The Catholic Answer to Vaccines

The Catholic Answer to Vaccines

Updated July 9th, 2021

This article summarizes official Roman Catholic teaching on vaccination with links to the original documents. Please see below for an updated list of the different Coronavirus vaccines and their association with cell lines derived from aborted fetal tissue. This document does not discuss the medical risks and benefits of each vaccine. In summary, the ultimate decision to be vaccinated is up to each individual, but Catholics are called to discern this choice both intellectually and prayfully, and to sincerely consider the guidance of the Church.

What is the Catholic teaching on vaccination? Are some vaccines related to abortion? What about the coronavirus/COVID vaccine?

In an effort to assist the faithful in their discernment regarding vaccination, the Catholic Church has given specific teaching on the use of vaccines, including vaccines produced with and/or developed using cell lines derived from aborted fetal tissue. These vaccines are also known as “fetal cell line vaccines” or “human diploid cell line vaccines.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought tremendous publicity to the concern for vaccines associated with aborted fetal tissue, but the moral and ethical issues involved also apply to some routine childhood vaccinations and other adult vaccines. The Vatican first formally addressed this issue in 2005 when Pontifical Academy for Life issued a document: “Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared from Cells Derived from Aborted Human Foetuses.” The Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith also approved this document.

In 2017, The Pontifical Academy for Life released a short document called Clarifications on the medical and scientific nature of vaccination.” This clarification was written in collaboration with the Italian Bishops’ Conference and the “Ufficio per la Pastorale della Salute” (“Association of Italian Catholic Doctors.”)  The 2017 document notes declining vaccination rates in Italy, encourages vaccination, and concludes, “We believe that all clinically recommended vaccinations can be used with a clear conscience and that the use of such vaccines does not signify some sort of cooperation with voluntary abortion. While the commitment to ensuring that every vaccine has no connection in its preparation to any material of originating from an abortion, the moral responsibility to vaccinate is reiterated in order to avoid serious health risks for children and the general population.”

In response to the COVID-19 vaccines, The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) published two new documents, “Moral Considerations of the New COVID-19 Vaccines,” (December 11, 2020), and “Answers to Key Ethical Questions About COVID-19 Vaccines” (January 1st, 2021).These documents restate the same concepts discussed in the prior documents with specific emphasis on the COVID-19 vaccines. The USCCB calls on Catholics to make vaccine brand choices that avoid use of vaccines associated with aborted fetal tissue, but permits the use of vaccines with remote association with evil as long as there are no alternative vaccines available and the intent is to preserve life.

Meanwhile, the Vatican also made statements on the COVID-19 vaccines. On December 21st, 2020, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith released a “Note on the Morality of Using Some Anti-COVID-19 Vaccines.” In this document they reiterate the concepts from the prior documents, stating that it is licit to use COVID-19 vaccines that are associated with aborted fetal tissue if no reasonable alternatives exist, and that “the licit use of such vaccines does not and should not in any way imply that there is a moral endorsement of the use of cell lines proceeding from aborted fetuses. Both pharmaceutical companies and governmental health agencies are therefore encouraged to produce, approve, distribute and offer ethically acceptable vaccines that do not create problems of conscience for either health care providers or the people to be vaccinated.”

On December 29th, 2020, the Vatican COVID-19 Commission and the Pontifical Academy for Life issued a joint 20-point statement on COVID-19 vaccines entitled, “Vaccine for All: 20 Points for a Fairer and Healthier World.” This paper addresses broad issues related to vaccines, from research and development to patents and commercial exploitation, including approval, distribution and administration.

Below, we outline the ethics of the different COVID-19 vaccines as well as other common childhood and adult vaccines.

  1. Pfizer: Pfizer/BioNTech’s coronavirus/COVID vaccine known as “BNT162b2was developed using genetic sequencing on computers without using fetal cells. The HEK-293 abortion-related cell line was used in research related to this vaccine, but not the testing of the vaccine. This cell line originated from kidney cells from a fetus that was aborted in 1973. No cell line, fetal or otherwise, is required for the ongoing production of this vaccine. This vaccine is currently in use and requires two doses. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine requires “ultra-cold” storage, making distribution difficult. Currently, only hospitals and other large facilities are being consider as distribution locations for this vaccine.
  2. Moderna: Moderna’s “mRNA-1273” vaccine does not require aborted fetal cell lines for production, but aborted fetal cell lines were used in both the development and testing of this vaccine. This vaccine is currently in use and is easier to distribute than Pfizer due to cooling requirements. It also requires two doses.
  3. Johnson & Johnson: The J&J/Janssen COVID-19 vaccine, “JNJ-78436735” does use the abortion-related PER.c6 cell line for ongoing production. This cell line was also used in the development and testing of the vaccine. PER.c6 is 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. This vaccine is currently in use. This is a single-dose vaccine, unlike other COVID vaccines which require 2 doses.
  4. AstroZenica: The AstroZenica/University of Oxford vaccine “AZD1222” does use the HEK-293 cell line for production. This cell like was also used in both development and testing of the vaccine. The AstroZenica vaccine is not approved in the United States. It was previously approved elsewhere, but removed from use due to safety and efficacy concerns.
  5. Sanofi/GlaxoSmithKline: The Sanofi/GSK “COVAX” vaccine is not associated with aborted fetal cell lines for testing, development or production. GSK produces this vaccine using a modified virus cultivated on insect cells. It is unclear if and when this vaccine may become available to the American public. The Sanofi company is also developing a different COVID vaccine that did use the HEK-293 abortion-related cell line in the research phase.

