Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

Covid vaccines and fetal tissues: the moral calculus

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Dec 04, 2020

Set aside, for a moment, the practical and medical questions about any Covid vaccine. (Will it work? Will it be safe? Will it have serious side effects?) Let me return to a question that I raised in in April and again in May: Should Catholics accept a vaccine that has been developed using fetal tissue from abortions? Since Catholic moralists have expressed contradictory answers to this question, let me try to offer a bit of clarity.

First, not all vaccines are alike. Some pharmaceutical companies have used fetal tissues in the production of their vaccines. Other companies have used the fetal tissues to develop and test their products, but those tissue lines are not included in the actual vaccines. Still other vaccines have been derived without any use of fetal tissues.

Among the vaccines closest to the American market today, the AstaZenaca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines use the aborted fetal tissues in production. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines do not include the fetal cells, but they were tested on fetal-tissue lines. The NovaVax, Sanofi, and Inovio vaccines were apparently developed and produced without any involvement of fetal tissues. (All of the vaccines mentioned here are being developed with the help of US government funding.)

The Charlotte Lozier Institute and Children of God for Life both maintain sites that list the vaccines being developed and their connection—if any—with the use of fetal tissues.

From a Catholic moral perspective, the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are clearly objectionable; to use them is to become involved in causal chain that began with an abortion. To be sure, the abortions took place long ago, and it is an exaggeration to say that a dose of these vaccines will contain cells from those unborn babies. (The cells in the vaccine are derived from the fetal cells.) Still the use of the vaccine entails cooperation in abortion.

Because this cooperation is remote and unintentional—what moralists call passive material cooperation, many Catholic moralists argue that the use of such vaccines could be justified, if there is a grave reason and no alternative is available. The Vatican has never made a definitive statement on this question. But in 2005, the Pontifical Academy for Life, in an extended answer to questions on childhood vaccinations said that “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.”

More recently John Haas, the former president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, accurately summarized the directives from Rome: “The Vatican repeatedly stated that Catholics have an obligation to protest the use of these vaccines if, for a grave reason, they receive it.”

Notice that key phrase: “for a grave reason.” The Catholic bishops of England and Wales have now pronounced that there is indeed a grave reason to take a Covid vaccine. But that judgment does not constitute a justification for taking any Covid vaccine. If one vaccine is developed from fetal tissues and another from ethically acceptable materials, the moral obligation to avoid the former vaccine remains in place.

The bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories have given more nuanced moral guidance, saying that it may be justifiable to take the tainted vaccines. But, they add: “It remains imperative that Catholics make clear their moral objection to vaccine development derived from abortion, and to advocate with their governments for ethically produced vaccines.” If such ethically produced vaccines become available, they would clearly be preferred.

And what about the Moderna and Prizer vaccines, which do not include fetal tissue cells, but have been developed and/or tested with fetal tissues? The Moderna vaccine involves a particularly complicated sequence: it was developed using a “spike protein” that had been produced by a different company, using fetal cells. Moderna was not involved in the development of that spike cell, and fetal tissues were not used in the development of the Moderna vaccine. Still both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are connected, however loosely, to the abortion that originally produced those cell lines.

In a joint statement issued in November, the chairmen of the US bishops’ committees on doctrine and on pro-life affairs agreed that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines “are not completely free from any connection to abortion.” However, the bishops observed, the connection is “relatively remote.” They concluded:

Some are asserting that if a vaccine is connected in any way with tainted cell lines, then it is immoral to be vaccinated with them. This is an inaccurate portrayal of Catholic moral teaching.

Here it is important to remember that the bishops are addressing the morality of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, and not the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, which are more closely connected to abortion. In a case of grave need, remote material cooperation may be justified. Even in such cases, the 2005 Vatican statement reminds Catholics that they have other moral options:

They should take recourse, if necessary, to the use of conscientious objection with regard to the use of vaccines produced by means of cell lines of aborted human fetal origin. Equally, they should oppose by all means (in writing, through various associations, mass media, etc.) the vaccines which do not yet have morally acceptable alternatives, creating pressure so that alternative vaccines are prepared, which are not connected with the abortion of a human fetus, and requesting rigorous legal control of the pharmaceutical industry producers.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: doughlousek7433 - Dec. 05, 2020 1:19 PM ET USA

    Thank you for this informational piece. The latest info here is that vacinations will be available toward the end of the month, so the timing couldn't be better! God Bless!

  • Posted by: feedback - Dec. 05, 2020 10:10 AM ET USA

    Thank you for the clarification. No Christian should be even considering remedies connected - however indirectly - to the evil of abortions, especially when untainted alternatives are available. Besides that, it would be good time to reassess the risks of Covid and the preventive measures against it before new draconian mandates are imposed. Was it prudent not to have the Holy Eucharist on Easter? "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you do not have life within you."

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Dec. 05, 2020 6:50 AM ET USA

    Thank you, Phil. It is all so convoluted, and clarity of thought is so needed - - as are vaccines, if we are to return to any semblance of "normalcy".