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The first part of December has seen some monumental news in the fight against COVID-19, with Great Britain beginning to vaccinate residents and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration apparently on the brink of approving at least one vaccine.
But ethical concerns about vaccines persist in the minds of some Americans. At issue is whether vaccines were developed with the aid of any biological material from aborted human fetuses. In the case of at least two vaccines, Catholic leaders have sought to put people’s minds at ease — but with caveats.
In late November, the chairmen of two U.S. bishops’ conference committees said that it would not be not be “immoral to be vaccinated with” the COVID-19 vaccines recently announced by Pfizer Inc. and Moderna.
“Neither the Pfizer nor the Moderna vaccine involved the use of cell lines that originated in fetal tissue taken from the body of an aborted baby at any level of design, development or production,” the two bishops said in a memo to all the bishops of the United States. “They are not completely free from any connection to abortion, however, as both Pfizer and Moderna made use of a tainted cell line for one of the confirmatory lab tests of their products.”
“There is thus a connection, but it is relatively remote,” the bishops said in the memo, a copy of which was obtained by Catholic News Service. “Some are asserting that if a vaccine is connected in any way with tainted cell lines, then it is immoral to be vaccinated with them. This is an inaccurate portrayal of Catholic moral teaching.”
For the vaccine recipient, they said, citing Church teaching, “it is morally permissible to accept vaccination when there are no alternatives and there is a serious risk to health.”
The bishops’ statement has been echoed by others in the days since they wrote the memo. Last week, the California Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state’s bishops, affirmed that the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are “morally acceptable.”
The same cannot be said for the vaccines being developed by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, which use abortion-derived fetal cell lines in their production, according to the American Association of Pro-Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists, American College of Pediatricians, Catholic Medical Association, and Christian Medical and Dental Associations.
The groups, in a statement issued last week, said that the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines are mRNA vaccines that used abortion-derived fetal cells in their animal-phase testing, but, “commendably, it does not appear that production methods utilized such cells.”
The statement directs interested persons to the website of the Charlotte Lozier Institute for current information on potential COVID-19 vaccines, including details regarding the possible use of abortion-derived fetal cell lines. The CLI recently published a new chart detailing whether the eight leading vaccine candidates supported by Operation Warp Speed are produced or tested using cells derived from abortions. CLI’s analysis found that a majority of vaccine candidates did not use abortion-derived cell lines in their production. Several used abortion-derived cell lines in laboratory testing, or their use in testing could not be determined.
“Unfortunately, some vaccine developers have unnecessarily put American families in a difficult position by choosing to use controversial human fetal cell lines in production or testing, or by a lack of transparency,” CLI said in a statement. “Many developers already opt to use animal cell lines, non-fetal human cells, yeast, or chicken eggs instead. We urge all developers to avail themselves of these options going forward. Doing so will reduce vaccine hesitancy for those who oppose the use of fetal cell lines, thereby increasing the public health impact of the vaccine.”
Some scientific institutes, such as the John Paul II Medical Research Institute in Coralville, Iowa, have found ethical ways to produce vaccines, without resorting to the use of cells from aborted human embryos or fetuses. The John Paul II institute uses umbilical cord and adult stem cells.
“These and other ethical approaches provide encouragement for the future, where no vaccine will violate the dignity of human life in their production,” the Christian medical groups’ statement says.
“It is long overdue for researchers to abandon the use of abortion-derived cells,” the statement says. “When all approved vaccines are fully ethical, from development to production, our physician-led organizations and like-minded Americans will no longer question their use.”
Catholic University of America philosophy professor Melissa Moschella pointed out in an article in First Things that a cell line known as HEK 293, which is thought to be derived from the kidney tissue of a fetus aborted in 1972, was used in confirmatory lab testing for Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines.
But cell lines like HEK 293 are far removed from the unborn child from whose tissue they were initially derived, Moschella wrote. Such cell lines are “immortal,” meaning that, once developed, they continue to divide and reproduce themselves indefinitely, she said. “This means that the use of such lines does not necessarily create additional demand for new fetal tissue,” Moschella pointed out:
HEK 293 has become a staple for biological research; its use is so ubiquitous — and so many other basic research materials like recombinant proteins and molecular reagents have been produced from it — that conducting research without relying on it in some form is practically impossible. Anyone who wants to completely avoid benefiting from the use of HEK 293 would effectively have to eschew the use of any medical treatments or biological knowledge developed or updated within the past forty years.
Moschella, who is a visiting scholar at the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies at the Heritage Foundation, argued that rejecting a vaccine that was tested in this way with HEK 293 would be comparable to refusing an antimalarial drug because it was developed from immoral experiments performed in Nazi Germany on concentration camp prisoners and those in mental institutions, or deciding not to ride on a railroad in the southern United States because its original construction involved slave labor.
“If the use of HEK 293 or other fetal cell lines perpetuated the injustice of abortion by creating ongoing demand for more fetal tissue, or reflected implicit approval of that injustice, then I believe that pro-lifers would be morally required to avoid benefiting from it,” Moschella said. “That is why it is important to promote policies—like the one adopted in June 2019 by the Department of Health and Human Services—that discourage the use of newly acquired fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions and promote the development of ethical alternatives.”