While Catholics in the USA have been extremely concerned over a rather minor issue regarding COVID vaccines, another – probably larger – ethical issue in their regard has arisen. It is clear that Catholics can (& generally should) vaccinate against COVID. The concern is issues of rich countries not sharing with the poor. Let’s examine both the exaggerated and the under-appreciated issue.
Over the past months, the most viral question among many Catholics I know has been about the ethics of getting vaccinated for COVID due to super remote cooperation or appropriation of abortion. The reality is that this is so remote that an average grocery store trip is more-proximate cooperation in evil than getting any COVID vaccine.
The real moral question here is really whether we should just accept all vaccines equally or whether we should ask for the ones less connected to abortion but still accept any vaccine. Those are the only two arguments that make sense within a Catholic framework and/or follow Catholic moral tradition, back to Jesus saying we should pay Roman taxes (cf. Matthew 22:21). The USCCB, the Vatican in 2005, 2008, and 2020, the National Catholic Bioethics Center, most moral theologians, and I stand in the very-remote cooperation camp. While the Vatican in 2017 and the recent EPPC statement signed by some top Catholic ethicists present the appropriation-only version.
If “immortalized” cell lines lasted absolutely forever, the appropriation-only camp would be right, but we know one line that was immortalized later developed issues, and a new line was started to replace it. I assume the others existing today will last longer, but decades or maybe centuries, not millennia. I don’t think we can definitively say if current lines will last 80-250 years or forever when they are only about 50 years old. Our very remote cooperation in abortion is in those abortions where cells are taken to create future cell lines replacing existing ones, not the abortions 30-60 years ago. We can only appropriate from those abortions (cooperation means contributing in some small way to a current or future evil and we can’t change the reality of an abortion decades ago).
Some made unreasonable claims like we need to reject all cooperation with abortion, no matter how remote. But when they share this post from their site to social media, they remotely cooperated more than getting a vaccine only tested on fetal cell lines (and likely more than vaccines grown on fetal cell lines).
We Catholics need not have significant moral qualms about any vaccine. If we understand the options, I think it is a good act to ask for ones not grown on fetal cell lines. But if we don’t understand the differences, we should be fine taking any COVID vaccine.
Keeeping Vaccines from the Poor
At the same time, another – probably more significant – issue has arisen with vaccines, namely distribution and issues of vaccine rejection without good reason.
There is… a moral imperative for the pharmaceutical industry, governments and international organizations to ensure that vaccines, which are effective and safe from a medical point of view, as well as ethically acceptable, are also accessible to the poorest countries in a manner that is not costly for them. The lack of access to vaccines, otherwise, would become another sign of discrimination and injustice that condemns poor countries to continue living in health, economic and social poverty.
Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, OP, is developing a yeast-based vaccine that would help such countries as it would not require refrigeration which can be an obstacle. He used no fetal cell lines anywhere in its development, but he himself got a vaccine that was available earlier.
Fr. Nicanor recently did an interview where he noted how a vaccine can help such people immensely:
“At the end of the day, these vaccines will end the pandemic. The pandemic is the trigger for enormous economic burdens, especially on the poorest of the poor. We have millions of poor who are becoming ultra-poor because of the pandemic. [Getting vaccinated] is both an economic as well as a public health act, which will benefit millions.”
He also noted an issue he’s seeing in the Philippines an overflow of the US discussion noted above:
“You’ve got American Catholics telling Catholics all over the world that receiving the vaccine is a ‘lesser evil,’ so you’re putting millions of my fellow Filipinos in an ethical dilemma… No one wants to participate in any evil, so when you categorize this as a ‘lesser evil’, what happens is that vaccine hesitancy skyrockets.”
I think this is a good point. My target audience is usually American or Canadian with at least some college, so more minor distinctions can be made. Even though I think there is some very remote cooperation, it is so remote that were I to speak to most of the world, I’d just say, “get vaccinated against COVID,” without distinctions given the distinctions are minor and likely too complex for many. (Fr. Nicanor is a signatory on the EPPC statement so we do disagree in a minor way.) The distinction exists but not every distinction needs to be made in every case: we need to adjust our instruction based on the audience. For example, if I’m preaching a homily to an elementary school or to a group of grad students and professors, my homily is going to be different, with probably more distinctions with the latter group.
Even in the USA, there are issues of keeping vaccines from the poor. In Oakland, they set up vaccinations near a metro station but then would only take those driving up in a car even if others had an appointment. This discriminates against those without a car who tend to be poorer.
If you reply to me on Facebook or Twitter that this perspective is wrong, realize that such a reply cooperates more in possible future abortions than me getting vaccinated. Both of those give money to organizations that abort babies like Planned Parenthood and over 99% of posts are from devices with some part made in China which funds their forced-abortion program. Give money to pro-life causes will help end abortion way more than skipping vaccinating. I analyzed how $1 to a pro-life cause could do more to stop abortion than getting thousands of people to reject a vaccine. The same article points out how a $15 sent on a Chinese-made product contributes more to abortion than expected ~2 billion doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines combined.
Let’s move on from the debate over the super-remote cooperation in abortion as it is so remote that applying such a standard in anything approaching consistency would remove us from most modern life. Let’s focus more on ensuring poor people around the world get vaccines. Let’s look at saving lives with vaccines.
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