Catholic bioethics and morality of vaccines
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has revised the Oratio Imperata or “obligatory prayer” against COVID-19, providing, albeit indirectly, its blessing to the vaccines that have been developed so far to check the pandemic: “We thank you for the vaccines developed made possible by your guiding hands. Bless our efforts to use these vaccines to end the pandemic in our country.”
The prayer seeks to allay fears by Catholics that the vaccines may have been developed with the use of fetal cells from abortions.
The change came after the CBCP consulted Philippine-American biologist-theologian Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, consultant for bioethics of both the US episcopal conference and the CBCP.
During the consultation, the Dominican friar-priest said the cell lines that had been used in the vaccines were from abortions that happened years ago. The original fetuses and even the fetal cells are long gone.
Caloocan Bishop Pablo Virgilio David, CBCP vice president, agreed. “No new babies were aborted for use of these vaccines,” he said.
Earlier, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), the Vatican’s doctrinal watchdog, issued “Note on the Morality of Using some Anti-COVID-19 Vaccines,” which restates the guidelines of the 2005 document by the Pontifical Academy for Life, “Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared from Cells Derived from Aborted Human Fetuses.”
“(W)hen ethically irreproachable COVID-19 vaccines are not available … it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process,” the CDF said. (Italics from CDF document.)
Moreover, while the use of questionable vaccines may fall under the moral rule against cooperation with evil, the CDF said patients’ cooperation is “remote.” “The moral duty to avoid such passive material cooperation is not obligatory if there is a grave danger, such as … COVID-19,” the CDF explained.
A professor of biology and theology of Providence College in the US and a visiting professor of the College of Science of UST, Father Austriaco said there’s basis for moral concerns of Catholics and others about vaccines developed with the use of fetal cells from abortions.
“We live in a world where persons of virtue live with and are surrounded by persons of vice,” he wrote on Public Discourse, published by the think tank Witherspoon Institute of Princeton. “Often, we benefit from present and past actions of individuals and institutions that are entangled with evil. How are we to live in such a morally complicated world?”
Austriaco, who obtained his doctorate in biology from MIT and doctorate in theology from Fribourg, explained that the appropriation of an evil act would not be justifiable if it contributed to future evil acts through scandal or cooperation. For example, the buyer of a stolen item may make the burglar believe what he did was not evil; “this is the moral offense called scandal.” The buyer may also make the burglar believe he should steal again because he would be rewarded once more; this would be cooperation with evil. In the same way, could the use of a vaccine developed through fetal cells from abortion be considered a scandal and a cooperation with future evil action?
Austriaco said the vaccine developed by Oxford (AstraZeneca) was developed using HEK293—“commonly believed to have been obtained from an aborted human fetus” (although the Dominican also said that Professor Frank Graham, who developed the cell line, told him this was not so). But this cell line was developed over the years from the original fetal cells and not from new abortions. HEK293 is an established cell line. “It is unheard of for a vaccine manufacturer to seek out new human fetal cells from a recent abortion,” the bioethicist explained. “Such novel fetal cells would be uncharacterized, unvalidated, and unapproved by regulatory agencies.”
In contrast, the vaccine developed in China (Sinovac?) used cell lines from new abortions. “Regrettably, Chinese scientists have recently established a novel human fetal cell line from an elective abortion for biomedical research. This was unnecessary, especially in light of the proven success of HEK293.”
“Therefore,” Father Austriaco wrote, “a citizen of conscience who is opposed to abortion could avail herself of … any vaccine developed using fetal cells from an elective abortion only if she avoided scandal by making her opposition to abortion absolutely clear … Next, since it is unreasonable to think that vaccine manufacturers would solicit future abortions to develop future vaccines, she could also rest assured that she is not cooperating with evil. She is not encouraging them to engage in future evil acts.”
Lito B. Zulueta is a long-time journalist-editor who has covered the Vatican. He teaches at the UST Faculty of Arts and Letters.
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