determine. You can’t test a substance that’s not physically there.
      Avoiding excessive pharmaceutical prescriptions is sometimes a reasonable excuse to use homeopathic remedies. Sugar pills can do no harm. But Covid is a deadly disease for some people and I think we need to be very cautious about giving out advice.

  9. First of all, God bless you, Sister Mirkes, and thank you for your balanced and helpful article. I do have some concern with the aspect of scandal you mentioned. I read a blog that explained the sin of scandal, and I am afraid that in addition to the cooperation with the exploitation of deliberately aborted children, the sin of scandal is quite a danger. It is now some time since you wrote this article, and if there is any media attention at all to people who refuse these vaccines, it is just that we are fringe crackpots, at least partly because of this lack of us carrying out our duty to protest. And aside from media attention, the scandal to all of us faithful who are being advised and urged to accept these vaccines by well-meaning and faithful Catholics and Church leaders is possibly quite harmful and injurious to our souls. I have been looking into this to make a personal decision for quite some time, and have been back and forth a bit! My current and hopefully final decision is not to accept one of these immoral vaccines. I am still very concerned, as I don’t think enough stress has been given at all by the Church in terms of telling us about the duty side of things, should we decide that our conscience points us toward taking one of the vaccines in our particular situation.

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