THE ongoing pandemic of COVID has raised numerous questions concerning the intersection between public health and Catholic faith and practice. The inability of Catholics to obtain sacramental ministry during the COVID pandemic has been especially obvious and politically-contentious; however, the economic, social, and psychological toll of the pandemic has also been devastating for many.
THE question often arises whether it is permitted for Catholics to use vaccines that have been prepared using cells from aborted fetuses. It should be noted that the vaccines themselves do not contain any material derived from these fetuses; rather tissue-culture made from these cells (e.g. cell-line HEK 293) is sometimes used in the manufacturing or testing process by the pharmaceutical industry as a growth-medium for the viruses that are used to prepare the vaccine.
BOTH ethical and understandable medical explanations of the use of cell lines derived from aborted fetuses is available in an excellent article by , PhD, cited in part as ?Tainted Vaccines? at the link on the navigation bar. The history of these cell lines and many of the moral principles involved are discussed in an article by Nicanor Austriaco, O.P., (also cited below)
THE magisterium of the Catholic Church has definitively and consistently stated that it is permissible to use these vaccines, even if their manufacture has been “tainted” by using cells from aborted fetuses. The documents clarifying this have approved by the Pontifical Academy for Life in 2005 and 2017 and by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (2008: Dignitatis Personae §35) in 2008 and 2020. This was most recently reasserted and summarized by the Pontifical Council for Life in 2020 (Vaccines for All). The documents may be accessed on the navigation bar to the left.
At least five of the candidate COVID-19 vaccines 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 about 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.
[Various individuals] […] have cautioned that many of the COVID-19 vaccines under development are unethical because they are being created using fetal cell lines like HEK 293, thought to be derived from the kidney tissue of a fetus aborted in 1972. While Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines—recently shown to be 90 percent and 94 percent effective, respectively—were not made using fetal cells, they did use HEK 293 for confirmatory lab testing. And fetal cell lines are being used in the production of AstraZeneca/Oxford University’s vaccine—just revealed to be 90 percent effective in preventing infection—as well as those being developed by Inovio Pharmaceuticals and Janssen, among others.
Cell lines like HEK 293 are far removed from the unborn child from whose tissue they were initially derived. Such cell lines are “immortal,” meaning that, once developed, they continue to divide and reproduce themselves indefinitely. This means that the use of such lines does not necessarily create additional demand for new fetal tissue.
Furthermore, the original fetal kidney cells used to create HEK 293 underwent numerous modifications before the cell line was successfully produced, and the line itself has since been modified in many ways to optimize its usefulness. HEK 293 has become a staple for biological research; its use is so ubiquitous—and so many other basic research materials like recombinant proteins and molecular reagents have been produced from it—that conducting research without relying on it in some form is practically impossible. Anyone who wants to completely avoid benefiting from the use of HEK 293 would effectively have to eschew the use of any medical treatments or biological knowledge developed or updated within the past forty years.
Consider also some additional examples of ways in which we routinely benefit from past injustices. Immoral experiments performed in Nazi Germany on concentration camp prisoners and those in mental institutions led to the development of the antimalarial drug chloroquine and many other medical advances. The railroad network in the southern United States was constructed largely through slave labor. The acquisition of California and other southwest states was the result of the Mexican-American War, provoked by President Polk. The list could go on and on.
My point is not that we should desensitize ourselves to these historical injustices, but simply to make it clear that we live in a morally imperfect world in which it is impossible to insulate ourselves from the fruits of such injustices.
If the use of HEK 293 or other fetal cell lines perpetuated the injustice of abortion by creating ongoing demand for more fetal tissue, or reflected implicit approval of that injustice, then I believe that pro-lifers would be morally required to avoid benefiting from it. That is why it is important to promote policies—like the one adopted in June 2019 by the Department of Health and Human Services—that discourage the use of newly acquired fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions and promote the development of ethical alternatives.
But the use of historic cell lines like HEK 293 is fundamentally different. Because these cell lines are immortal, their continued use does not lead to a demand for more fetal tissue. Indeed, for scientific purposes, using established, standard cell lines is actually best because researchers understand how they behave and can easily compare their results with those of others using the same line. Furthermore, given that the fruits of research using these cell lines is so ubiquitous, it is unreasonable to claim that if I voluntarily benefit from these fruits I am implicitly approving of the abortion that made them possible.
No one thinks that using chloroquine reflects approval of the Nazi experiments that led to its development, that riding the train in Georgia reflects approval of slavery, or that living in California reflects approval of the Mexican-American War. Taking a vaccine created with the help of HEK 293 or other fetal cell lines is no different.
If a COVID-19 vaccine is developed with the use of cell lines derived from an aborted fetus, should a citizen of conscience who is opposed to abortion avail herself of it to protect herself and her loved ones during this time of pandemic? Using such a medical therapy would be morally justifiable only if its use did not contribute to future evil acts and if its use was occasioned by a grave proportionate reason.