The opinions expressed in these two perspectives do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Clarifying Catholicism, nor of everyone affiliated with Clarifying Catholicism. We welcome respectful responses in the comments below and invite you to participate in our survey (at the end of the articles) about whether or not you feel comfortable receiving the COVID-19 Vaccine.
COVID Vaccines, Remote Cooperation, and You
By Patrick Frazier, Franciscan University of Steubenville
Well, 2020 has been quite the year, hasn’t it? For all the ups and downs the past twelve months have held for each of us, there’s no denying that one little virus has taken the world by storm in a way most movie franchises could only dream of. Yes, COVID-19 has upended more or less every facet of our lives. Semesters were moved online, Masses were cancelled, graduations happened through Zoom, the list goes on. So, with all this upheaval in our lives, we naturally would want this pandemic to come to an end, and for us to return to some kind of normalcy. Over the past few weeks, the FDA approved two vaccines for COVID-19 from biotech companies Pfizer and Moderna as part of the Trump Administration’s “Operation Warp Speed” initiative. Despite the good news that both vaccines have +90% effectiveness rates, Catholics have somewhat of a dilemma with these new vaccines: Both Moderna and Pfizer developed these vaccines through research conducted on fetal cell lines. Therefore, one might argue, and pro-life activist Abby Johnson has recently claimed, that to take these vaccines would be participation in the grave evil of abortion. Is this true? Would getting the new vaccine be a violation of Catholic ethics? Well, let’s take a look.
First, I just want to remind our readers who may be outside of the Catholic Church of one very important thing: Catholics are by no means opposed to vaccines as a whole. Vaccines are one of medical science’s greatest breakthroughs, and one that many a Catholic have participated in developing over the decades. For Heaven’s sake, Pope Francis helped launch a children’s polio vaccine program in Mexico four years ago. There are plenty of vaccines developed free of morally problematic cell lines. The idea that “Catholics are anti-vax” is just a whole lot of nonsense, and part of this tired and false notion that the Catholic Church is against science. Honestly, I could write a whole post about that; maybe I will. Anyway, back to the COVID vaccine. So, the grand, difficult question remains: Would it be sinful to receive these new vaccines? Well, with all due respect, neither I nor the heads of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pro-life and doctrine committees believe so.
Before we go any further, it’s important to define a few terms so all of this will make some sense. Catholic moral thought divides cooperation with evil into two schools: Formal and material. Formal cooperation involves a direct will of and acting in evil. This is, of course, always wrong. Meanwhile, material cooperation doesn’t require a will of the evil act but does involve doing something to materially support the evil. Proximate or near material cooperation is when we do something which directly leads to the act being committed; this is likewise wrong. But there is also remote material cooperation with evil. This is when one’s action distantly gives support to an evil in some way, and depending on how remote the cooperation is, can be considered acceptable, particularly if some manner of moral good is involved.
Allow me to explain: Suppose, for instance, that in 2024, a presidential candidate runs for office, and this man (or woman) makes a case that they can oversee an end to Roe v. Wade. However, their opinions on foreign policy lean more hawkish, and it’s clear that if they were elected, America would be involved in at least one war that no Catholic could defend as a just war. Or, for a less hypothetical argument, consider the social media site everyone loves to hate, good old Facebook. Facebook has the potential to be a deeply problematic site from a moral standpoint. Mark Zuckerberg not only built the site off stolen ideas from his colleagues at Harvard, but as the world’s youngest billionaire, he donates a lot of cash he makes from Facebook to causes that give most Catholics pause. However, that cooperation is so remote that it is irrelevant. In much the same way, the same argument can be made for the new vaccines.
