There have been growing concerns in the pro-life community about the potential development of coronavirus vaccines using cell-lines from aborted foetuses.
There are a number of such cell-lines currently being used in Covid-19 vaccine research: one is the HEK 293 cell-line, modified from kidney tissue of a child aborted around 1972, whilst another is the PER C6 cell-line, which was taken from the retinal tissue of an 18-week child aborted in 1985.
Bishops around the world have responded differently to this news. Archbishop Anthony Fisher of Sydney, himself a bioethicist, wrote in Australia’s Catholic Weekly that – in the instance of the HEK 293 cell-line – “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 co-operate in any abortion occurring in the past or the future. But I am deeply troubled by it.”
People who were even more troubled by it, Archbishop Fisher wrote, might well feel they could not use the vaccine. “They won’t want to be associated with or benefit in any way from the death of the baby girl whose cells were taken and cultivated, nor to be thought to be trivialising that death, nor to be encouraging the foetal tissue industry.”
Such people would be in a difficult position, Archbishop Fisher wrote, if the vaccine became legally compulsory, or encouraged by social pressure. If the government could find a vaccine with no ethical concerns, he pointed out, it would avoid creating “new social tensions”.
The bishops of England and Wales gave similarly nuanced advice. Their statement noted the tension between Catholics’ “prima facie duty to be vaccinated” and the Church’s stance of being “opposed to the production of vaccines using tissue derived from aborted foetuses”. Signed by Bishop Paul Mason and Bishop John Sherrington, lead bishops of healthcare and life issues, the statement concluded that “the paramount importance of the health of a child and other vulnerable persons could permit parents to use a vaccine which was in the past developed using these diploid cell lines.”
In support of their conclusion, the bishops cited the Pontifical Academy for Life’s 2005 document Moral reflections on vaccines prepared from cells derived from aborted human foetuses, which argued that the burden of the “fight” for ethically produced vaccines must not “fall on innocent children and on the health situation of the population”.
Again, there is a tension. The same Vatican document encourages Catholics to put “pressure on the political authorities and health systems so that other vaccines without moral problems become available” and to “take recourse, if necessary, to the use of conscientious objection”.
The US bishops sought to put this “pressure on the public authorities” in April, when many of them co-signed a letter to Dr Stephen M Hahn, commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, which argued that “there is no need to use ethically problematic cell lines to produce a Covid vaccine, or any vaccine, as other cell lines or processes that do not involve cells from abortions are available and are regularly being used to produce other vaccines.”
But the challenge of producing coronavirus vaccines means that there are no guarantees which, if any, of these vaccines will eventually become available. Kate Bingham from the UK Government’s Vaccines Taskforce explains that this requires us to develop a diversity of vaccine types, because “we do not yet know which, if any, of the different types of vaccine will prove to generate a safe and protective response to Covid-19.”
The UK government has therefore secured early access to six vaccine candidates for Covid-19: two are made using cell-lines from aborted foetuses, whilst the other four use non-foetal methods.
Dr Helen Watt from the Anscombe Bioethics Centre told the Catholic Herald that such diversification was understandable, but still pointed to technical advantages of non-foetal methods, with some cell-free methods being “easier to mass-manufacture.”
If foetal vaccines do become the only ones available, however, the question of whether people in the pro-life community should receive or boycott such vaccines must remain a matter for the “individual conscience”, according to Dr Watt. “It would be wrong to think either that everyone has an absolute duty to accept any foetally-produced vaccine or alternatively, that no-one may ever accept such a vaccine,” she said.
Speaking to the Herald, Dr William Newton from the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio, concurred with this assessment. Dr Newton said that the main moral danger of receiving foetal vaccines is not “cooperation with evil, because taking the vaccine will not lead to more abortions”, but instead it “is most likely to be one of scandal: a person misconstrues my opinion on abortion if I take the vaccine”. He adds that this is still a sufficient danger to mean, “if one can choose a vaccine from another root, that is of course better and making this known is a good witness of the sanctity of life”.