IS IT MORAL TO RECEIVE THE COVID VACCINE?
Julio Gonzalez, M.D., J.D.
In 1973 a woman underwent an elective abortion in the Netherlands. Like in other cases, her baby's tissues were used for biomedical research; the HEK 293 line taken from the baby's kidneys. Most recently, this cell line has been employed in the development of various COVID-19 vaccinations. As a result, many question the ethics of accepting these vaccines. Such introspection is absolutely appropriate since, at its core, it forces one to analyze the value of human life and the appropriateness of benefiting from another's demise. Although ultimately one's position on the ethical questions posed by the AstraZeneca-Oxford, Pfizer, and Moderna vaccines are personal ones that cannot be resolved by anyone other than the individual, the Catholic Church has laid out some guidelines regarding this issue, and members of its leadership have actually taken positions on this question.
Little is known about the circumstances regarding the abortion leading to the harvesting of HEK 293. We know that it took place no later than January 1973, with some sources placing it in 1972. We also know that the aborted child was a healthy one. The HEK 293 cell line was developed at the University of Leiden, Holland, in Professor Alex Van Der Eb's lab, assisted by Frank Graham. HEK 293 is the product of Graham's 293rd experiment with the cells, where he successfully clipped adenovirus DNA onto the aborted baby's genome. Since then, the cells have been employed in a wide array of research projects with direct implications relating to viral disease prevention and cancer research.
The procurement of cells from aborted babies for research and development was not unprecedented in the mid-twentieth century. Perhaps the line with the most well-elucidated circumstances were the HeLa cells obtained from the abortion undergone by Henrietta Lacks, an allegedly illiterate black woman in the United States who was never informed of the destination of her aborted baby's corpse. There was also the WI-38 human fibroblast cell line obtained from an abortion performed in 1962 in Sweden from a woman immortalized as Mrs. X who was also not informed of how her baby's discarded tissues would be used. Each cell line has gone on to produce significant advances in medicine and in the biological sciences.
The issue of scientific advancement at the expense of a human life has brought commentary from bioethicists and religious authorities throughout the world. The Catholic Church has commented on the matter numerous times, not the least of which was the Vatican’s "Note on the Morality of Using Some Anti-COVID-19 Vaccines" published on December 21, 2020. Its position is clear and based on St. Thomas Aquinas's view that no evil can be justified by the promotion of good.
That being said, there are differing degrees of participation in the evil and therefore different degrees of responsibility for the actions under consideration. Certainly, those who actively engaged in the abortion, the procurement of the tissue, and in its initial preparation engaged in indefensibly immoral actions. Additionally, according to Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions, "in organizations where cell lines of illicit origin are being utilized, the responsibility of those who make the decision to use them is not the same as that of those who have no voice in such a decision."
Importantly, the Church also discriminates over the presence of available alternatives. Thus, as is the case with the rubella vaccine, the Church holds that it is ethical for the general public to receive the vaccine even though it is derived from human embryonic cells since there is no available alternative. Despite this, the Church insists that all Christians demand the development of morally irreproachable alternatives to those obtained from human embryonic tissue. It also considers the type of cooperation by the vaccine recipient with the evil employed as both remote and passive. In other words, even though one may receive the vaccine with full knowledge that its development was tainted by the use of human embryonic cells, it does not follow that there was any formal cooperation with the abortion or with the decision to use the technology in the creation of the vaccination. Despite this, in accepting the vaccine, there is some degree of legitimization of both the methods used and the evil employed in its development.
As an aside, it must be noted that, like many Americans, the Vatican insists that vaccination must be voluntary. Nevertheless, if one were to choose not to receive the vaccine, then he or she still carries the responsibility of engaging in other activities for the prevention of contracting and spreading the disease.
Putting it all this together, three bishops from Colorado, Most Reverends Samuel J. Aquila, Stephen J. Berg, and Michael J. Sheridan have articulated concrete recommendations regarding the use of the various presently-available vaccinations. In a letter to the faithful of Colorado, the Bishops opined:
Ultimately, the decision to receive a vaccine developed using aborted human tissue is an innately personal one. The potential recipient must weigh the ethical issues at play against the benefits to one's self and to those around him or her. As one wrestles with this most important question regarding morality, human dignity, and scientific development, the Church's work on bioethics offers guidance on the choice one must ultimately make. In either case, the true solution lies in making the inhumanity and grotesqueness of abortion a thing of the past.
Dr. Julio Gonzalez is an orthopaedic surgeon and lawyer living in Venice, Florida. He served in the Florida House of Representatives. He is the author of numerous books including The Federalist Pages, The Case for Free Market Healthcare, and Coronalessons. He is available for appearances and book signings, and can be reached through www.thefederalistpages.com.
Dr. Julio Gonzalez is an orthopedic surgeon living in Florida. He is a lawyer, author, and former member of the Florida House of Representatives. He is available for speaking engagements at email@example.com