About a week ago at the time of writing this, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, the head of USCCB Committee on Doctrine, and Bishop Joseph F. Naumann, the head of USCCB Committee on Pro-Life Activities, published a 7-page letter where they explained why Catholics can be comfortable taking the vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna. It’s an excellent letter, and one that I highly recommend checking out. Here, the bishops reference the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith’s document Dignitas Personae, which argues that in the event of a serious health concern, Catholics could be justified using a vaccine that was “developed using cell lines of illicit origin.” The document also reminds us that “everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available.” If a pandemic does not constitute a serious health concern, I can’t imagine what could. The bishops also remind us that these two vaccines were not developed using cells taken directly from an aborted child. Rather, in the 1960’s, cells were taken from two abortions and replicated in a lab, where they could be replicated indefinitely. It is from one of these replicated cell lines that Moderna and Pfizer researched their vaccines.
This is where that idea of remote cooperation comes in. A far stronger argument could be made against the vaccines if they were built on the original cell lines. However, given the fact that the research was performed on replicated cell lines, and the arguments made by our bishops and by the Vatican, Catholics should not reject these new vaccines. So, what can Catholics do? As the letter reminds us, we cannot simply settle for the bare minimum of what is morally acceptable. We can and should demand better from healthcare researchers, including research using cell lines that are perfectly licit from a moral perspective. We can also receive the vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna with a clear conscience. However, AstraZeneca has a vaccine awaiting approval that Catholics should be more wary of, given that the cell lines are more morally problematic. It is important to remember as well that, for those of us who can do so, receiving a vaccine that could very well end a pandemic could be considered an act of charity, an example of loving thy neighbor. And as St. Teresa of Calcutta reminded us, “we belong to each other.”
Rhoades, Bishop Kevin C. and Naumann, Bishop Joseph F. “Moral Considerations Regarding the New Covid-19 Vaccines.” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. December 11, 2020. https://www.usccb.org/moral-considerations-covid-vaccines.
 Bishop Kevin C. and Bishop Naumann Joseph F., “Moral Considerations Regarding the New Covid-19 Vaccines,” United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, December 11, 2020, https://www.usccb.org/moral-considerations-covid-vaccines.
The Use of Aborted Fetuses in Modern Science
By Jonathon Fessenden, Holy Apostles College
Since the 1960s, fetal cells have been used to create certain vaccines. Rubella, adenovirus, rabies, polio, measles, chickenpox, and shingles all used what was scientifically referred to as WI-38. WI-38, in layman’s terms, is simply a part of an aborted human fetus (there are other scientific names used depending on the body part.) More than ever this unethical science is coming to the forefront and presenting a moral concern all over the world. With the recent COVID-19 virus, the rush for a vaccine presents a bioethical concern, and aborted fetuses being used in any vaccine are being brought into much greater light. Certain ethical groups and pro-life supporters have put scientists under the microscope concerning this moral issue at hand. For many people in all walks of life and beliefs, aborted fetuses could reduce the willingness to take the vaccine.
While some may see no ethical problem, for many, a straight line can be drawn from the ending of human life in abortion to a vaccine or drug created using cells derived from the harvesting of the fetal tissue.1 I hope that informing individuals about what is being used in a vaccine will help people decide whether they feel comfortable taking a vaccine that uses human cells.
One of the main issues comes from the lack of transparency of what is being used in a lab. Unlike the transparency that we find on food labels, what is on a “vaccine label” or used in production can be ambiguous and often daunting information to locate. These are things that a mainstream newspaper will usually not be reporting. For example, human diploid cell strains (HDCSs) would be called “WI-38”, as mentioned above. A human diploid cell line (Wi-38) is composed of fibroblasts derived from the lung tissue of a 3-month-gestation aborted “female” fetus.2 WI-38, MRC- and WALVAX 2 are some of the names or labels used in a scientific report. Another area for concern is if a vaccine study was privately funded, this becomes very hard or even impossible for the public to know what was used in the production of a vaccine.