Is there a moral and/or ethical difference between vaccines that require fetal cell lines for ongoing production vs. those that used these cell lines for testing/development? If possible, should Catholics make a brand choice to avoid the Johnson and Johnson vaccine (which uses fetal cell lines for ongoing production)?

Some U.S. bishops have made formal statements answering this question. On March 5th, 2020, a group of bishops in leadership positions within the USCCB published a statement on the USCCB website stating, “if one can choose among equally safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, the vaccine with the least connection to abortion-derived cell lines should be chosen. Therefore, if one has the ability to choose a vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccines should be chosen over Johnson & Johnson’s.” Other bishops have made official statements that do not discuss the issue of brand choice and emphasize that all currently available COVID vaccines may be used in good conscience.

The Vatican has not made any official statements regarding the Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine, although a corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for Life did publish a personal statement that all vaccines are morally acceptable.

In an effort to dispel confusion, on March 5th, a group of leading pro-life Catholic scholars published an in-depth statement on this issue on the Ethics and Public Policy Center website. This statement was republished by the Pontifical Academy of Life on their website. They write: “As a descriptive matter, some pro-life advocates may prefer to use one vaccine rather than another in order to witness against the evil of abortion, or to signal special respect for the unborn babies whose lives were lost. Again, we agree with Bishop Rhoades that such a choice is a matter for their conscience. But we think it a mistake to say both that these vaccines are morally permissible to use and yet that some ought to be preferred to others. There appears to us to be no real distinction between the vaccines in terms of their connection to an abortion many decades ago, and thus the moral starting point is one of equivalence.”

Many Catholic bishops, clergy, physicians, scholars and laypeople expressed sincere disagreement with this statement from the EPPC. The primary disagreement stems from the nature of “remote cooperation with evil,” as describe in the 2005 document from the Pontifical Academy for Life (linked above). Many argue that the Pfizer vaccine has more remote connections with abortion compared to the Moderna and J&J vaccines (see details below). But the Pontifical Academy for Life chooses only to quote the EPPC statement, and not the statements of the dissenting bishops and other scholars.

Brand choices for common adult vaccines: 

For adults, the GSK company makes an ethical shingles vaccine called Shingrix. Merck’s vaccine against shingles, Zostavax, is produced using aborted fetal cell lines. The Centers for Disease Control’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends the use of Shingrix over Zostavax because Shingrix is more effective.

Brand choices for common childhood vaccines:

Effective December 2019, Pentacel and Quadracel no longer use aborted fetal cell lines. Before December 2019, American Catholics were asked to make a brand-choice for Pediarix and Kinrix vaccines and avoid choosing the Pentacel and Quadracel vaccines. In late 2019 the Sanofi Pasteur company announced that they are no longer using fetal cell lines for the Pentacel and Quadracel vaccines. In this letter from the FDA, the vaccine cell line is confirmed as Vero (it was previously MRC-5). Vero is not a fetal cell line, it is from a kidney cell of a monkey. This is also confirmed in the package insert for pentacel, see page 14. Hence, it is no longer necessary to make this brand choice.

Vaccines for which there are no ethical brand choices: 

For some childhood vaccines, there are no morally produced brands. In the United States, these vaccines are MMR, hepatitis A, and varicella. So should we use these vaccines, when there is no alternative?

In the 2005 document, The Pontifical Academy for Life says we can use them “on a temporary basis” and “insomuch as is necessary in order to avoid a serious risk not only for one’s own children but also, and perhaps more specifically, for the health conditions of the population as a whole – especially for pregnant women.” In the 2017 document, the Pontifical Academy for life writes, “Especially in consideration of the fact that the cell lines currently used are very distant from the original abortions and no longer imply that bond of moral cooperation indispensable for an ethically negative evaluation of their use. On the other hand, the moral obligation to guarantee the vaccination coverage necessary for the safety of others is no less urgent, especially the safety more vulnerable subjects such as pregnant women and those affected by immunodeficiency who cannot be vaccinated against these diseases.”

The 2005 document implores all of us to “oppose by all means (in writing, through the various associations, mass media, etc.) the vaccines which do not yet have morally acceptable alternatives, creating pressure so that alternative vaccines are prepared, which are not connected with the abortion of a human foetus, and requesting legal control of the pharmaceutical industry producers.”

MyCatholicDoctor recommends this sample letter which can be sent to pharmaceutical companies to voice your views regarding human diploid cell line vaccines (courtesy of Dr. Elizabeth Abraham MD, MS and Mrs. Danielle Abril).

What is the Catholic Church’s teaching/stance on the HPV vaccine?

None of the currently available HPV vaccines are produced using cell lines derived from aborted fetal tissue. Gardasil 9 is now the only HPV vaccine available for use in the United States. Cervarix and Gardasil are still used in other countries.

Neither the USCCB nor the Vatican have made official statements regarding use of the HPV vaccine. Some bishops have opposed mandated HPV vaccination for school attendance. The National Catholic Bioethics Center and the Catholic Medical Association have issued statements that use of this vaccine is morally acceptable in appropriate situations.

This article was written by Kathleen Berchelmann, MD, a pediatrician and the co-founder of MyCatholicDoctor.

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