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BRAINTREE -- The chairmen of two committees of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a statement on Dec. 14 addressing concerns about whether it is morally acceptable to receive a forthcoming coronavirus vaccine if its development, production, or testing involved the use of cells derived from abortions.
MC Sullivan, the archdiocese's chief healthcare ethicist, praised the tone and content of the USCCB's statement on this topic, saying they "addressed the major concern of our faith community" and that they did so "clearly, authoritatively, and actually very comfortingly."
"It was a very pastoral announcement, I thought, because they were right in tune with what people's first question would be," Sullivan said in a Dec. 17 interview.
The statement addressing "Moral Considerations Regarding the New COVID-19 Vaccines" was signed by Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, chairman of the USCCB's Committee on Doctrine, and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, chairman of the USCCB's Committee on Pro-Life Activities.
The bishops cited guidance offered by the Holy See through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Academy for Life, both of which have addressed the issue of vaccines in the past. Both have emphasized the need to "distance oneself as much as possible" from immoral acts "in order to avoid cooperation with someone else's evil actions and to avoid giving scandal."
The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines scandal as "an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil" (CCC 2284).
"Our love of neighbor should lead us to avoid giving scandal, but we cannot omit fulfilling serious obligations such as the prevention of deadly infection and the spread of contagion among those who are vulnerable just to avoid the appearance of scandal," the bishops said in their statement.
They explained that there are different degrees of responsibility in cooperating with evil actions. They echoed the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith's affirmation that a "serious health danger" could justify receiving a vaccine developed from a cell line of morally illicit origin. However, people also have a duty to voice their disagreement and advocate for other types of vaccines to be made available.
Some pharmaceutical companies have been developing vaccines for the coronavirus without using any cell lines from aborted fetuses. But others, including the three whose vaccines have demonstrated efficacy and are likely to become available in the next few months, used such cell lines in either development or confirmatory testing of the vaccines.
At the present time, there is no coronavirus vaccine available that has absolutely no connection to abortion. Additionally, the bishops said, the risk the virus poses to public health is "very serious, as evidenced by the millions of infections worldwide and hundreds of thousands of deaths in the United States of America alone."
The bishops also acknowledged that vaccination protects not only the individual who receives the vaccine but also "those who are much more likely to be seriously stricken by the disease if they were to contract it through exposure to those infected."
The bishops examined the methods of three different companies whose vaccines are likely to be made available in the coming months: Pfizer, Moderna, and AstraZeneca. All three companies' vaccines have connections to a cell line known as HEK293, which originated in kidney cells taken from the body of a child aborted in the Netherlands in 1972.
Pfizer and Moderna did not use cell lines derived from abortion in the design, development, or production of their vaccines. However, they did perform confirmatory tests using the HEK293 cell line.
Regarding these two companies, the bishops concluded that "while neither vaccine is completely free from any connection to morally compromised cell lines, in this case the connection is very remote from the initial evil of the abortion."
Given the gravity of the pandemic and lack of available alternatives, they said, "the reasons to accept the new COVID-19 vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna are sufficiently serious to justify their use."
The bishops went so far as to say that receiving a coronavirus vaccine would be "an act of charity toward the other members of our community" and "an act of love of our neighbor and part of our moral responsibility for the common good."
The AstraZeneca vaccine is "more morally compromised" because the HEK293 cell line was used in its design, development, and production stages, as well as for confirmatory testing. The bishops concluded that the AstraZeneca vaccine should be avoided if other alternatives are available.
However, they said, if someone "does not really have a choice of vaccine, at least, not without a lengthy delay in immunization that may have serious consequences for one's health and the health of others," then it "would be permissible to accept the AstraZeneca vaccine."
The bishops warned against becoming complacent about the evil of abortion or allowing its "gravely immoral nature" to be "obscured."
"We should 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," they said.
Sullivan said she thought the bishops "explained Church teaching beautifully" in their statement.
"This is a weighing of kind of competing claims to our duty," she said.
She pointed out that the arguments for receiving the coronavirus vaccine are about saving "specific lives," the lives of people who will be most endangered by it.
"These are specific lives in our neighborhoods, in our community, in our families, our workplace, our schools. We know who these people are and we know the real danger of imminent death that many of them will face if they contract COVID. And so the moral obligation to save those lives, and the moral distance from the original illicit act, is what allows us to not only accept the vaccine, but it really gives us an obligation to take the vaccine," Sullivan said.
She said that people should consult their healthcare provider if they have other concerns about the vaccines or other treatments.
The full text of the USCCB's statement on "Moral Considerations Regarding the New COVID-19 Vaccines" can be read at www.usccb.org/moral-considerations-covid-vaccines.