History and Science
The first human cell strain used in the production of licensed human virus vaccines was WI-38 developed by (L.H.) at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia in 1962.3 Human diploid cell strains (WI-38), possessing identical chromosome sets known to be free of all known adventitious agents, are of great use in developing human vaccines. However, it is challenging to obtain qualified HDCSs to satisfy the requirements for vaccines’ mass production.4
The WHO recommends HDCS as the safest cell culture substrate for the production of viral vaccines. Consequently, they have become the preferred cell substrate for vaccine production worldwide.6 Back in the ’70s, this was and still is a billion-dollar business. Profits from Merck’s rubella vaccine represent a big slice of the billions of dollars that have been made from products that have involved the use of WI-38.7
As of this article’s writing, the race for the COVID-19 vaccine has been underway for quite some time, and in some places, it is available to the public. In May of 2020, several COVID-19 vaccine programs were in registered clinical trials or early pre-clinical development stages. Five of these identified efforts use genetically engineered adenoviruses to produce COVID-19 products that are thought likely to make effective vaccines.5
According to the World Health Organization, research groups around the world are working to develop more than 130 candidate vaccines against COVID-19. At least six of those candidates use one of two human fetal cell lines: HEK-293, a kidney cell line widely used in research and industry that comes from a fetus aborted in 1972; and PER. C6, a proprietary cell line owned by Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, developed from retinal cells from an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985. Both cell lines were developed in the lab of molecular biologist Alex van der Eb at Leiden University.8
Aborted baby parts are not just used for vaccines but also in various scientific studies. In 2020, one scientific report that was not creating a vaccine but was still using aborted fetuses gives an idea where modern science seems to be heading. A study out of UPMC or University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, is grafting dead fetus parts onto mice, which are then used to test drugs.9 According to scientists from the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, various scientists say:
Full-thickness human fetal skin engrafts onto immunodeficient mice and develops into adult-like skin due to its high regenerative capability. Furthermore, human fetal skin exhibits low levels of major histocompatibility complex (MHC) I and II expression, which results in reduced immunogenicity compared to adult skin. Thus, human fetal-derived tissues and cells provide a feasible means to develop a humanized mouse model with autologous human skin and immune system.10
In the Light of Faith
It is our duty as Catholics to expose society when injustice occurs, and the right to life will always remain a social justice concern. It may not make the headline news or be what mainstream media wants to discuss, but those that care about human life need to speak up and be informed. This concern deals with the 5th commandment, and here we can verily see what is written in the Catholic Catechism article 2258 on the topic:
Human life is sacred because, from its beginning, it involves the creative action of God, and it remains forever in a special relationship with the Creator, who is its sole end.
God alone is the Lord of life from its beginning until its end: no one can under any circumstance claim for himself the right directly to destroy an innocent human being.
Partially due to the United States media’s lack of concern on this topic and also to the negative attitude towards the current President, we cannot fully understand this fight surrounding the use of fetal cells as of late. Whether this can be considered for or against President Trump, hopefully the data and research on this topic will speak for themselves without bias.
On this topic here is what the Department of Health and Human Services has to say:
Promoting the dignity of human life from conception to natural death is one of the very top priorities of President Trump’s administration. The audit and review helped inform the policy process that led to the administration’s decision to let the contract with UCSF expire and to discontinue intramural research – research conducted within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) – involving the use of human fetal tissue from elective abortion. Intramural research that requires new acquisition of fetal tissue from elective abortions will not be conducted.11
“Let us also remember, as Pastors, that for Catholics, it is morally unacceptable to develop or use vaccines derived from material from aborted fetuses.” 12
This research is certainly not an anti-vaccine article, but more about the awareness of what is ultimately going into a person’s body and the moral dilemma about using human life in medicine. Considering a large amount of evidence, we can say that the argument from a pro-abortion standpoint that a baby is not a human being might not hold much water in 2020. We do not need hidden cameras as David Daleiden did when he exposed Planned Parenthood discussing how they sell aborted body parts. However, we still have many scientists that do not share this moral concern, as Plotkin writes: “At the time [the fetus] was obtained there was no issue in using discarded material.”13
It is hard for Christians to imagine that a scientist could look at an aborted child as discarded material, but through our faith, we find the strength to tackle the moral dilemma that certain vaccines and scientists present. The possibility of conscientious objection by those to whom a vaccine is offered creates ethical demands on the policymakers, healthcare officials, scientists, vaccine creators, and funders, whether or not they have an ethical concern, because of the question of acceptance of the vaccine by all.14 Scientific humanism, being reliant on the state or media bias, will probably search for worldly answers to solve man’s trials, but we must remain ardent in our pursuit of an ethical vaccine and come to an answer that does not involve the use of aborted babies.
As a Catholic who follows the teachings of the Church and the belief in the sanctity of life, I hope this information will inform and lead to a more developed societal conscience that will inspire our scientists to be transparent, and ultimately question in hopes of stopping, the use of human lives for their experiments.
“And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” – John 8:32
1 James L. Sherley M.D., Ph.D., and David A. Prentice, Ph.D., “An Ethics Assessment of COVID-19 Vaccine Programs,” May 2020, https://s27589.pcdn.co/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/An-Ethics-Assessment-of-COVID-19-Vaccine-Programs_On-Point-46.pdf.
2 Bob Ma et al, “Characteristics and viral propagation properties of a new human diploid cell line, walvax-2, and its suitability as a candidate cell substrate for vaccine production,” April 2015, https://cogforlife.org/wp-content/uploads/walvaxScienceDoc.pdf.
4 S. J. Olshansk, and L. Hayflick, “The Role of the WI-38 Cell Strain in Saving Lives and Reducing Morbidity,” March 2, 2017, http://www.aimspress.com/fileOther/PDF/aimsph/publichealth-04-00127.pdf.
5 Bob Ma et al, “Characteristics and viral propagation properties of a new human diploid cell line, walvax-2, and its suitability as a candidate cell substrate for vaccine production.”
6 Meredith Wadman, “Medical research: Cell division,” June 26, 2013, https://www.nature.com/news/medical-research-cell-division-1.13273.
7 James L. Sherley M.D., Ph.D., and David A. Prentice, Ph.D., “An Ethics Assessment of COVID-19 Vaccine Programs.”
8 Meredith Wadman, “Vaccines that use human fetal cells draw fire,” June 12, 2020,
9 Patrick Knox, “Aborted babies’ body parts fused with mice to ‘humanise’ them for grim ‘Frankenstein’ experiments in US labs,” February 6, 2019, https://www.thesun.co.uk/news/8367760/aborted-baby-body-parts-sewn-mice-experiments-us-labs/.
10 Yash Agarwal et al, “Development of humanized mouse and rat models with full-thickness human skin and autologous immune cells,” September 3, 2020,https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-71548-z.
11 HHS Press Office, “Statement from the Department of Health and Human Services,” June 5, 2019, https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2019/06/05/statement-from-the-department-of-health-and-human-services.html.
12 “Appeal for the Church and the World: To Catholics and all people of good will,” August 5, 2020, https://www.vanthuanobservatory.org/eng/appealfor-the-church-and-the-world-to-catholics-and-all-people-of-good-will-08-05-2020/.
13 MA Fletcher, L Hessel, and S.A. Plotkin, “Human diploid cell strains (HDCS) viral vaccines,” Developments in biological standardization 93, (1998): 97-107, https://nsuworks.nova.edu/hpd_com_faculty_articles/950.
14 James L. Sherley M.D., Ph.D., and David A. Prentice, Ph.D., “An Ethics Assessment of COVID-19 Vaccine Programs.”
To be truthful, the vaccines worry me more from the side effects reported so far. As I and my family are not in any real danger of dying from this virus (greater than 99% chance for me and greater than 95% for them), it seems foolish to take this even without considering the moral problems. Obviously demographics more at risk should consider it, but I’m too apprehensive of these companies.
Mother Teresa said ” for no other sin, other than the sin of Abortion will God destroy the earth”