Recently, a very well regarded prelate of the Church — whom I happen really to believe to be a very good and holy man — tweeted about the Moderna coronavirus vaccine. He wrote that vaccine “is not morally produced,” owing to the use in some phases of its production of biological specimens obtained originally through abortion. He “urge[s] all who believe in the sanctity of life to reject” this or any vaccine produced using such technologies.
Now, I’m no bioethical expert. However, I do try to follow the guidance of such experts, like the theologians and philosophers at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, who have offered a statement on the subject. I depend upon Church teaching, like the Pontifical Academy for Life’s 2005 statement “Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared from Cells Derived from Aborted Human Foetuses” and the Catholic Medical Association’s statement “Vaccines Prepared from Cells Derived from Aborted Human Fetuses .”
And the relevant guidance of such experts indicates that this is a more complex subject than the good bishop’s tweet would suggest.
The first flaw is the medium. It takes more than 280 characters to provide even a cursory comment on this issue with the necessary qualifications and allowances. This demands nuance and narrowness on the one hand, while at the same time a certain amount of liberality on the other hand. A tweet cannot do this. In a similar way, one prominent Catholic writer’s ALL CAPS remark on Facebook — that he “WON’T GET A VACCINE MADE FROM ABORTED CHILDREN FOR THE SAME REASON THAT I WON’T BUY A LAMPSHADE MADE OF HUMAN SKIN” — can only be said in all charity to be wanting in depth and precision.
When the bishop says of Moderna’s vaccine that, “unborn children died in abortions and then their bodies were used as ‘laboratory specimens’,” certain details are omitted that really seem relevant to informing moral decisions. One might easily come away imagining that an unborn child was directly killed with a view to developing this drug. But the truth is rather more complex.
It does seem that both Moderna and Pfizer relied in the manufacture of their vaccines on cell lines which are “immortalized” clones of cells originally taken from the kidney of an aborted fetus in the 1970s. It is important to note, however, that this reliance is upon knowledge obtained from former tests on the nature of the virus, and these cells are not actual “components” of either vaccine. Further, these cells are not the original biological cells that were in the actual fetus’s body, and they’ve also been significantly altered. Furthermore, these cells do not constitute a “part” of the vaccine. There are no aborted baby cells in the vial from which a patient’s dose is drawn.
Mark well, there’s still an ethical problem here. It is morally repugnant that these cells were derived from experimentation on the kidney cells of a nameless murdered child of God, however long ago. Their continued use is offensive and disturbing. We can and should rightly protest against it, and ask that these cells be retired from use. However, there is a material separation between the original morally offensive act(s) and the production of the vaccines, and an even further removal between the original act and a patient’s choice in getting the vaccine.
We would do well to recall the principles of moral cooperation as delineated in moral theology. Moral cooperation with an act can be immediate or remote, and it can be material and/or formal. Suppose John hires a hitman to kill his ex-wife, and gives him the gun to do it. He has formally participated (willing the evil action). and materially cooperated (by providing the gun and payment). His cooperation is immediate, because he instigated the evil action. The only person whose cooperation is less remote is the guy who pulled the trigger.
But suppose John’s a gun manufacturer, who makes guns for hunting and sport. Some random other person uses one of his guns to kill his ex-wife. John is remotely and materially cooperating, but not formally cooperating.
The essential rules are: (1) we should never participate in an evil in a formal way (by willing the evil); (2) and immediate material cooperation is also forbidden (i.e., by providing substantially for the enactment of evil).
How does this help us know whether we can use the Moderna vaccine? There is a third category of cooperation that might be permissible: remote material cooperation.
Suppose that I shop at a store that has an employee giving program, and this program includes a charity that provides contraception for free to women in the third world. The money I use to buy my hammer is associated to the provision of contraception by eugenicists. However, this connection is quite remote. My hammer money might be part of the salary of an employee who might choose that particular charity which might then allocate those funds to those dubious groups which might use them to buy contraceptives rather than, say, pencils. But there is no way I can reasonably be held morally accountable for that remote possible evil, and I certainly didn’t will it (unless my reason for buying my hammer at that store was its connections to providing free birth control.)
So it goes with the question of anyone’s receiving Moderna’s or Pfizer’s vaccines. Especially in the absence of viable alternatives, it is not morally inadmissible for an individual to receive that drug. They are not formally connected to the evil of the abortion that originated the test cell lines, and the material cooperation is quite remote. Further, very weighty countervailing goods are at play: the good of one’s own health to be preserved, or the good of protecting one’s more vulnerable loved ones who may be are more at risk of death or serious negative outcomes from contracting the virus.
There is one last criticism that might be brought against the bishop’s well-intentioned tweet: that it may have been naive or imprudent because of the atmosphere of Twitter and the disinformation it promotes. There is an undeniable crossover between those casting moral doubt on the use of these particular vaccines and the broader community of those who cast shade on vaccines generally. One always runs the risk, in speaking to one concern of being coopted by the other, unless one takes special care and uses added precision.
Apart from possibly fueling an ideological movement he may not have intended to support, however, the bishop may also have troubled the consciences of weaker brothers and sisters in the Faith by being less than ideally thorough. The fact is, in our highly complex digital age and modern capitalist regime, material cooperation in evil to some degree is unavoidable, unless someone adopts the life of a hermit in the wilderness.
I must admit, there’s an irony in a lot of people posting long Twitter screeds (and here I am not talking about the bishop) railing against the immoral origins of the cells used in the testing of components of these vaccines, tapping those screeds out on smartphones laden with conflict minerals and slave-mined resources, which were assembled by exploited workers laboring in dehumanizing conditions.
I don’t say the moral issues are equivalent, but it does make one wonder whether there is more than just moral concern at play here. Is it ideology, rather? Why else such selectively applied moral scruples?
In any event, in the face of such a world where material participation in evil seems inevitable, people probably need more assuaging of their consciences on matters like this, saving conviction for other more straightforward matters. We could all afford to be less lazy, gossip less, pray more, couldn’t we? Let’s trouble our conscience about that before we trouble ourselves about taking measures to stay healthy during a pandemic.