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Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski received the first dose of a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in January.
Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski received the first dose of a Moderna COVID-19 vaccine in January.
Photo Credit: Lisa Johnston

The morality of vaccines

FDA approval of three COVID-19 vaccines has prompted morality-related questions about how they were created. Here’s what you need to know.

From the Vatican to St. Louis Archbishop Mitchell Rozanski, Church leaders have repeatedly said it is morally permissible to receive a COVID-19 vaccine with a connection to aborted fetal cell lines if no other alternative is available.

While Church leaders have said that Catholics should insist that pharmaceutical companies stop using abortion-derived cell lines for the production and testing of vaccines, “given the world-wide suffering that this pandemic is causing, we affirm again that being vaccinated can be an act of charity that serves the common good,” explained Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

The Vatican has long held that vaccines with a connection to aborted fetal cell lines are morally permissible if no alternative exists. In 2005, the Pontifical Academy for Life wrote in “Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared from Cells Derived from Aborted Human Foetuses” that vaccines that do not have an alternative are necessary in order to “avoid a serious risk not only for one’s own children but also … for the health conditions of the population as a whole — especially for pregnant women.” Specifically addressing the COVID-19 vaccine, the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said that while these vaccines have a remote connection to these fetal cell lines, when ethically irreproachable COVID-19 vaccines are not available for various reasons, "it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process." 

Vatican statementbit.ly/30fft4Y

U.S. bishops’ statementbit.ly/3uVoEWh

Archbishop Rozanski’s statementbit.ly/2MTo7TG

Missouri bishops’ statementbit.ly/2PrfaBI

HOW THE VACCINES WERE PRODUCED

The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was approved by the FDA for emergency use on Dec. 11; it was not designed or produced using aborted fetal cell lines. The testing phase included the use of HEK293, a kidney cell line widely used in research and industry that comes from a fetus aborted around 1972.

The Moderna vaccine, approved for emergency use Dec. 18, also was not designed or produced using aborted fetal cell lines; but the testing phase included the use of HEK293.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, approved for emergency use Feb. 27, was designed, produced and tested using PER.C6, a proprietary cell line owned by Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, which was developed from retinal cells from an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985.

Read more (including direct links to pharmaceutical companies’ documentation)lozierinstitute.org/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-covid-19-vaccine/

AVAILABILITY

As of early March, COVID-19 vaccines continue to be difficult to come by, especially in urban areas of Missouri. Questions have been raised about the equity of vaccine distribution across the state, with critics in urban areas complaining that rural parts of the state are getting more than their proportional share of the vaccine.

From a practical standpoint, people do not have a say at this point in time when it comes to which vaccine they are to receive, said Deacon Patrick McCruden, chief mission integration officer with SSM Health. Those who are vaccinated generally are told at the time their appointment is scheduled which vaccine they will receive. Additionally, health care facilities as of now do not have a choice in which vaccine they receive for distribution, Deacon McCruden said.

“When you go to a mass vaccination event or a physician’s office you don’t have a choice,” he said. “You’re going to receive whatever they have. Likewise for the health systems, we are not purchasing them — we get them from the state. In Missouri, there’s been a scarcity and we have been asking for as much as we can get.”

VULNERABLE COMMUNITIES

Considerations must be made for vulnerable people who are at greater risk for adverse complications, health care ethicists have said. The Catholic Health Association has called for equitable distribution of the vaccine. “Because COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, low-income communities, persons with pre-existing health conditions, and racial and ethnic minorities, CHA believes it is essential that any approved COVID-19 vaccine be distributed in a coordinated and equitable manner,” said Sister Mary Haddad, RSM, president and chief executive officer.

Deacon McCruden of SSM Health said there is a concern about people who will have a greater difficulty in getting vaccinated, such as those who are homeless. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine also has a greater convenience factor compared to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Johnson & Johnson is a single-dose vaccine that is refrigerated before use. The other two are two-dose vaccines that are received a month apart and must be kept frozen.

Catholic Health Association statementwww.chausa.org/newsroom/news-releases/2021/02/25/cha-welcomes-news-about-covid-19-vaccines

CDC information on vaccineswww.cdc.gov/vaccines/covid-19/

ADVOCATING FOR MORAL VACCINES

Church leaders also have repeatedly called on Catholics to contact vaccine manufacturers to object to the use of abortion-derived cell lines and to advocate for the development of vaccines with no connection to abortion. The Pontifical Academy for Life has said that there is a “duty to take recourse to alternative vaccines (if they exist), putting pressure on political authorities and health systems so that other vaccines without moral problems become available.”

U.S. bishops have warned that Catholics “must be on guard so that the new COVID-19 vaccines do not desensitize us or weaken our determination to oppose the evil of abortion itself and the subsequent use of fetal cells in research.” The U.S. bishops have created sample letters to send to pharmaceutical companies.

Read more: www.usccb.org/prolife/biomedical-research

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