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When Conscience Meets COVID

Fr Ross Jones SJ  |  09 September 2020

Last month the Archbishops of three Christian traditions – Glenn Davies (Anglican), Anthony Fisher (Catholic) and Makarios Griniezakis (Greek Orthodox) – wrote to the Prime Minister with their concern over the government’s signing up for the Astra/Zeneca Oxford University COVID-19 vaccine.

The issue arises from the fact that this candidate vaccine makes use of cell-line HEK293 cultured from an electively aborted foetus almost 50 years ago. Given the source, the Archbishops alert the Prime Minister that some members of the Australian population may find it ethically problematical to benefit in this way – even at such an historical distance from the vaccine cell source.

In addition, should there be social or legal pressures for everyone to be immunised with this vaccine, such people acting in conscience may be disadvantaged or discriminated against (with work, travel, government social security benefits, etc). They may find themselves in a situation of significant moral conflict.

So, the Archbishops ask that the vaccine be not made mandatory, that no one will be pressurised to use it, and that the government will ensure that there will be ‘an ethically uncontroversial alternative vaccine’ also available to the public.

These are reasonable requests so that people’s consciences are to be respected. Given that there are 167 candidate vaccines for COVID-19 identified by the World Health Organisation and 29 of them are currently in clinical trials, then there will likely be an alternative. Though, of course, time pressures and limited finances might be constraining factors in seeking to halt the pandemic swiftly.

This dilemma is neither a novel nor a unique situation. To the present time, there have been vaccines derived from electively aborted human tissue against rubella, mumps, measles, hepatitis A, chicken pox, polio, rabies and smallpox.

 For those who take the ethical position of so-called (in moral theological terms) ‘cooperation with evil’, their position is quite clear. They will not participate in such a vaccine and ‘benefit’ from an action they hold to be immoral. Neither will they in any other way be seen to condone that action or encourage medical research in that area.

For others who are still considering their position in this dilemma, perhaps some back-ground will help.

HEK is the vaccine’s acronymic name indicating it came from a human embryo kidney. The researcher involved in the development believed it was isolated some time in 1972. He later indicated that he did not recall the reason for the termination of the pregnancy. Now at this point it is useful to bear in mind a principle in philosophy that ‘intention specifies reality’. That is, one has to know the intention of a person’s action in order to make a judgment about it. For example, a man taps a glass during a dinner. Is he bored? Is he signalling a speech to begin? Is he checking the quality of the crystal? Only his intention makes clear the action.

What was the intention of those parents in 1972? With HEK293, there is no suggestion that the abortion was carried out to provide tissue for research. There was no pressure to do evil so as to achieve good. Nor is it the equivalent of those criminal networks in some developing countries who murder unsuspecting victims to harvest organs for transplants on ‘the red market’. It is analogous, say, to a person being murdered during a robbery and the next of kin having his or her organs donated to someone awaiting a transplant. In this case the murder (the immoral action) was not committed so as to obtain organs for a good use. They are independent acts. One can condemn/regret the murder but also be grateful for the life-giving consequence. In this case, there is no question that the donated organs are ‘tainted’.

In 2005, the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life issued moral guidelines for the use of vaccines prepared from tissue of aborted foetuses. They offered a very lengthy and complex exposition of the classical moral doctrine on the problem of ‘cooperation in evil’. The document dealt with formal and material cooperation, direct and indirect material co-operation, and proximate and remote cooperation.

The statement did concede in conclusion, though, that if the population as a whole was to be exposed to considerable dangers to health, then vaccines with moral problems pertaining to them may 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.

But, in a footnote, that document went even further. It offered a proportionate good reason for actually employing a ‘tainted’ rubella vaccine. It noted that rubella can cause serious congenital malformations in the foetus when a pregnant woman comes into contact with a child who has not been immunised and is a carrier of the virus. In this case, the Academy said, the parents who did not allow their children to be vaccinated are morally responsible for the malformations in question and any subsequent abortion of a foetus if discovered to be malformed. Given all the intricate casuistry that went before, this was a emphatic directive.

But then, in 2017, the same Academy issued a further, briefer, clarification. More nuanced and understanding of context. It suggested that the 2005 document needed to be revised and updated …

Especially in consideration of the fact that the cell lines currently used are very distant from the original abortions and no longer imply that bond of moral cooperation indispensable for an ethically negative evaluation of their use.

On the other hand, the moral obligation to guarantee the vaccination coverage necessary for the safety of others is no less urgent, especially the safety more vulnerable subjects such as pregnant women and those affected by immunodeficiency who cannot be vaccinated against these diseases.

As for the question of the vaccines that used or may have used cells coming from voluntarily aborted foetuses in their preparation, it must be specified that the ‘wrong’ in the moral sense lies in the actions, not in the vaccines or the material itself.

The technical characteristics of the production of the vaccines most commonly used in childhood lead us to exclude that there is a morally relevant cooperation between those who use these vaccines today and the practice of voluntary abortion. Hence, we believe that all clinically recommended vaccinations can be used with a clear conscience and that the use of such vaccines does not signify some sort of cooperation with voluntary abortion. While the commitment to ensuring that every vaccine has no connection in its preparation to any material of originating from an abortion, the moral responsibility to vaccinate is reiterated in order to avoid serious health risks for children and the general population.

The current Archbishops’ letter is a respectful one. These three Church leaders are not ‘anti-vaxxers’. Elsewhere, Archbishop Fisher has stated, ‘I, for one, don’t think it would be unethical to use this vaccine if there is no alternative available. To do so would not be to cooperate in any abortion occurring in the past or the future’. But he was troubled that others, acting in good conscience, may be conflicted, placed at risk, disadvantaged, victimised or contribute to weakening ‘herd immunity’.

Familiarity with the Pontifical Academy’s most recent assessment may offer those concerned people a reassuring counsel. Discerning where is the proportionate, or the great-er, good is a wise and commended approach. But, in the end, for them, one’s conscience must be followed – even if that comes with a consequence and a cost.

This article first appeared in the St Aloysius newsletter The Gonzagan.



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