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The Ethics of the COVID-19 Vaccine: A Catholic Bioethical Perspective

Posted : Dec-08-2020

EDITOR’S NOTE (DECEMEBER 10, 2020): Health Canada has approved the Pfizer vaccine, which based on current information does not use abortion-derived cell lines in its design/development or production. Some of its laboratory confirmatory testing has used abortion-derived fetal cells and some has not. The CCCBI considers it to be an ethical vaccine.  

​Moira McQueen is the director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute (CCBI). She is also the most recent winner of the Christian Culture Gold Medal Award bestowed on her by Assumption University in Windsor, Ont. 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. This is a rich text that contains many links to sources that would worth reading in-depth. Today the United Kingdom began its COVID-19 vaccination program and many other countries will soon follow, so this is an excellent time to read this helpful resource for considering the ethics of our actions during the pandemic. 

December 4, 2020

Dear Friends of CCBI,

This week we lead with the pastoral letter issued by the bishops of Alberta and Northwest Territories on the ethics of using vaccines for COVID-19. Last week we began to talk about how vaccines are made. The use of fetal tissue and embryonic material made many of us wary of being complicit in the act of abortion or of unethical research. Would it be better to avoid using vaccines made from such body parts, where the child or embryo was destroyed through direct killing, where we would seem to benefit from that killing later, albeit indirectly?

The bishops follow Catholic teaching in explaining that we should use ethical vaccines, those which have no such components, IF they are available. They carefully explain that if they are not available, then, in light of the seriousness of this pandemic, we should use vaccines that are available, even if they contain some material derived from cell lines or tissues derived from aborted fetuses or destroyed embryos. The Pontifical Academy of Life says that the level of cooperation in this evil is remote, and that Catholics should protect themselves, their children and society by using these vaccines. It reminds us, as do the bishops, that we should use ethical vaccines when they are or do become available - an important moral point to keep in mind.

An article from Grandin Media further explains the rationale the bishops used in reaching this conclusion in their pastoral advice.  

Another view of vaccines, which I find troublesome and reminiscent of fake news, shows that some people cast doubts on the safety of the vaccines. I question their motives: is this truly their main concern? Is it really about safety? Will they take vaccines once they are shown to be safe, or are they being obstructionist? I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt, but they really must be clear about their motives. Then we can perhaps concede they have a point. Safety is important! We all want safe vaccines, but it seems we do not all truly want to take vaccines for COVID-19!

While we wait for vaccines to become available, a watchword for us is to keep on doing what we have been doing, no matter how difficult that will be. A slogan from the UK that appeared on everything from T-shirts to shop windows several years ago is "Keep calm and carry on!" While a slight caricature of the famed British 'stiff upper lip' in facing adversity, it is actually quite wise. After all, what else is going to work? Panic? Throw caution to the wind after all the gains that have been made? We're too sensible for that! I believe the 'Boomer' generation can lead the way here, since on the whole they don't have the same inclination (or opportunity?) to have large gatherings in which to socialize and be 'party-hearty.' They miss their friends, their families, their Church gatherings and important activities, but they keep on going. We include an article from the National Post, "The COVID-19 Endgame," encouraging that approach as necessary AND our best hope. I also appreciate the sentiments expressed in a letter to the editor of the same newspaper about the current raft of what are called 'freedom riders': "Grow up: the virus is the immediate collective threat, not your contrived concerns about your individual freedoms."  

This statement stands on its own, since it is so stark and tragic: on Wednesday December 3, the US recorded over 2, 800 COVID deaths in one day, with 100,000 hospitalized on the same day. We need to pray for our neighbours in the US in a special way, as well as for all countries.

The European Conferences of Catholic Bishops (COMECE) issued a document on December 3 called, The Elderly and the Future of Europe,  suggesting ways forward, post-pandemic, for better care and better health care for the elderly. One chapter stood out for me: "The fragilities unveiled by the Covid-19 crisis," including discrimination, elder abuse and loneliness. So much to do, but so much is possible to do! Our Canadian bishops wrote a similar document earlier this year, They Still Bring Forth Fruit in Old Age: A Lesson on Caring in the Midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic. It also discusses the care needed by our elderly citizens, particularly in light of the crises in Canadian long-term care homes. These topics clearly link bioethical, social, religious and justice elements, all of which need to be pursued in those fields as well as theologically, nationally and globally.

Pope Francis wrote an opinion piece on COVID-19 for the New York Times, "Pope Francis: A Crisis reveals what is in our Hearts." Needless to say this is an interesting piece. He writes: "...These are moments in life that can be ripe for change and conversion. Each of us has had our own 'stoppage,' or if we haven’t yet, we will someday: illness, the failure of a marriage or a business, some great disappointment or betrayal. As in the Covid-19 lockdown, those moments generate a tension, a crisis that reveals what is in our hearts." He continues:" In every personal 'Covid,' so to speak, in every 'stoppage,' what is revealed is what needs to change: our lack of internal freedom, the idols we have been serving, the ideologies we have tried to live by the relationships we have neglected." 

In this time of Advent, a time of hope and a time of conversion, his message of hope and the Church's ever-present message of hope and forgiveness can help to situate us in this crisis in a forward-looking way in our hearts, in our need for conversion and forgiveness. Cardinal Collins frequently says this expressive prayer during his daily homilies and urges us to say it: "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner!"

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

"For a life of Prayer!" (Pope Francis’s intention for December.)

Moira and Bambi