Action Alert!

The Pontifical Academy for Life did NOT argue it is morally obligatory to use tainted vaccines

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 05, 2015

If I may be permitted one brief follow-up to yesterday’s essay (Thinking morally about vaccinations: My turn!), it would be to single out a particular portion of the 2005 statement of the Pontifical Academy for Life that has led to confusion.

Though I realize the PAL text is non-magisterial, I believe the moral principles it expresses are, in fact, correct. Unfortunately, in addressing an issue secondary to the question which prompted its statement, the PAL wrote one sentence which, for some readers, overshadowed its primary conclusion. Here are the two critical paragraphs in which this overshadowing may seem to occur:

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.
In any case, there remains a moral duty to continue to fight and to employ every lawful means in order to make life difficult for the pharmaceutical industries which act unscrupulously and unethically. However, the burden of this important battle cannot and must not fall on innocent children and on the health situation of the population—especially with regard to pregnant women.

Note that the first paragraph answers the primary question of whether tainted vaccines must always be avoided or may sometimes be used. It states, very precisely, that in the absence of a serious medical threat to others, “it is right” to abstain from using tainted vaccines, even if they are the only ones available. But if there is a considerable health danger, vaccines with moral problems “may also be used on a temporary basis” (emphasis added).

The second paragraph comments on a secondary question, namely the requirement to oppose the immoral production of vaccines even if one chooses at times to make use of them. In a far less carefully-worded paragraph (and I think that’s an important observation), the PAL insists strongly that we are obligated to “to fight and to employ every lawful means to make life difficult for the pharmaceutical industries which act unscrupulously and unethically” (a very broad range of possibilities!). But the PAL also adds what ought to be obvious, namely that disproportionate sacrifices (“the burden”) in this battle should not fall on innocent children, public health, and especially pregnant women.

A decision not to use an immoral vaccine is not a battle against the drug czars. The clearly hortatory language of the second paragraph cannot be construed as denying the precise moral conclusion of the first. If you argue that the second paragraph declares a moral obligation to use these vaccines to preserve public health, you deny the specific answer the PAL gave to precisely this primary question.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Feb. 07, 2015 2:28 PM ET USA

    Jumping into this discussion late allows me to read the various articles and comments. I just read the 2005 Vatican statement and found something very disturbing in end note 15: "the parents who did not accept the vaccination of their own children become responsible for the...subsequent abortion of foetuses." In as much as all subsequent abortions would be voluntary, there is no way that the parents mentioned would be responsible for any subsequent abortions.

  • Posted by: debi8964 - Feb. 06, 2015 3:08 PM ET USA

    Excellent article Jeff - and excellent response in the comments that while remote cooperation with evil may be permissible at times it is NEVER mandatory. Absolutely correct and anything different would conflict with the indisputable Church teaching on the duty to adhere to Moral Conscience. From the 4th Lateran Council: "Whatever is done in opposition to conscience is conducive to damnation." And of course, the Catechism teaches the same.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Feb. 06, 2015 10:27 AM ET USA

    Paul8309: Your reading introduces concepts that are not stated. Nowhere does the PAL say it is a "better good" to use the vaccine. What the PAL says is that there is a proportional reason (i.e., proportionate beneficial consequences) which enables the person to engage without sin in this remote material cooperation with evil. In all such cases, self-evidently, there is no excuse for any cooperation with evil if no proportional reason exists. The contrary would be absurd. Of course, the assessment of proportionality is also inescapably prudential, and thus a basis for argument, not for condemnation! But even if we could describe using and not using the vaccines as two different goods in and of themselves, it would remain impossible to condemn those who choose either of these goods--and that is the whole point. Please, everyone, note this principle: While cooperation with evil is sometimes permissible, it can NEVER be mandatory!

  • Posted by: paul8309 - Feb. 05, 2015 6:31 PM ET USA

    The first paragraph (of the two referred to) says that although we might think that we may not use the vaccine, in fact we may, until a better one exists. It says a proportional reason exists to conclude that using the vaccine is a better good than not. The burden referred to the second paragraph is the health effects on innocent children and pregnant women. Avoiding that burden means using the vaccine. The document indicates that, as a temporary situation, the vaccine should be used.