British regulatory authority approved the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine for use in the UK on Wednesday, 30 December. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine received approval in recent weeks, and distribution has already begun. The Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, approved in the UK on Wednesday, adds another option.
In the US, both the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have already been approved, and the Oxford/AZ vaccine is on a fast track for FDA approval as well.
The Oxford/AZ vaccine is relatively cheap to produce and easy to store, making it a particularly attractive option for those reasons, but ethical concerns persist over the way in which the vaccine was developed.
The Charlotte Lozier Institute (the research and education arm of the pro-life Susan B. Anthony List) assessed all the major Covid-19 vaccine candidates. They concluded that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were developed ethically, while the Oxford vaccine was not. Where it is possible to choose, then, Catholics should prefer the former vaccines to the latter.
If a large percentage of the population is willing to get vaccinated, there is reason to hope that the pandemic can be controlled by the beginning of next summer. This would not only remove the specter of death from Covid-19, but also allow life to return to something like normal. Churches would be able to safely return to normal worship services, families would be able to gather without fear, and people would be able to get back to work.
Despite the promise of these vaccines, some bishops have come out with statements which misrepresent both the teaching of the Catholic Church and the moral status of some of the vaccine candidates. Bishop Joseph Strickland, for instance tweeted: “I urge all who believe in the sanctity of life to reject a vaccine which has been produced immorally.”
This has the potential to create unnecessary conflicts of conscience for Catholics who want to follow Church teaching, and to contribute to suspicion of the vaccines, which could reduce the number of people vaccinated (leading to unnecessary suffering and death) and prolong the pandemic. Given these stakes, then, it’s important for Catholics to understand what the Church actually teaches and why some Catholics are objecting to these vaccines.
Bishop Strickland’s objection to the vaccines is based on the claim that cell lines derived from abortion had been used in some way in producing the vaccines. The Catholic Church does teach that it is wrong to develop vaccines (or any other medical treatment) using cell lines derived from abortion. However, a 2005 statement from the Pontifical Academy for Life also teaches that when there is no other alternative available, it is licit for Catholic doctors to administer the vaccine and licit for Catholics to receive it.
A 2017 statement from the same Academy speaks of the “moral obligation to guarantee the vaccination coverage necessary for the safety of others,” particularly those at high risk of disease or those with immunodeficiencies. The 2017 statement says: “[W]e 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.”
Thus, even in the case of vaccines that use abortion-derived cell lines, Catholics can use them with a clear conscience – and the Oxford vaccine, which is cheaper to produce and easier to store, may be the only vaccine available in many places.
What has sadly gotten lost in this debate is the fact that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines actually represent a significant step forward as far as Catholic bioethics are concerned. The mRNA technology, which is the key technology behind both vaccines, owes part of its existence to the work of Dr Derrick Rossi, who worked on it because it provided a way to avoid using embryonic stem cells derived from abortion.
Embryonic stem cells are pluripotent, which means that they can be programmed to produce any type of cell in the body. This makes them tremendously useful in biotech research. Building on earlier work on inducing adult cells to become pluripotent, Dr. Rossi helped to develop a technique for using messenger RNA (mRNA) to reprogram adult cells to behave like embryonic stem cells. Although he successfully induced pluripotent behaviour in adult stem cells as early as 2009, researchers had not yet found ways to use the technique in a practical way. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines will be the first practical application of Rossi’s technique.
It is important to oppose ethically compromised science, but it’s also important to cheer scientists who produce ethical research. Catholics concerned with the use of embryonic stem cells should point to the success of mRNA-based vaccines for Covid-19 to show that researchers motivated by the desire to do science ethically can produce spectacular successes with huge dividends for human health.
A version of this essay appeared in our December issue.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund