venerdì, gennaio 08, 2021

The morality of Covid vaccines

 A number of vaccines are being produced to fight Covid-19 but some of them are creating problems of conscience, as it is well documented that some cell lines used in the development, production or testing of vaccines are derived from aborted foetuses. 

Does this mean that those vaccines should always be rejected? Is their use always ethically unacceptable? There is no simple answer to these questions, as we will see. We need to distinguish the process from the product, even if it is not an easy task. 

There is no doubt that the harvesting of foetal tissue is deeply immoral. It is always morally wrong to participate, at any stage, in the experimentation and production of vaccines that involve cell lines derived from abortions, as this would be a direct cooperation with an evil practice. No good intention, such as saving lives through vaccination, can justify what is intrinsically (always and per se) evil. But what should we do once the product exists? If we use it, to what extend are we responsible for its unethical production? 

While the process is intrinsically wrong, the product, in itself, is not. I will use an analogy to clarify my argument. It is not unethical to cross a bridge that was built by slaves 2,000 years ago. The building process was morally wrong but the product, i.e. the bridge itself, is not. But imagine there is a construction company that nowadays uses forced labour to build bridges. Not only it would be immoral to employ this company for public works, but we also have a duty to publicly denounce this awful practice and do our best to stop it. 

Suppose the bridge exists and it was built only recently by a company that it is still active and it charges a fee for its use, making profit. Is it wrong to make use of it and pay the toll if there is no alternative available and the bridge is necessary to save lives? To what extend are we accomplices with the unethical builders? Here is where the difficulty lies. 

We need to bear in mind that the purchase of a product fosters its production. Using vaccines obtained from unethical practices does contribute to their public legitimisation and encourages the perpetuation of those immoral practices. On the other side, we need to consider that there is a duty to save lives with legitimate means, and there are degrees of responsibility. Those who are at the end of a long chain that goes from the production to the intake, are the least responsible. 

Ethical alternatives always have to be preferred. When this is not reasonably possible, there could be grave reasons to accept morally contentious vaccines, in order to save lives, but only as the last resource and until a more ethically acceptable alternative becomes available. 

At the same time, moral objections should be clearly made public so that the use of an ethically contentious product should in no way appear as a form of endorsement or condoning of a wicked form of production. 

On December 21 the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith produced a document stating: 

When ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines are not available (e.g. in countries where vaccines without ethical problems are not made available to physicians and patients, or where their distribution is more difficult due to special storage and transport conditions, or when various types of vaccines are distributed in the same country but health authorities do not allow citizens to choose the vaccine with which to be inoculated) it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted foetuses in their research and production process … the licit use of such vaccines does not and should not in any way imply that there is a moral endorsement of the use of cell lines proceeding from aborted foetuses.

Some bioethicists and religious leaders have argued along these same lines. The Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference, for instance, has recently stated: 

If a more ethically acceptable alternative is not readily available to them, it is morally permissible for Catholics to accept a vaccine which involves the use of foetal cell-lines, especially if the potential risk to life or health is significant, as in the case of a pandemic. Refusal to accept a vaccine could contribute to significant loss of life in the community and especially among those who are most vulnerable. This reality must inform any judgement of conscience. We reaffirm the consistent teaching of the Church that abortion is always gravely immoral. The Church has always made a distinction, however, between formal (deliberate) involvement in an immoral act and material involvement, which may be incidental and remote. The decision of those who decide to accept vaccines which have had some link with foetal cell-lines in the past does not imply any consent on their part to abortion.

The Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales explained the distinction between deliberate and accidental involvement, making reference to the questionable history of vaccination: 

The Church distinguishes between the present unethical sourcing of vaccines and the use of historical cell-lines which were derived from aborted foetuses in the 1970s. Human society has often benefited from the wrongs done in the past for which we must repent. We live with the benefits of very questionable medical experimentation. For example, Edward Jenner, who invented vaccination, conducted research by injecting an 8-year-old boy with cowpox followed by smallpox. While today such experimentation would be unethical by any standards, we wouldn’t deny life-saving vaccination because of its dubious historic provenance. 

Bioethicists Jeffrey Barrows and Jonathan Imbody tackle the same issue. In a recent Public Discourse piece they write: “Several mitigating principles can help assuage the concerns of conscientious end users of drugs that have some connection to abortion: the distance in time from the original abortion to the present use of the drug and the lack of availability of any ethical alternatives.” 

Peter A Comensoli, Archbishop of Melbourne and Chair of the Australian Bishops Commission for Life, Family and Public Engagement, on behalf of Australia’s Catholic bishops, says that “the use of an ethically compromised vaccine is acceptable if no other option is available, in order to protect lives.” 

The US Catholic Medical Association agrees and quotes from a Vatican document on the licit use of vaccines dating back to June 2005, during the early days of the Benedict XVI pontificate. The Association states: “When no alternative vaccines are available, it must be reaffirmed that the use of vaccines whose production is connected with acts of procured abortion is lawful ‘on a temporary basis’ and ‘insomuch as is necessary’ to avoid significant risk to the health of an individual or the community.” However, they add: “When no alternative vaccines are available, there is a ‘moral duty to continue to fight and to employ every lawful means’ to pressure the pharmaceutical industry, government authorities and national health systems to make ethical alternatives available.” (The document of the Pontifical Academy for Life quoted is called Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared from Cells Derived from Aborted Human Foetuses.) 

Totally ethical vaccines always have to be preferred over morally questionable ones but, when they are not available, there can still be good reasons to use morally contentious vaccines that have already been created, as outlined by the various authorities quoted above. Hopefully in due course, vaccines that protect against Covid and have no connection to abortion, even a very remote and distant one, will become available for use.

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