Why Catholics have a duty to promote ethical vaccine options

A Walgreens health care professional prepares a dose of the Pfizer-BioNTec COVID-19 vaccine in Evanston, Ill., Feb. 22, 2021. (CNS photo/Kamil Krzaczynski, Reuters)

We have been brought close to death — and closer still to the value of life — during the COVID-19 pandemic. We have seen the interconnectedness of humanity, heroic efforts to protect all lives, especially the vulnerable and the elderly, and valiant strides to bring hope and healing. We have been given many opportunities to make personal decisions as acts of charity to protect our neighbor. 

For many, the availability of COVID-19 vaccines has brought real hope. For others, there has been a hesitancy to vaccinate oneself and one’s family, in part because of concerns about the morality of using certain COVID-19 vaccines. 

Accurate information about the development and production of COVID-19 vaccines is essential. One concern regarding the ethical use of various vaccines is the potential use of abortion-derived cell lines in the development, production or testing of a vaccine. 

In December 2020, both the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Vatican COVID-19 Commission in collaboration with the Pontifical Academy for Life addressed the question of “morally compromised” vaccines. 

The Bishops of Michigan issued a statement about this as well: 

“As vaccines for COVID-19 continue to become available, we wish to address the moral questions that have arisen, insofar as some vaccines are developed using cell lines that have originated from the tissues taken from babies who were aborted decades ago. Abortion is a grave evil, and we must avoid complicity in abortion. Let us also pray for God’s peace, healing, and mercy for all those who have had abortions.”  

This agrees with the March 2, 2021, statement from two USCCB committee chairmen, stating, “if one can choose among equally safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, the vaccine with the least connection to abortion derived cell lines should be chosen.”

Catholics believe in the inviolable dignity of every life from conception to natural death. In Evangelium Vitae, we read that the Church does not now and has never accepted abortion: “Christian Tradition … is clear and unanimous, from the beginning up to our own day, in describing abortion as a particularly grave moral disorder.” 

We also hear from the USCCB that, “(t)he Moral Reflections released by the Pontifical Academy for Life in 2005 have been welcomed by the Catholic Bishops of the United States.” They also agree with the National Catholics Bioethics Center, the Catholic Medical Association, and others, that manufacturers “be urged to make alternative vaccines more widely available so that Catholics and others will not face this moral dilemma. In cases where no alternative is currently available, the Academy said Catholics may licitly accept vaccination for themselves and their children using a vaccine based on tissue from abortion or may refuse the vaccine ‘if it can be done without causing children, and indirectly the population as a whole, to undergo significant risks to their health.’”

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith speaks to the questions raised and diverse pronouncements in its Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines: 

“The fundamental reason for considering the use of these vaccines morally licit is that the kind of cooperation in evil (passive material cooperation) in the procured abortion from which these cell lines originate is, on the part of those making use of the resulting vaccines, remote. The moral duty to avoid such passive material cooperation is not obligatory if there is a grave danger, such as the otherwise uncontainable spread of a serious pathological agent — in this case, the pandemic spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19” (emphasis original).

“It must therefore be considered that, in such a case, all vaccinations recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience with the certain knowledge that the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive,” the congregation continues. “It should be emphasized, however, that the morally licit use of these types of vaccines, in the particular conditions that make it so, does not in itself constitute a legitimation, even indirect, of the practice of abortion, and necessarily assumes the opposition to this practice by those who make use of these vaccines.

“In fact, the licit use of such vaccines does not and should not in any way imply that there is a moral endorsement of the use of cell lines proceeding from aborted fetuses. Both pharmaceutical companies and governmental health agencies are therefore encouraged to produce, approve, distribute and offer ethically acceptable vaccines that do not create problems of conscience for either health care providers or the people to be vaccinated.”

The Charlotte Lozier Institute offers an explanation of how some COVID-19 vaccines make use of abortion derived cell lines. One hopes by providing accurate data, recipients can make well-informed decisions regarding vaccine choices to prayerfully discern.

The USCCB wrote, “While having ourselves and our families immunized against COVID-19 with the new vaccines is morally permissible and can be an act of self-love and of charity toward others, we must not allow the gravely immoral nature of abortion to be obscured. It is true that one can receive benefits from an evil action in the past without intending that action or approving of it.” 

Although one’s moral culpability for taking a vaccine utilizing fetal cell lines is far removed, our responsibility to educate ourselves about abortion and the current threats against vulnerable human life, as well as to clearly stand up for this threat to innocent human life, is an essential part of our Catholic witness regardless of one’s decision to vaccinate. As the Church we have an ongoing duty to witness to the sanctity of life.

Detroit Archbishop Allen H. Vigneron reminds us that we “must not let our consciences grow dim. At the same time, we join our voices to call for the development of vaccines that have no connection to abortion. Our consciences must not be dulled, nor may we imply in any way that abortion is acceptable.”

One way to advocate for the respect of the unborn is to act by expressing concerns with the responsible bodies. The USCCB offers a template for sharing concerns with pharmaceutical companies and the FDA here. Register for Michigan Catholic Conference action alerts to advocate for the vulnerable, and sign up for the USCCB’s Respect Life Prayer and Action email list to join other Catholics seeking to build a culture of life. Becoming familiar with the Church’s abortion healing ministry of Project Rachel to extend hope, is another personal way we can prepare to help those in need.

As we join our bishops in praying for an end to the pandemic, let us commit to a renewed pro-life witness that accompanies others with charity. Let us affirm with the bishops’ Pastoral Plan for Pro-Life Activities, “that human life is a precious gift from God; that each person who receives this gift has responsibilities toward God, self and others; and that society, through its laws and social institutions, must protect and nurture human life at every stage of its existence.”

Kathleen Wilson is the Pro-Life and Project Rachel coordinator with the Archdiocese of Detroit’s Department of Evangelization and Missionary Discipleship. Visit www.aod.org/pro-life for more information.