(This article was first published on 10th May 2020, and is reproduced here by popular demand).
A moral question – if a vaccine is developed for COVID-19 which will save thousands of lives, but which uses material from an aborted foetus in its manufacture, can Catholics use the vaccine or should they boycott it?
There are no formal guidelines from the Magisterium of the Catholic Church on this subject; it is a matter for the personal conscience of an individual when he or she has weighed up their personal circumstances against the actions required to make the vaccine.
However, while there is no definitive answer from our bishops, the Church is not silent on complex issues and she can (and does) have principles to evaluate such predicaments thereby giving some guidance.
Presently there are vaccines for illnesses, other than COVID-19, which are given routinely and which use material from aborted foetal cells. These include the vaccines for, Chickenpox, Rubella, Polio and Hepatitis A.
The material used in production for these vaccines was taken from two abortions which took place in the mid 1960s and early 1970s. Material taken from these abortions has continued to be cultivated in a laboratory since that time, and material from these cells is still being used in the manufacture of these vaccines today.
The Church teaches that it is always wrong to abort the life of a child. Anyone who cooperates directly in this action is guilty of a grave sin. Anyone who doesn’t act directly in procuring the abortion, but still intends this action to be carried out (for themselves or others), is also in a state of grave sin. This intention to want to support a sin, or to actually commit a sin (when you know the act is sinful) is called “formal cooperation”. Formal cooperation with sin is always wrong.
There maybe circumstances whereby a person doesn’t intend to share in the evil intention of a sin, but nevertheless does have some role to play in that sinful act. This is called “material cooperation”.
Material cooperation is wrong, but it must be noted there are additional factors to consider, which colour just how sinful material cooperation may be, and thus culpability may be lessened to a minimum.
One of these factors is our proximity to the sinful act. Another factor is whether or not there are any alternative behaviours which are more morally wholesome.
In the case of vaccines made from an abortion in the 1960s, our closeness to that act is very remote. Most of us had no say in what was happening back then and had no chance of influencing a decision made years ago, in another country, with a different legal jurisdiction.
We don’t condone the sin of abortion. Nevertheless, given that it has happened (and given that one doesn’t condone it) then a person is not formally cooperating with abortion when vaccines made with aborted human tissue are used. We may still be materially cooperating in that sin by using such vaccines, but it would be way of a passive material cooperation. This is not good, but there maybe mitigating factors which reduce our level of culpability to the extent that we can employ these vaccines if no alternative exists.
It must be stated that, if a vaccine can be used which has no ethical problems, then it should always be used as a preference. Our goal should always to develop medicines which have no need to contain aborted foetal tissue.
However, if such a vaccine doesn’t exist, then it is permissible, on a temporary basis, to use that vaccine for the good of saving lives. This is because it is a moral principle that there is no absolute duty to avoid passive material cooperation in sin, if there is a grave inconvenience to a current good.
If there is a good, proportional, reason to use such vaccines, in the face of dangerous illnesses, then vaccines made from aborted foetuses can be used. Where these vaccines are used, there is also an obligation to continue to look for better medicines which have no connection to abortions. i.e. we should also be seeking to end their temporary use by the employment of a better vaccine. Thus using vaccines made from abortions comes with a moral duty for us to put pressure on pharmaceutical companies and governments to want to make better drugs, with no evil connection.
At this time (as at all times) we should, as faithful Catholics, be making our objections to abortion known. We should also be putting pressure on government and healthcare providers to be looking for solutions which avoid the use of cells procured from abortions.
If a vaccine is produced from the current foetal cells, which can prevent us from the potentially fatal effects of COVID-19 then, so long as we continue to strive for better, the vaccine may be used by Catholics.
Whether to take the vaccine or not is a matter for each person to reflect upon, with his or her own conscience, as informed by the principles of the Church’s teaching.
The Pontifical Academy for Life is the part of the Church administration that deals with such issues. A letter from them, available on-line, might be helpful and gives more detail to what I’ve said. You can find the text here: https://www.immunize.org/talking-about-vaccines/vaticandocument.htm
More recently the Catholic Bioethics centre in the UK, the Anscombe Bioethics Centre at Oxford, has produced a document specifically relating to COVID-19. You can read it here: http://www.bioethics.org.uk/images/user/covidbriefing2.pdf