Updated 12/21/2020 @ 1120
Just today the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has published a document entitled “Note on the morality of using some anti-COVID-19 vaccines.” This provides important clarification on the stance of the Catholic Church. We, without question, accept the CDF’s guidance and if there is anything in our statement below that appears to be in contradiction with the CDF’s document, it is our error.
Prepared by members of the Catholic Finger Lakes Guild of the Diocese of Rochester, NY December, 2020
COVID-19 Vaccines Associated with Abortion: A Moral Dilemma
The Church’s position that abortion is a grave moral evil has been consistent since the 1st century and is definitive. Since some COVID-19 vaccines use abortion-derived fetal cell lines in one or more aspects of their production, their use requires careful ethical reflection. On the one hand, such vaccines can do much good in protecting the health of persons and populations, while on the other hand, they are linked to an act that intentionally and unjustly ended the life of a human being. Herein lies the moral dilemma.
COVID-19 Vaccines: There are Ethical Differences Among Them!
It is important that Catholics understand that of the numerous COVID-19 vaccines currently in development world-wide, there is great variation in their degree of use of abortion-derived fetal cell lines, varying from zero use to extensive use. The National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) identifies three categories of COVID-19 vaccines, ranging from a Category 1 Vaccine which uses no morally problematic cell lines and thus poses no ethical problem, to a Category 3 Vaccine, which uses the cell lines in one or more aspects of production, including the manufacturing process which is the most ethically problematic. Category 2 vaccines use the cell lines in an incidental part of the development process such as laboratory testing and so are minimally problematic. Table 1 describes these categories in more detail.
In December 2020, two COVID-19 vaccine candidates – Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna – received emergency use authorization from the FDA through Operation Warp Speed protocols. Information provided by the Charlotte Lozier Institute classified both vaccines as Category 2 (minimally problematic). The six other Operation Warp Speed vaccine candidates either meet Category 3 (considerably problematic) criteria, or don’t have enough public information to be categorized. It should be noted that these and other COVID-19 vaccine candidates may be approved and become available to the public in the future. For this reason:
When there is a choice amongst COVID-19 vaccines, Catholics should specifically ask for, and seek out, the least morally problematic vaccine.
Deciding: Help from the Magisterium
The Magisterium of the Catholic Church offers guidance to Catholics who are pondering whether to receive morally problematic vaccines. In essence, while the Church firmly views a person’s right to exercise his personal freedom as a requirement of ensuring human dignity, it is moderated by a responsibility to use that freedom to promote the common good and moral order. The following Church statements provide valuable considerations in this matter:
* The 2008 document Dignitas Personae (Section 35) allows for the use of morally problematic vaccines for grave reasons such as danger to one’s health, clarifying that “…grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such ‘biological material.’”
* A 2005 letter from the Pontifical Academy of Life supported the right to abstain from receiving morally problematic vaccines, but did not support an unconditional right to do so when the disease posed a serious threat and the vaccine was sufficiently effective.
* In a 2015 statement, Conscience Exemption for Vaccines based on Fetal Tissue from Abortions, the U.S. Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) noted that a Catholic parent could seek an exemption for their children from morally problematic vaccinations when a conscience exemption was available and when doing so would not pose a serious risk to the population.
* Most recently, the USCCB reminded Catholics that they are ethically permitted to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, even if it is morally problematic, given the urgency of the pandemic, the lack of available vaccines, and the remote connection to the original abortion. They described the decision to vaccinate as an act of charity and love towards one’s neighbor and perhaps the most important feature of receiving such a vaccine.
While these Church statements do not obligate Catholics to receive a COVID-19 vaccine, they clearly favor doing so. However, out of respect for personal freedom and a person’s conscience formed by well-considered reasons, an individual’s decision to forego a COVID-19 vaccine should be respected.
The Church has conditionally stated that it is permissible, and even advisable to receive morally problematic vaccines when there are no alternatives and when there is substantial risk to one’s own health or to the health of others.
However, the Church deems that the use of such vaccines is not obligatory, out of respect for personal freedom and a person’s conscience formed by well-considered reasons.
Importance of Advocacy
The Church asks more of Catholics in this matter. It calls Catholics to actively advocate for the development of ethical vaccines, free from any association with abortion or other immoral acts. Catholics can bring pressure to bear on pharmaceutical companies, researchers, and governments to eliminate the use of unethical cell lines. Researchers at Catholic universities have an unique opportunity to take the lead in this endeavor, so that one need never choose between their conscience and health.
Catholics should actively advocate against the use of abortion-derived fetal cell lines in vaccine research, manufacturing, and testing, and encourage the use of ethical alternatives.
Other Helpful Sources
1. Charlotte Lozier Institute: Analysis of COVID-19 Operation Warp Speed Vaccine Candidates, 12-18-2020.
2. Charlotte Lozier Institute: Update: COVID-19 Vaccine Candidates and Abortion-Derived Cell Lines, 12-14-2020.
3. National Catholic Bioethics Center: NCBC Resources for COVID-19, 12-18-2020.
4. National Catholic Bioethics Center: “Making Sense of Bioethics” columns on COVID-19, by Fr. Tad, 12-18-2020.
4. Children of God for Life: Abortion-Derived Vaccine website.
5. Catechism of the Catholic Church: See: Abortion (§2270), Freedom & Responsibility (§1731-38), Moral Conscience (§1776), Respect for Health (§2288), The Person and Society (§1878), Morality of Human Acts (§1749).
 Note: Although abortion-derived fetal cell lines are used to manufacture some of today’s vaccines, no new abortions are needed to obtain these cells. The cells in use today are descendants from the cells obtained from single elective abortions that took place in the 1960s and 1970s. No actual cells are contained in vaccines.