by Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann
On Easter Monday, I received the first dose of the Pfizer Covid vaccine (see page 16). I could have been vaccinated earlier because of my age. However, having acquired a strong set of antibodies from having contracted and recovered from Covid and aware of the many vulnerable individuals in need of the vaccine’s protection, I was not in a hurry to be vaccinated.
With the declining numbers of hospitalizations and deaths related to Covid, it appears the vaccines are effective. In European countries, where the vaccine rollout has not been as robust as in the United States, we have witnessed the Covid numbers of infections, hospitalizations and deaths unfortunately trending upwards.
Early in the vaccine process, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) urged policy-makers to develop vaccines with no ethical complications, specifically not even a remote connection to abortion.
The bishops raised this concern because several existing non-Covid vaccines used the HEK 293 cell line that was developed from kidney cells harvested from an aborted fetus. HEK 293 was developed in 1973 by a laboratory in the Netherlands.
The first U.S. approved Covid vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna) did not use HEK cell lines in their production. However, the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines did utilize the HEK cell lines in testing their efficacy.
Subsequently, two additional Covid vaccines (Johnson & Johnson as well as Astra Zeneca) have received U.S. approval. Both of these vaccines used HEK cell lines in their development and production.
There are two ethical problems regarding the HEK cell lines. The first ethical concern is the fact that they were derived from cells from an aborted fetus. The abortion was not performed in order to produce the HEK cell lines, but researchers took advantage of the availability of the cells from the aborted fetus.
The second ethical concern is that human cells or organs can only be used in scientific research with the permission of the donor or someone who has authority to grant permission if the donor is unable.
In the case of an aborted fetus, it is impossible for the donor to grant permission. The only other persons that could authorize the cells to be used for research are the parents of the unborn child. However, in the case of abortion, the parents compromised their authority to approve use of their child’s cells because they authorized the abortion, the destruction of their child.
The Covid vaccines were not the first authorized vaccines in the U.S. to employ the HEK cell line. For instance, the vaccine to protect against rubella or measles utilizes cell lines derived from HEK 293.
Before the Covid pandemic, the Catholic Church had already grappled with the morality of using such vaccines.
Some argue that it is not morally permissible to receive vaccines using the HEK cell line in their development, production or even testing. They postulate that receiving such vaccines is a case of justifying an immoral means to achieve a good end. However, this is clearly not the case.
Receiving a vaccine is not an immoral act. The immoral acts occurred when the parents authorized the abortion and when the researchers used human cells without the necessary ethical permission.
In Catholic moral analysis then, the question becomes: What level of cooperation do vaccine recipients have with the immoral actions by the parents, the abortionist and the researchers in developing cell lines that originated from cells recovered from an abortion?
Catholic moral teaching never permits formal cooperation with evil. Formal cooperation involves supporting the immoral actions. To engage in formal cooperation, one has to intend the immoral act to occur. A recipient of a vaccine developed from a cell line that used cells recovered from an aborted fetus is not intending for the abortion to occur or for researchers to acquire human cells without proper permission.
In Catholic moral teaching, there is also material cooperation. Material cooperation can be immediate or mediate. Immediate material cooperation involves providing something that is necessary for the immoral act to occur. Again, the recipient of the vaccine is not providing something necessary for the abortion or the unethical research.
Mediate material cooperation is providing something that is not necessary for the immoral act. Again, the person receiving the vaccine is not providing anything that contributes to the abortion or to the unethical research.
Mediate cooperation can either be proximate or remote. Proximate mediate cooperation means contributing something that leads to the commission of the immoral act. Again, receiving the vaccine does not contribute to the commission of the abortion or the unethical research.
Mediate cooperation can also be remote. Remote mediate cooperation is an action that does not even lead to the commission of the act. Remote mediate cooperation can be morally permissible.
Receiving a vaccine that used in its development, production or testing the HEK 293 cell line does not even qualify for remote mediate cooperation with the abortion or the unethical research that developed HEK 293. Thus, some argue there is no moral concern with using cell lines that were developed by unethical research and an abortion that occurred almost 50 years ago.
However, there is one further moral question: Does receiving the vaccine encourage future abortions or future unethical research? If those receiving the vaccine do not intend to encourage abortion or unethical research, then there is obviously no formal cooperation.
It could be argued that receiving the vaccine might be remote mediate cooperation with future unethical research. One can morally participate in remote mediate cooperation, if there is a serious proportionate reason to do so. In the case of receiving the Covid vaccine, the proportionate reasons are protecting one’s own health as well as the health of others, especially the most vulnerable.
Receiving the Covid vaccine does not incentivize the creation of new cell lines derived from cells recovered from aborted fetuses, since researchers are motivated to continue to use the existing cell lines because of their predictability.
At the same time, we know that Planned Parenthood has been involved in selling organs and tissues of aborted fetuses to researchers. The harvesting of organs and tissues from abortions is a current problem. This is why the U. S. bishops have encouraged Catholics to communicate to pharmaceutical companies and government officials not to use tissue and organs harvested from abortions in the development of vaccines and/or research.
The bottom line is that Catholics in good conscience can receive the Covid vaccines despite their use of HEK 293 in their efficacy testing (Pfizer and Moderna) or in the production and development (Johnson & Johnson as well as Astra Zeneca). The bishops encourage, when the option is available, to request the Pfizer and Moderna because their connection to HEK 293 is even more remote.
However, both the Vatican and the USCCB have said that while it is permissible to receive the vaccines, Catholics should be advocating with governmental officials and pharmaceutical companies to develop future vaccines with cell lines that have no connection to abortion and to communicate opposition to unethical research that uses human cells, tissues and organs without proper permission from “donors.”
Receiving the Covid vaccines can be an act of charity by which individuals are seeking to protect not only their own health but the health of others. This concern for the health of others is not only protection from the virus, but also from all the mental health issues caused by social distancing, isolation and the economic stress caused by shutdowns of businesses.
Some may choose not to receive the vaccines in order to give prophetic witness against abortion and the unethical research that involves the harvesting of cells, tissue and organs from aborted fetuses.
I do not claim any competency about possible unanticipated medical side effects of the vaccines. I trust the analysis of the vast majority of those with medical expertise who consider the vaccines to be safe. However, I oppose any efforts to mandate Covid vaccinations. Our government should respect the rights of individuals to make decisions for themselves and their children.
With the widespread availability of vaccines, we have seen dramatic decreases in the number of Covid related hospitalizations and deaths. The vaccines not only prevent the more severe health consequences of Covid, they are also making it possible for businesses, schools and churches to return to pre-Covid normal. This is beneficial to the mental, emotional and economic health of individuals and the community.
We are not meant to live with physical and social distancing. We need to be able to socialize — to gather with family and friends. Our young people need to be back in school and able to participate in athletic and social events.
Finally, vaccines may protect us from Covid. However, vaccines and other therapies can push back death but not defeat it. Only the risen Jesus can give us the ultimate victory over death.
For those who would like to raise their objections to pharmaceutical companies using the HEK cell lines for vaccines, letters can be found here: https://archkck.org/prolife/resources/vaccines/#take-action.