So far, all the COVID-19 vaccines depend on the use of fetal cell lines that originated with abortion. Lots of discussion about the morality of vaccines followed Moderna’s announcement last November that its phase III human trials were successful. It is a good time to slow down, climb up high, and survey our moment in history so we can better see the way forward.
At first mention of a COVID-19 vaccine, I thought, “Oh no, not again!” Previously, the issue was mostly relegated to childhood vaccinations. Vaccines that use aborted fetal cell lines elicit strong reactions from pro-life parents because governing authorities at varying levels require them. To vaccinate or not? For fifteen years I have read and re-read Church guidance. We choose to vaccinate our children. We also dutifully voiced objections to doctors and wrote letters to companies and lawmakers. We were heartbroken knowing we were benefiting from abortion. Like anyone concerned about this issue, we just wanted to do the right thing.
The 2005 guidance from the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAL), “Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared from Cells Derived from Aborted Human Foetuses,” calls this ethical dilemma a “moral coercion of conscience.” Moral theologians termed our use of these vaccines “licit, passive, remote, material cooperation in evil,” but the terminology is unhelpful. The very remoteness that might ease our conscience also makes us powerless to demand ethical alternatives. Our protests fell flat on pediatricians’ floors.
With COVID-19, we are all backed into the same corner. The mRNA vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer were tested in HEK-293 cells, a line that originated with a child aborted in the 1970s. The AstraZeneca vaccine is an adenovirus-vector-based vaccine, which encodes the spike protein. The company uses the HEK-293 cell line to both test and grow the genetically engineered vaccine. The new Johnson & Johnson vaccine is an adenoviral vector grown in the PER.C6 cell line that originated from a healthy 18-week-old aborted child. (See the Children of God for Life website for specifics.)
A hard truth
An alarming number of people, 2.5+ million, have died from COVID-19 worldwide. Economies are crippled, liberties eroded. Mandates will probably be enforced. The stress parents felt for decades is now palpable globally, and a hard truth is emerging.
The 2005 PAL guidance told us to demand ethical alternatives, but that has proven ineffective. To accept the vaccines without accepting them? To wag a finger while getting a jab? To benefit from abortion while opposing it? It is a contradiction, like sporting a seal skin jacket while opposing the killing of baby seals.
The Church is clear that receiving the injection is a matter of informed conscience, and that will not change. But there is a bigger question for Catholics to face, one that goes beyond vaccines. How do we effectively oppose abortion if we are telling the world it is moral to benefit from abortion? It is useful to review our message.
Controversy began abruptly last November when vaccine availability was imminent. The Charlotte Lozier Institute had reported the Moderna vaccine as “ethically uncontroversial,” claiming that researchers did not use fetal cell lines. The National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic News Agency, among others, repeated this claim. (See the timeline here).
But there was controversy. Months earlier, both companies had already disclosed the in vitro testing of mRNA candidates in HEK-293 fetal cells, a critical step in development. The Charlotte Lozier Institute later added the term “confirmatory testing” to describe the in vitro tests, but they continued to call the vaccine uncontroversial. Moral theologians and Church authorities, including those at the Vatican, repeated this phrase and portrayed the testing as a one-time, ethically insignificant, event (examples here and here).
There was no discussion about whether the same in vitro test would be used in ongoing quality control during manufacturing. This information would likely be found in the FDA-approved manufacturing process, but Operation Warp Speed does not require FDA approval.
Most recently, Moderna announced a plan for pre-clinical trials on new mRNA vaccines for SARS-CoV-2 variants at its manufacturing facility in Norwood, MA, a $130M investment employing 230+ employees. The new mRNA vaccines can quickly be adapted for an evolving virus, which is good. The in vitro test, however, is the first step in the pre-clinical trials for vaccine variants before animal and then human testing. If they use the same in vitro testing described in their scientific reports, then this testing is also critical to ongoing development.
From the start, the message was confusing as Catholics were scrambling to figure out what to do. Beyond Catholic circles, I am concerned that the message collectively sent to lawmakers and pharmaceutical companies is that we are not serious about opposing unethical practices.
Licit cooperation in evil
The guidance from the PAL back in 2005 was followed in 2008 with more formal instructions from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). “Instruction Dignitas personae on Certain Bioethical Questions” clarified that the exploitation of aborted human bodies is morally illicit, but the use of the vaccine is morally licit in certain situations. “Licit, passive, remote, mediate cooperation in evil” is only permitted if: 1) the need to protect individuals and populations is grave, 2) there is no alternative, 3) one continues to reject the evil of abortion and the use of aborted children in research.
In December of last year, Dr. Janet Smith insightfully argued that the word “cooperation” is an imprecise misapplication. “How can I,” she says, “contribute to something that has already happened?” She recommended the word “appropriation” (benefiting from ill-gotten gains) instead.
Dr. Smith also noted that Bishops Athanasius Schneider and Joseph Strickland et alii see the remoteness of the cooperation as irrelevant. They argued that “the crime of abortion is so monstrous that any kind of concatenation with this crime, even a very remote one, is immoral and cannot be accepted under any circumstances by a Catholic once he has become fully aware of it.”
