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Counterpoint: We Should Reject Abortion-Tainted Vaccines

Even if current vaccines can be justified as remote cooperation, Catholics should make a heroic witness to life and wait for fully ethical COVID vaccines to arrive.

This is part two of a point-counterpoint regarding the morality of Catholics’ receiving the currently available COVID-19 vaccines. Joseph Meaney provides the point here.


The idea that Catholics should reject abortion-tainted COVID-19 vaccines and wait for something better, regardless of need, is not the popular position, but it is a justifiable and, as I will argue, the right position to serve the common good and future of humanity.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has clarified the use of vaccines derived from aborted fetuses as “morally licit” because “the procured abortion from which these cell lines originate is, on the part of those making use of the resulting vaccine, remote.” Its 2008 instruction Dignitas Personae says it is not our fault if we are backed into this corner. When pharmaceutical industries develop products that depend on aborted children, the responsibility of the researchers is not the same as “those who have no voice in such a decision.” We are victims of circumstance if there are no alternatives. We are permitted to cooperate in evil if we discern that we need the vaccine to protect ourselves and our communities. The CDF says this “licit” use of abortion-tainted vaccines does not imply that we endorse abortion.

Moral theologians have used adjectives to describe licit cooperation in evil. It is passive because it is not our fault, material because we use a product but do not will the evil, mediate because we indirectly access the materials, remote because we did not decide how the research would be done. With COVID-19 vaccines, bioethicists have referred to degrees of remoteness depending on whether the vaccine is grown in the abortion-derived cells, or just tested in the abortion-derived cells, or merely tested only once in abortion-derived cells.

For the faithful who are not new to this vaccine issue, the growing list of adjectives can sound like rationalization. Moreover, when we ask a question, we are given conflicting information.

First, we were told that abortion-tainted cells were only used in research, not in production, and were therefore ethically uncontroversial. We wondered when it became acceptable to use fetal cells in research. We wondered why experts think research ends when production begins. Why would a company that uses fetal cells in research choose otherwise in the production of millions of doses?

Then, we were assured repeatedly that for the mRNA vaccines, such as the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, abortion-tainted cells are only used in testing. The phrase “confirmatory testing,” which originated with the Charlotte Lozier Institute with no explanation, appeared in just about every letter sent out by bishops declaring mRNA vaccines as acceptable for Catholics (while saying that the traditional vaccines, viruses grown in fetal cell lines, are to be avoided). But anyone who has ever purchased bottled water knows that quality control testing is part of the production process. It is reasonable to ask whether the same tests that are done during development are also done during production in an ongoing manner.

We are even told that, after all this time, the fetal cell line in question, HEK293, may have been from a miscarriage, not an elective abortion. Then, we are told by collaborators with the leading bioethical institutions that just about everything we do—using cell phones, searching the internet, buying coffee, eating bananas, is equally remotely connected to evil. It feels a lot like we are being led to question our sanity.

The CDF allows us a way out of victimhood, but it will require heroic virtue. Tens of millions of Christians have been martyred since the time of Christ. Refusing a vaccine whose existence depends on the remains of aborted children by adopting other necessary anti-COVID measures, such as social distancing, until an ethical vaccine is available, seems doable in comparison. The recent CDF doctrinal note allows us to take a stand in the defense of the unborn and doing so is consistent with Church teaching. It is to stand with saints.

The CDF says that we have a duty to “pursue the common good.” If we refuse these vaccines, we must protect the vulnerable and take care not to spread the disease. However, pursuing the common good in the long term requires us to look at the bigger landscape with a vision toward progress. In the moral calculus, there has been little attention paid to the innocent victims at the heart of this debate who are used as “biological materials” in research. The CDF was careful to say that the morally licit use of abortion-tainted vaccines does not constitute a legitimation, even indirectly, of the practice of abortion. That is no doubt true for any Catholic who accepts these vaccines. But we cannot stop fighting for our humanity.

It is not realistic to put a boundary around one child who was killed by abortion to produce a cell line used in vaccines today. The HEK293 fetal cell line began with a healthy aborted child in the 1970s. This child’s code name means he or she was the 293rd experiment to isolate human embryonic kidney cells to multiply indefinitely. The cell line is not confined to one child. Cell lines eventually stop multiplying, and new ones must be found.

There are reports of aborted children used in research almost daily. A growing number of new technologies use fetal tissues, such as single-cell transcriptomics, humanized mice, and organoids; each of these fields relies on an ongoing supply of fetal tissue.

In just the last half of 2020, there have been reports of second-trimester aborted children dissected for their bones, livers, kidneys, thymus, spleen, and more used to study human development during gestation. Mothers are recruited, the studies say, to donate their aborted children, at times along with their placentas and the mother’s blood, for scientific studies.

In September, a shocking report told how fetal scalps are grafted onto rodents. The results display a collection of photographs of soft baby hair growing out of the backs of mice. The same children’s organs were transplanted into the mice so scientists could study staph infections. The work was supported by the National Institute of Health (NIH) and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the same branch that Moderna collaborated with for the development of the mRNA vaccine.

In November, Science journal published a groundbreaking report on a “human cell atlas of fetal gene expression.” The graphic shows how they are butchering babies to obtain organs for genetic analysis. The atlas has a lot of white space, which means they are only getting started. (Take a look.) This work was funded in part by the NIH and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative started by Mark Zuckerberg to, in his words, create a future of justice and opportunity for everyone.

If most Catholics in the United States accept these vaccines because the Church said they are morally permissible, it will be difficult for us to effect change. Pro-life argument could be easily and safely dismissed by the industry. If the industries were so inclined, they could diminish the credibility of the bishops to the point of rendering them ineffective. The press, the research community, and elements of the government would revel in support of new discoveries and products, heralding these magnificent achievements of science and organization, while casting Catholics as weak. Research and industry have seized the initiative (or rather it was handed to them) and it would not be a surprise if those entities tried to fully neutralize their opponent, us Catholics, if given the chance. That is what is at risk for the common good. The Church will have no authority in the political and public arena, no rational standing from which to argue for moral behavior.

There are ethically produced vaccines coming. We do not know when or exactly what they will entail, but it seems necessary to urge Catholics to wait and promote them, to support them with full force, to reject abortion-tainted COVID-19 vaccines and wait for something better, regardless of need.

As with many other decisions in the life of faith, we must exercise prudential judgment. And so I pose this call to extraordinary action in complete respect for freedom of conscience. Pray for the grace of heroic virtue and supernatural prudence to make a choice. And if you do accept a vaccine tainted with the remains of an aborted child, say a prayer for that child and give him or her a name instead of a code, and then pray for all the unborn, unwanted children killed by abortion, because we will fight this battle for humanity best on our knees.

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