Sydney’s Archbishop Anthony Fisher OP responds to concerns from the faithful about a potential COVID-19 vaccine.
Most religious believers are not anti-vaxers. In fact most of us are praying for a vaccine against COVID-19. So the Australian Government’s announcement that it has signed a letter of intent to manufacture the AstraZeneca/Oxford University COVID-19 vaccine (if successful in clinical trials) sounds like great news.
Until you read the fine-print on the ampule. Turns out that this vaccine makes use of a cell-line (HEK-293) cultured from an electively aborted human foetus. Of 167 candidate vaccines for COVID-19 identified by the World Health Organisation, 29 of which are already in clinical evaluation, the Commonwealth has thrown its lot in with one that some ordinary Australians will find morally problematical.
It has also been reported that if the vaccine is adopted for use in Australia, it will be ‘as near to mandatory as possible’. At the very least it can be expected that it is likely there will be enormous social and political pressure upon people to use it. ‘No jab, no play’ they’ll say. No child care. No aged care. No job for you.
Of course, many people will have no ethical problem with using tissue from electively aborted foetuses for medical purposes.
Others may regard the use of a cell-line derived from an abortion performed back in the 1970s as now sufficiently removed from the abortion itself to be excusable.
But others again will draw a straight line from the ending of a human life in abortion, through to the cultivation of the cell-line, to the manufacture of this vaccine. They won’t want to be associated with or benefit in any way from the death of the baby girl whose cells were taken and cultivated, nor to be thought to be trivialising that death, nor to be encouraging the foetal tissue industry.
I, for one, don’t think it would be unethical to use this vaccine if there is no alternative available. To do so would not be to co-operate in any abortion occurring in the past or the future. But I am deeply troubled by it.
Those who are troubled by it will either have to acquiesce to the social pressure to use the vaccine on themselves and their dependents, or conscientiously object to it. If they resist they will suffer various disadvantages and their abstention may undermine the goal of ‘herd immunity’. Some will feel deeply conflicted whichever way they go. And it will be socially divisive.
Unnecessarily so. If the Government pursues an ethically uncontroversial vaccine this won’t be a problem. If it assures people that no one will be pressured to use such a vaccine or disadvantaged for failing to do so, it won’t be a problem. If it makes available an ethically-uncontroversial alternative vaccine if one is found, those who are troubled in conscience will be relieved. The key, then, is seeking solutions that protect the community’s physical health while also respecting its moral health and offering people choices.
I’m a strong advocate of vaccinations – and not just for COVID-19 – as long as they are safe and ethically obtained. I commend the efforts of our Commonwealth and State governments to keep us safe. I won’t be wagging my finger at anyone who uses the vaccine.
What people need right now is some hope that life can return to relative normalcy. But we do not want this at the price of many good people’s consciences and the creation of new social tensions. There are ethically untainted alternatives: let’s pursue those.
- Helen Watt, ‘COVID-19 vaccines and the use of foetal cells,’ Anscombe Bioethics Institute COVID-19 Briefing Paper 2 (27 April 2020)
- James Sherley, ‘An ethics assessment of COVID-19 vaccine programs,’ Charlotte Lozier Institute On Point 46 (May 2020)