For most people it has been a tough few weeks, apart from a few sunny days the weather has been gloomy, Christmas has been in doubt, the economy seems wrecked and the days are short. There has though been some light on the horizon, the news of the vaccines. Even I have felt a small sense of relief at the news that vaccines might be around the corner. That hope has been tempered by the reality that one vaccine has not been administered correctly in the clinical trials – doubt has been cast over its efficacy. Another had been described as too impractical to transport, needing temperatures of -80 degrees Centigrade to stay ‘live’. However, this news is better than no news, vaccines are somehow, on their way. But if you are getting excited there are some bioethical considerations for Catholics that it is good to be aware of.
This week I opened my Facebook Messenger App for the first time in months and found a message from an old friend asking about the bio-ethical issues surrounding the Corona Virus vaccines. I had assumed there would be bio-ethical considerations regarding the vaccines but had totally ignored the issue. My friend had included a cutting from the Catholic Universe describing how the English Bishops had made a ‘U-Turn’ on their stance on vaccines. The newspaper alleges that a July statement from the Bishops said the use of any clinically approved vaccine was permissible for Catholics, however it had been manufactured, using cell lines derived from aborted children or not. They could use a vaccine created in that way without signifying support for voluntary abortion. The supposed ‘U-Turn’ is a later statement from the Bishops saying that using a vaccine developed using cell lines derived from an aborted baby was an issue of the ‘prudent judgment of conscience’ for Catholics, which will depend on responsibilities to others, as well as personal health and protection of human life.’ The short story is, if there are no ethically derived vaccines available, having weighed up your own health, your responsibilities to those around you and your desire to safeguard life, you are permitted to take the vaccine. This is great news if you find yourself in a situation where the only vaccine available has been made using stem cell lines derived from an aborted child. But like many ethical choices, being allowed to make it does not always mean you want to make it.
I am in awe of one parishioner who only buys clothes from charity shops, her rational is threefold, there is so much waste in clothing and fashion that she does not want to contribute more. You do not know whether something has been produced ethically so not buying it leaves her free of complicity in that and of course she is helping charity. There are many instances today of where something is morally permissible but people choose not to benefit from it. Clothing is a good example, we are not told, due to ethical concerns, which clothing brands not to buy from but if we did some investigation we would find some of our favourite brands are involved in exploitation in their factories. There is no moral law prohibiting us from buying them but we might not want to. What I am writing here falls into that category.
You may have no choice over which vaccine you can have, you may be elderly, with underlying health conditions or care for someone who is and you may need what is offered to you. But there will be others like me who are in a low risk category who have a chance to see the lie of the land before making any decisions. There are many, many vaccines in production, how many of them will be clinically approved is uncertain. There are two vaccines which have not been manufactured using in-ethical stem cells but the vaccine has been tested on those stem cells. It is a very difficult and confusing picture if you care about this. There are some vaccines manufactured using monkey stem cells and two using cells derived from hamster ovaries. I am squeamish, and that doesn’t sound good to me, but if I have to have it, I have to have it.
The bottom line is that we need vaccines to get our country, economy and lives back to something that looks and feels normal. As a Catholic you are allowed, ethically, to receive whichever vaccine you need. The question you have to ask yourself is, do you have to and do you want to? You may have no choice but, like me, you may. Depending on your circumstances and you have to make up your own mind. I am no scientist and I hope that writing these few short words have not made things more confusing or difficult for you. As Catholics we hold up the dignity of all life, be it that of the unborn child or the most elderly and vulnerable, we welcome scientific advances but want all research to be respectful of the sanctity of human life. It is good news that vaccines are on the way but it is not quite a straight forward as we might hope!
I am including three references for you to do any follow up research or just to find out a bit more. The first is a fantastic article by Dr Helen Watt from the Anscombe Centre for Catholics Bioethics, based in Oxford. You can also find an interview with add Helen on their web site.
The next is a link to a page which lists which vaccines are being produced ethically and which are not.
The third is from the Charlotte Lozier Institute in America in on this issue.