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More on the Bioethics of COVID-19 and the Vaccine

Posted : Dec-14-2020

Moira McQueen is the director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute (CCBI). Bambi Rutledge is the administrator of the CCBI.

Every week, the CCBI publishes a COVID Bulletin, which helps the public understand the latest developments in the pandemic through the lens of Catholic bioethics. Below is the latest COVID Bulletin, which is published here with the CCBI’s consent.

December 11, 2020

Dear Friends of CCBI,

Congratulations to Margaret Keenan, a 90-year-old woman from the UK and first person to be vaccinated against COVID-19 (at least as far as has been publicly recorded)! Now that the first approved vaccine has been administered we can begin to have hope that this pandemic will gradually disappear, and that our usual social lives can resume. It was encouraging to see someone in that age group being among the first to receive the vaccine, given the numbers of those over 80 who have died from COVID-19, not only in long term care homes. Let's hope that society has been jolted into recognizing that older people are just as important as any other age group: we were in danger of losing that view, for all our talk of rights and equality.

On the subject of older people, the blog from the CMAJ highlights the difficulties people encounter when visitors and family are not allowed to visit. Dr Shruti Gupta from Sunnybrook writes: "One key decision hospitals made early in the pandemic was to restrict visitors to keep patients and staff safe. Every day in my practice as a palliative care physician, I have been faced with the devastating effects of this necessary policy on patients and families." The sad scenes Dr Gupta has witnessed highlight the tension between keeping people safe and the grief of families at not being able to be with a loved one whose death is imminent. She reminds us of the emotions physicians and staff also experience at these times, and this, unfortunately but inevitably, fits with reports on the rising numbers experiencing mental health problems - another result of the pandemic which needs much more attention. Dr Gupta: "Health care facilities must build programs to support grief and bereavement for patients’ families who have lost their loved ones during this time. Clinicians must remain mindful of the vulnerability of our patients and their families in these difficult circumstances and, at the same time, find a way to cope with our own feelings of grief and loss that often accompany these situations." A short video from "The Agenda" hauntingly illustrates the above viewpoint, with good commentary from a palliative care doctor, a geriatrician and a journalist. 

The Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales issued a statement on the ethical use of vaccines which is similar to that of the bishops of Western Canada which we explained in last week's Bulletin. I've received questions about such ethical use from several sources and have referred them to the teaching on this issue by the Pontifical Academy of Life (PAL). The English and Welsh bishops write: "Each of us has a duty to protect others from infection with its danger of serious illness, and for some, death. A vaccine is the most effective way to achieve this unless one decides to self-isolate." I think it bears repeating that they, like the bishops of Western Canada, say: "Some have questioned the use of the Astra Zeneca vaccine since it has been developed from cell-lines originating from the cells of an aborted foetus in 1983. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pontifical Academy of Life have expressed the view that one may in good conscience and for a grave reason receive a vaccine sourced in this way, provided that there is a sufficient moral distance between the present administration of the vaccine and the original wrongful action ... In the COVID-19 pandemic, we judge that this grave reason exists and that one does not sin by receiving the vaccine." 

Of course, as we said last week, we do have a moral duty to seek vaccines which are not sourced from such cell lines, but the PAL clarifies that IF these are not available and we want to be vaccinated, remoteness from the source justifies our taking the vaccine and that we do not sin in doing so. These are not easy matters to reflect and decide upon, and we welcome your questions and comments. The updated chart explaining the ethical status of vaccines can be found here, showing the use/non-use of unethically sourced cell-lines in many of the vaccines developed, some of which are now approved. I think it a great relief that the Pfizer vaccine to be used in Canada counts among those that are ethically sourced. 

From vaccines to 'Toffifee?' Here's a sweet story forwarded to me by Bambi. A Canadian Tire owner, Malcolm Jenkins from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, claims that his location "... sells the most Toffifee in the world — and he has the hardware to show for it. There's no other store in the world, in the known universe of a charted galaxy, that sells this much Toffifee. So I said, 'Well, that should be worth a trophy,'" said Jenkins. Two weeks later, he actually received a trophy in the mail from the company that manufactures the chewy Christmas treat." Here's the deal: "The store's claim to fame also benefits local charities as they donate one dollar from every box of candy sold. This year, the funds will go to help build a new hospice in the province." Toffifee, anyone?

And now from hospices to stables! This beautiful picture from the Vatican Museums reminds us of the stark simplicity of Our Saviour's birth, and shows the Infant Jesus radiating light — the light towards which we reach out during Advent, during these days of repentance and hope. Pope Benedict XVI is quoted at the end of the short article as having said at Midnight Mass, Christmas, 2007: "In the stable at Bethlehem, Heaven and Earth meet. Heaven has come down to Earth. For this reason, a light shines from the stable for all times; for this reason joy is enkindled there…" The light shines...for all times! Come, Lord Jesus! 

Our Lady, Health of the Sick, pray for us!

For a life of prayer, let us pray to the Lord! (Pope Francis' intention for the month of December,

Moira and Bambi