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The Morality of the COVID-19 Vaccines

The Morality of the COVID-19 Vaccines

Pharmacist Serena Burgdorf administers a Covid-19 Moderna vaccine shot to Christine Griffin, Army Veteran, who has a spinal injury and is inpatient at the West Roxbury VA Medical Center in Boston, MA on December 23, 2020. The VA is vaccinating front line workers and at risk patients during phase one. (photo: JOSEPH PREZIOSO / AFP via Getty Images)

If morally unproblematic alternatives were available, one should refuse anything produced or tested using cell lines made from aborted fetuses for the sake of honoring the inherent dignity of the aborted victim. The question remains, is it always and everywhere wrong for a person, to avail themselves of this benefit if no alternatives are available?

In spite of the fact that it is marvelous to have vaccines against the COVID-19 virus so soon, there are unfortunately reasons why some — if not many —will choose not to receive them. Some have concerns about side effects; others believe that the pandemic is over hyped and being used by evil forces to exercise social control. (Those concerns are deserving of consideration but are not the point of this essay.)

Since all the currently available vaccines made some use (either in production or testing) of fetal cells lines developed from tissues taken from babies killed in their mother’s womb, most objections have to do with the possibility of being morally culpable in the evil of abortion.

Nearly all the moral authorities of the Church who have issued statements on the morality of the use of such vaccines have determined that using them would involve only remote material cooperation with the evil, a cooperation that is morally acceptable when the benefits to be gained are proportionate. The Vatican recently laid out a justification based on traditional categories of Catholic moral thought and encouraged people to receive the vaccine for the sake of the common good.

While I respect the close careful reasoning of the Vatican document and many others, I thinkthe principle of cooperation with evil to the current COVID-19 vaccines is not applicable here, though it is a common misapplication.  I (and others) believe the category “cooperation with evil” rightly applies only to actions to which one’s “contribution” is made prior to or simultaneously with the action performed. To speak of contribution to a completed action is to speak imprecisely. How can I contribute to something that has already happened? How can acceptance of a benefit from a past action be a “contribution” to the action itself? I can’t will that something that has been done be done or not be done. Nor can I contribute to it, though I certainly can agree with or object to that action having been done. Whether I contributed or not, I certainly should make my objections known regarding the action itself.

Some moralists are now more accurately speaking of “appropriation” or what has been known as “benefiting from ill-gotten gains.” That is a principle that permits such actions as benefiting from inexpensive products made in countries that exploit their workers, from venerating relics, all the way to using organs from murder victims. When we can avoid such action, we should, but at times it is moral to benefit from past evil action.

Some think it is not moral to do so in the case of the vaccines from aborted fetal cell lines. They think the benefits are not proportionate to the disregard for fetal human life involved in the use of such vaccines.

The strongest statement against use of the vaccines by Bishops Athanasius Schneider and Joseph Strickland et alii comes closest to making such a claim.. Their statement does not explicitly contest that the cooperation with the use of the currently available COVID-19 vaccines is very remote; rather, it insists that remoteness of the cooperation is irrelevant. Here is the crux of their statement:

In short, they claim that the use of the vaccines involves a “concatenation, albeit very remote, with the process of the abortion industry” that makes it immoral since one would be benefitting from the fruits “of one of mankind’s greatest crimes.”

I agree with Bishops Schneider and Strickland that abortion is a special case since the abominable crime of abortion makes what should be the safest place on earth — a mother’s womb — one of the most unsafe places on earth. Moreover, it has such widespread acceptance that it is legal almost everywhere. The humanity of the unborn, even though easily established scientifically, is not acknowledged in law or in medicine. If morally unproblematic alternatives were available, one should refuse anything made using cell lines made from aborted fetuses for the sake of honoring the inherent dignity of the aborted victim. The question remains, is it always and everywhere wrong for a person, to avail themselves of this benefit if no alternatives are available? In other words, is it a moral absolute that one can never receive the benefit, no matter the need or the circumstances?

In a persuasive essay Father Matthew Schneider lists 12 different instances — several of them as grisly and horrifying as abortion — where the cooperation with evil is less remote than that with abortion in the context of the COVID-19 vaccines. He points out that most of us live quite comfortably with those evils. In fact, the very cell lines used to develop the COVID-19 vaccines have been used in many other vaccines and used for other medical purposes such as cancer. Church officials have not issued statements against all those instances of cooperation with evil. To assert, as some pro-life leaders have done, that receiving benefits from vaccines reliant upon cell lines from aborted fetuses is intrinsically immoral, contradicts the long-standing and recently reiterated moral judgment of Church leaders and moralists that it is not immoral to use ill-gotten gains when the benefits are proportionate.

I believe if the vaccines are as effective and safe as touted, the benefits will be enormous and proportionate: lives will be saved, the economy could recover, and we could get back to our normal lives. Those are very significant benefits that arguably balance any connection the vaccines have with abortion, especially if we intensify our objections to abortion and the use of cell lines from abortion.

Bishop Strickland has continued to speak out against the connection of the vaccines with abortion, something the Vatican statement urges, but few Church leaders do. Nonetheless, he acknowledges that others may discern that they should use the vaccines:

“I will not accept a vaccine whose existence depends on the abortion of a child, but I realize others may discern a need for immunization in these extraordinarily hard times. We MUST voice a UNITED, strong cry for companies to STOP exploiting these babies for research! No more!”

Still even if it is morally permissible to use the vaccines according to some principles, doesn’t our willingness to use them undercut our opposition to abortion? Aren’t we endorsing abortion if we are willing to use products developed through cell lines from aborted fetuses?

“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 is, of course, that in spite of our protestations to the contrary, it seems impossible to avoid giving the “impression of a certain toleration or tacit acceptance of the gravely unjust action of abortion.” In this respect, greater leadership by our bishops is much needed in order to clarify the Church’s opposition — such as putting full-page ads in major newspapers, using social media to protest the use of cell lines from aborted fetuses in development of medical treatments, and spear-heading a campaign of letter-writing to pharmaceutical companies and legislators. There is much that can and should be done.

This seems to be the uncomfortable situation we are in:

1)  Church authorities using principles of traditional moral theology instruct us that it is moral to use the current COVID-19 vaccines and that it would be in service of the common good to do so.

2)  They tell us that we can mitigate the false impression that our use of the vaccines by making our objections known … but they don’t do much in that respect. And, frankly, that is scandalous and in fact is one of the factors that leads some other leaders and some pro-lifers to want to reject any use of the vaccines.

3)  Other leaders of the Church — whom many of us have come to respect as prophetic voices — urge us not to use the vaccines as a way of protesting the millions of unborn lives killed every year worldwide.

Since to receive the current vaccine is not intrinsically immoral, I believe front-line workers, such as health care professionals, and those who are at high risk of dying from the virus would be perfectly justified in receiving the vaccines and likely even have an obligation to do so. At the same time, they must find a way to make it clear that it is imperative that cell lines not from aborted fetuses be developed for use in medical research. A public campaign by health care professionals explaining why they are willing to use the vaccines but also stressing the need for vaccines produced in an ethical fashion would be very powerful.

We should all hope and pray that soon, very soon, vaccines not developed from cell lines from aborted fetuses will be available, and that soon, very soon, abortion will become a thing of the past.

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