Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

No, bioethicist did NOT approve a vaccine using fetal tissue

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 30, 2020

Yesterday a news story in Our Sunday Visitor carried this headline:

Catholic bioethicist: No need to shun COVID-19 vaccine derived from fetus

Later the headline was changed. Today one finds the less provocative version:

Catholic bioethicist: COVID-19 vaccine could be question of conscience

But the first sentence of the OSV piece remains unchanged:

There is “no absolute duty” to boycott any COVID-19 vaccine produced with the help of cells derived from aborted fetuses, said a researcher from a Catholic bioethics institute.

The original headline conveyed the clear impression that a bioethicist had given the green light for Catholics to use a CO19 vaccine derived from fetal tissue. The lede, which remains in place, cements that impression. But that is not what the bioethicist said.

In the essay that prompted the OSV report Helen Watt, a senior research fellow at the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, repeats and underlines the Church’s teaching that the use of fetal tissues is morally unacceptable. She insists that responsible Catholics, facing the possibility that CO19 vaccines might be developed by this immoral means, should demand ethical alternatives. She even explains why concerned Catholics should be raising their moral objections now, before the development of vaccines is too far advanced:

Many scientists will not focus on, or perhaps even know, the provenance of very old cell-lines until these become a matter of controversy.

In her analysis, Watt goes on to speculate on how Catholics should respond if, in fact, the only available CO19 vaccine is developed from fetal tissues. “Boycotting a COVID-19 vaccine in the absence of an alternative is a serious action that should be carefully considered,” she writes, “because of its potentially grave risks both for the person and for others.” But she does not dismiss the possibility of a boycott, nor does she argue that it would be wrong to refuse the vaccine:

Even if there is no absolute duty to boycott vaccines produced via existing foetal cell-lines—this is a matter for individual conscience and there will often be weighty reasons against it—some will feel, whether rightly or wrongly, called to a boycott even if no alternative vaccine is available to them.

Notice that in the OSV piece, “Even if” is removed, so that in the lede Watt is cited simply as saying that “there is no absolute duty.” That sort of selective pruning of a quotation is a sure sign of tendentious reporting.

And it’s not an isolated offense. Here’s another example from the OSV piece:

She said its use was a matter of individual conscience for Catholics, although they should strive to obtain alternative vaccines, made without fetal cells, once such vaccines arrive on the market.

Here the implication is that Catholics should be docile in accepting the introduction of a vaccine that uses fetal tissue, but should then—after the fact—plead for the development of an ethical alternative. As shown above, Watt actually makes the opposite argument, stressing that we should raise our voices now, during the early stages of vaccine development.

By the way, Helen Watt is not alone in her analysis of the danger that the urgent demand to develop a vaccine will drown out any moral reservations about the way it is developed. The National Catholic Bioethics Center, in its own report on the issue, takes an even stronger stand against the use of fetal tissues:

In addition, the use of these cell lines, even for the laudable purpose of a COVID-19 vaccine, is a cause of serious theological scandal. Appealing to good aims and an “urgent need” will foster the deeper penetration of unethical research and development into medicine, politics, law, and culture.

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has also urged the development of vaccines that do not use fetal tissues. “No American should be forced between being vaccinated against this potentially deadly virus and violating his or her conscience,” four bishops argued on behalf of the episcopal conference. The USCCB followed up by encouraging all citizens to contact the Trump administration and push for the development of ethical vaccines.

To accept the use of a morally tainted vaccine, and then lobby for a moral alternative—as the OSV report suggests—is to surrender first, and then try to negotiate terms. It won’t work. The time for action—for putting pressure on government officials—is now.

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: Randal Mandock - May. 02, 2020 5:29 PM ET USA

    Good included links. I took advantage of them. We could use more like them. A ready reference for direct political action.

  • Posted by: 1Jn416 - May. 01, 2020 1:42 PM ET USA

    It is better to protest early than late, for sure. I think though we have an issue, because the government does not drive or dictate vaccine development. Of the 70+ vaccine efforts how many are run by the US government? One or two at most. And once a development effort is underway with a given technique and cell line, it is unlikely to be changed. So I think that somehow, we need to bring a wide awareness of this issue to the biotech industry. The question is how to do that.

  • Posted by: feedback - Apr. 30, 2020 3:48 PM ET USA

    "Surrender first, and then try to negotiate terms" did not work at all for Catholic Charities and homosexual adoptions, or for Christian businesses and same-sex 'weddings.' Indeed, the time for action (vocal protests) is at the very first moment the potential of a conflict between the enforcement of 'new morality' and respect for 'old Religion' becomes apparent. It is not hard to imagine today that a different White House administration would not be willing to honor Constitutional liberties.