Although this statement is more extreme than the guidance in the PAL and CDF documents, it essentially repeats the instructions to “reject” the vaccines – if rejection is taken in a general sense. Catholics could unite and voice an outcry in rejection of the vaccines, even as individuals receive it under moral duress. This interpretation, if accurate, does not resolve the contradiction problem completely, but at least it moves toward a stronger response.
Dignitas personae mentions scandal alongside cooperation in evil, stating that the “risk of scandal be avoided” (35). The document refers here to the choices of researchers.
When the illicit action is endorsed by the laws which regulate healthcare and scientific research, it is necessary to distance oneself from the evil aspects of that system in order not to give the impression of a certain toleration or tacit acceptance of actions which are gravely unjust. Any appearance of acceptance would in fact contribute to the growing indifference to, if not the approval of, such actions in certain medical and political circles.
The problem with remote cooperation in evil, as Dr. Smith points out, is that it only considers the past. When we are making decisions about using vaccines in the present, the focus is on how they were developed and produced in the past. Scandal deals with how our choices influence the future, but it has hardly been part of the conversation.
On December 17, the CDF issued a “Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines,” reaffirming the language in the 2008 Instruction Dignitas personae and the earlier PAL guidance. The note states that “it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process,” but only if ethically irreproachable vaccines are not available and one opposes the practice of abortion. The short note did not mention scandal, but it is worth considering whether our words and choices give “tacit acceptance” to the evil of abortion.
No moral qualms
In January of 2021, Dr. Melissa Moschella at Catholic University of America wrote an opinion published by the Witherspoon Institute’s Public Discourse. She holds that the COVID-19 vaccines are not “morally compromised” at all and asserts that “pro-lifers should not have any moral qualms about taking any of the available vaccines,” contrary to the guidance from the PAL and CDF.
Fr. Matthew Schneider, also at Public Discourse and on his blog at Patheos, argues that if we are going to reject any drug tested with HEK-293, or any other fetal cell line, then we should reject almost every aspect of modern medicine, including a long list of over-the-counter drugs. He says that unless we reject all of it and “say goodbye to modern medicine,” the argument that we should reject them fails.
These arguments are controversial; for over fifteen years, the Vatican has asked Catholics to advocate against the use of fetal cell lines in vaccines. Dr. Moschella and Fr. Schneider are right, however, to point out that the focus on vaccines took our attention off the use of fetal cell lines in other medications. The use of fetal cell lines has become ubiquitous. If we can’t beat them, however, the solution is not to join them.
Try to imagine the decision-makers (executives, scientists, lawmakers, investors) sitting down with Catholic leaders after all that has happened since November 2020. Catholics ask them to stop using aborted children in research. Catholics demand ethical alternatives for vaccines. But the other side already knows we find it morally permissible to benefit from abortion. Why should they take our moralizing seriously? They will likely assume we do it just to make ourselves feel better.
I am very concerned that Catholics have now surrendered the ability to guide ethical decisions at the national or global level, not just for the single vaccine issue, but beyond it to any ethical stand.
Aborted children in research
Vaccine and fetal cell lines are part of a larger problem. Late in 2020, scientific reports of fetal tissue research populated scientific literature, but with hardly a mention in Catholic ethics.
For example, the University of Pittsburg reported how they grafted the scalps of aborted children onto rodents to study staph infections. Hundreds of children aborted in the second trimester were dissected to study the accumulation of flame retardants in utero (for wanted children). And an enormous effort is underway to build a fetal cell atlas. This will map molecular-level genetic changes throughout gestation, requiring a steady supply of fetuses. (Summaries here and here.)
The wave is coming. These research programs are intended to bring significant cures. The fetal cell atlas alone is predicted to end most pediatric deaths. Fast forward this current vaccine debate ten years into the future. The issue will not be fetal cell lines in vaccines. It could be the use of life-saving cures from fetal tissue research. What do we do? Perpetually point to the past and call it remote?
Cooperating in future evil?
Because if we shrug and say we are willing to accept benefit from abortion now, we are not avoiding the risk of scandal. We may be cooperating in future evil by influencing sin in researchers’ decisions.
I do not want my children to someday sit in doctors’ offices with their babies knowing that every medical benefit offered to them, not just vaccines, came from the exploitation of the remains of unwanted children killed by abortion and used like lab rats – and then wonder why Catholics did not unite and absolutely protest this entire practice when they could.
For these reasons, I suggest that consideration of the risk of scandal be re-inserted in our moral calculus, and that we think hard about the influence our words and choices have on our leadership roles in the fight for human dignity. I think it is time to get beyond vaccines.
Related at CWR:
• “Cooperation, appropriation, and vaccines relying on fetal cell line research” (Jan 24, 2021) by Stephan Kampowski
• “Opinion: Is taking the COVID-19 vaccine a moral duty?” (Feb 19, 2021) by Fr. D. Vincent Twomey, SVD
If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!