Last November, the pharmaceutical companies Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca announced that they had developed vaccines that effectively prevent infection by the COVID-19 virus. Not long after the announcement, however, questions were raised by many as to the morality of receiving these vaccines. The issue stems from the use of a morally compromised cell line in various phases of the design & development, production, and testing of these new vaccines. This cell line was created in 1973, very likely from kidney cells taken from an aborted fetus. Because abortion is always and everywhere a gravely evil act, the question is whether it is ethical to receive a vaccine that has some connection to abortion. Out of serious pastoral concern, the members of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) studied the question and published a letter on December 11, 2020 with their findings.
The Bishops clearly state that the cell line is morally compromised. They also state that that they will continue their necessary advocacy for the development of a vaccine that has no link to abortion. The Church teaches that we have “the positive moral obligation to do good and in so doing to distance oneself as much as possible from the immoral act of another party such as abortion in order to avoid cooperation with someone else’s evil actions and to avoid giving scandal.” With this in mind, the Bishops conclude that, while the use of these vaccines is not free from any cooperation with evil, this cooperation is sufficiently remote and the reasons for using them are proportionately great, that it is morally permissible to receive these vaccines. Because the AstraZeneca vaccine is more morally compromised than those of Pfizer and Moderna, “[it] should be avoided if there are alternatives available.” But if there is no alternative, or if the waiting for an alternative would have serious health consequences for oneself or others, to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine would be morally permissible. That it is permissible to receive the vaccine does not make it mandatory, however. One may, for reasons of conscience, decline to be vaccinated as long as he or she understands their moral responsibility to protect through their actions the vulnerable members of their community. One may not teach, however, that other Catholics must refuse vaccination.
The Bishops’ statement expresses concern that their conclusion might have the unintended effect of giving the false impression that abortion is not as gravely immoral as the Church has always maintained it to be. There is the possibility that their statement might cause scandal – leading people to confusion about what is true and good, and putting them in danger of justifying sinful behavior. For this reason, the Bishops are careful to be very precise in their statement. “Given the urgency of this crisis, the lack of available alternative vaccines, and the fact that the connection between an abortion that occurred decades ago and receiving a vaccine produced today is remote, inoculation with the new COVID-19 vaccines in these circumstances can be morally justified.” At the same time, they teach that it is imperative that all people of good will “continue to do what we can to ensure the development, production, and distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine without any connection to abortion and to help change what has become the standard practice in much medical research, a practice in which certain morally compromised cell lines are routinely used as a matter of course, with no consideration of the moral question concerning the origins of those cell lines.” You can find a link to the official statement on the USCCB’s website: https://www.usccb.org/