Vaccines, COVID19, And The Christian Obligation To Protect Society

Vaccines, COVID19, And The Christian Obligation To Protect Society August 28, 2020

Jernej Furman: Doctor in face mask holding syringe with Coronavirus Vaccine text / Flickr

Due to dangers of COVID19, both amount of death it can cause as well as its potential to ruin the lives of its survivors, it is not surprising that researches are fast tracking many different potential vaccines which appear to help stop its spread. It is understandable that, due to the speed involved in creating such a vaccine, some may be concerned with its safety. That’s different from those who are using fears to spread various conspiracy theories so as to encourage people to never be vaccinated. Even though such conspiracy theories rely upon nonsense, many uninformed people listen to them, showing how and why these theories are a menace to society. They discourage proper social action in a world in desperate need for people to realize their social responsibility and do what they can to help their neighbor and stop the COVID19 pandemic.

Vaccines are good. They help protect society from dangerous diseases. When diseases spread fast, and are deadly (or result in life-altering damage to someone’s body which might never be healed), it becomes necessary for every member of society to do their part and become vaccinated if they are able to receive a vaccine.[1] We are morally obligated to protect society from deadly diseases if and when we can do so. If we do not, and our inaction leads to the untimely death of our neighbor, we are culpable for that death. Evil can be found not only in what we do, but what we fail to do.

But, many point out (especially after listening to conspiracy theories), vaccine research is often done with cell lines attained from abortions. Can we, they ask, use a vaccine gained in such a manner? While emphasizing the need for those who research vaccines to do so in as morally an acceptable manner as possible, when there are no other options available, and the situation requires it, it is permissible to use such vaccines (as the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith indicated):

Of course, within this general picture there exist differing degrees of responsibility. Grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such “biological material”. Thus, for example, danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available. Moreover, in organizations where cell lines of illicit origin are being utilized, the responsibility of those who make the decision to use them is not the same as that of those who have no voice in such a decision. [2]

A vaccine is morally neutral, and only those who use illicit means to create them can be seen as formally cooperating with evil. Thus, in 2017, the Pontifical Academy for Life,  explained:

As for the question of the vaccines that used or may have used cells coming from voluntarily aborted fetuses in their preparation, it must be specified that the “wrong” in the moral sense lies in the actions, not in the vaccines or the material itself.[3]

Indeed, the duty of the populace is to be vaccinated so as to protect the most vulnerable, those most likely to be adversely affected by a particular disease. Using a vaccine, even if it had come from cell lines that came out of an abortion, does not indicate someone is accepting or cooperating  with, abortion:

Hence, we believe that all clinically recommended vaccinations can be used with a clear conscience and that the use of such vaccines does not signify some sort of cooperation with voluntary abortion. While the commitment to ensuring that every vaccine has no connection in its preparation to any material of originating from an abortion, the moral responsibility to vaccinate is reiterated in order to avoid serious health risks for children and the general population. [4]

This reiterates a statement made in 2005, which said that when dealing with grave situations, the moral duty to avoid passive material cooperation with evil is not obligatory (even as it is often impossible). There can be and are proportional reasons to use vaccines derived from ethically questionable means:

As regards the diseases against which there are no alternative vaccines which are available and ethically acceptable, it is right to abstain from using these vaccines if it can be done without causing children, and indirectly the population as a whole, to undergo significant risks to their health. However, if the latter are exposed to considerable dangers to their health, vaccines with moral problems pertaining to them may also be used on a temporary basis. The moral reason is that the duty to avoid passive material cooperation is not obligatory if there is grave inconvenience. Moreover, we find, in such a case, a proportional reason, in order to accept the use of these vaccines in the presence of the danger of favouring the spread of the pathological agent, due to the lack of vaccination of children. This is particularly true in the case of vaccination against German measles.[5]

And, the church teaches, when dealing with research, there is a difference between trying to create new cell lines through the use of newly aborted fetuses, which is not necessary (as there are other means to attain such cell lines), and using previously derived cell lines, as Paul Mason and John Sherrington, the bishops in England and Wales responsible for Healthcare and Life issues, indicate: “The Church distinguishes between the present unethical sourcing of vaccines and the use of historical cell-lines which were derived from aborted foetuses in the 1970s.”[6] Thus, if some vaccine is developed along older, previously established cell lines, the moral culpability of the researchers is also different than if researchers sought to create and use a new unethically obtained cell line.

All of these points serve to deal with many of the objections made against the use of a COVID19 vaccine. Conspiracy theorists who want no one to use such a vaccine seem to be making all kinds of questionable claims, hoping some of them will stick, so that they can gain some sort of control over society themselves. One common claim, which has had many questioning whether or not they should use a COVID19 vaccine, is that it would come from a cell line obtained from an abortion. Many people spreading objections to using a COVID19 vaccine point out research is being done to old cell lines. They assume (or want their listeners to assume) those lines came from an aborted fetus. But, as Kevin McGovern explains, it is not even clear  that there is any COVID19 vaccine being developed using any ethically questionable obtained cell lines. Nonetheless, even if some researcher was using such a cell line, ethically, those who would receive the vaccine, because of the emergency situation of the ongoing pandemic, and due to their lack of ability to obtain a vaccine in any other fashion, would be acting in an ethically acceptable manner. With no moral connection related to the way the vaccine was developed, but with the moral culpability involved in not receiving it, Christians must fulfill their obligation to their neighbor and receive the vaccine if it is proven safe and effective. And, as Pope Francis indicates, they should work to promote its universal reception so that those who are the most need of it, those who are most vulnerable, will receive it; that is, Christians must make sure vaccines are not given only to the elite rich, but rather, that they are be made and used for all, with special concern, indeed special priority, given to those most at risk of COVID19: “And it also encourages us to plan the treatment of viruses by prioritising those who are most in need. It would be sad if, for the vaccine for Covid-19, priority were to be given to the richest! It would be sad if this vaccine were to become the property of this nation or another, rather than universal and for all.”[7]

COVID19 has disrupted the world. It will continue to do so until it is effectively contained. Vaccines likely will be involved in that containment. Christians must acknowledge the value and use of those vaccines and promote their universal use. This is one of the many practical ways they can and will show their love for their neighbor, and it is in and with such love, they will prove their own Christian faith.

[1] There can be and often are who cannot take a particular vaccine due to allergies or immune disorders. Due to the nature of their own health risk, they are not obligated to take such a vaccine.

[2] Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, Instruction Dignitatis Personae. Vatican translation. ¶35.

[3] Pontifical Academy for Life, “Note On Italian Vaccine Use” (7-31-2017).

[4] Pontifical Academy for Life, “Note On Italian Vaccine Use.”

[5] Pontifical Academy for Life, “Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared From Cells Derived From Aborted Foetuses” (6-9-2005). [Found here:] .

[6] Bishop Paul Mason and Bishop John Sherrington, “The Catholic Position on Vaccination.”

[7] Pope Francis, General Audience (8-19-2020). Vatican translation.


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