The start of COVID-19 vaccination in the UK has brought into focus the ethical issues associated with the production of the vaccine, and the extent to which genetic material from aborted embryos was used in the process. However, the position has been blurred by the circulation of incorrect information within the social media. This post summarizes the position of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, the Church of England, the British Islamic Medical Association, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, and a recent analysis of the evidence by FactCheckNI.
“At present, debate concerns the use of the vaccines developed by Pfizer & BioNTech, Moderna, and AstraZeneca. Some have questioned the use of the Astra Zeneca vaccine since it has been developed from cell-lines originating from the cells of an aborted foetus in 1983.
The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF)‡ and the Pontifical Academy of Life§ have expressed the view that one may in good conscience and for a grave reason receive a vaccine sourced in this way, provided that there is a sufficient moral distance between the present administration of the vaccine and the original wrongful action.
In the COVID-19 pandemic, we judge that this grave reason exists and that one does not sin by receiving the vaccine. Both the Pfizer & BioNTech and Moderna vaccines have a different source since they are mRNA-based vaccines. On 2 December 2020, the Pfizer & BioNTech vaccine was approved for use in the UK.
Each Catholic must educate his or her conscience on this matter and decide what to do, also bearing in mind that a vaccine must be safe, effective, and universally available, especially to the poor of the world. Catholics may in good conscience receive any of these vaccines for the good of others and themselves. In good conscience, one may refuse a particular vaccine but continues to have a duty to protect others from infection.”
On 8 December, the Church of England issued COVID-19 Vaccines update December 2020, v.1 which commented:
“Since the 1960s, almost all vaccines have utilised cell lines from aborted foetal material. Currently most cell-lines are based on foetuses aborted in the 1980s. We concur with the Pontifical Academy for Life’s conclusions that the morality of voluntary abortion and the morality of using aborted foetal material are not conjoined so that ‘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’.”
The Independent reported that the British Islamic Medical Association had warned that “years of sub-par public health messaging and inability to access vaccines not containing pork gelatine could see [a] lower uptake”. A leading doctor commented “[a] lack of trust in the government, ‘historic inequalities’ and vaccine misinformation – including false claims that the coronavirus jab is not halal – could hinder its roll-out, a leading doctor has warned”… “Immunization programmes have often seen low uptake among Muslims, in part because flu and childhood vaccines not containing pork gelatine were unavailable in England and Wales until this year”.
The British Islamic Medical Association (BIMA) has consulted widely and issued a statement on the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine and how it relates to the Muslim community in Britain. The Summary states [emphasis in original]:
“After discussion with experts, we recommend the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine for eligible at-risks individuals in the Muslim community. These are outlined in the current JCVI [Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization] guidance. Individuals should take this Covid-19 vaccine on the advice of their medical practitioner following informed consent. This is to protect these specific groups from a probable and considerable risk of harm from Covid-19 infection, which is likely to be greater than any harm from taking this vaccine. We shall continually review this recommendation as new information becomes available. A UK-wide population roll out is not available at present and we have therefore not considered this. Despite the development of vaccines, the ongoing vigilance of wearing masks, social distancing, and hand hygiene remain paramount and highly effective in managing this pandemic.”
On 8 December 2020, the President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, Marie van der Zyl, praised all those who have made the vaccination roll-out possible and called on the Jewish community to support the programme.
On 7 December 2020, FactCheckNI† issued COVID-19 vaccines and fetuses (the “Analysis”); this examines the use of human cell lines in the production of COVID-19 vaccines, and whether this has involved the used of genetic material from aborted foetuses has been used. At the time of issue, there were 78 COVID-19 vaccines in development: thirteen in third stage trials, and seven with limited approval for use. The Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine was the first to be approved for use in the UK on 2 December 2020.
The Analysis notes that concerns have been expressed on social media sites that COVID-19 vaccines are made from aborted foetuses, and some object to the vaccines on religious and ethical grounds. The evaluation of the evidence reviewed is beyond the scope of this blog, other than to note that:
- most of the COVID-19 vaccines in development do not use human cell lines in their production and those using mRNA technology are made from a DNA template in a lab, rather than the traditional method of being made in cells.
- claims that the AstraZeneca vaccine contains MRC-5 cells from lung tissue of a male foetus which was aborted in the 1960s were found to be false
The analysis concludes:
- No COVID-19 vaccine contains cells from aborted foetuses.
- A replica cell line from a foetus aborted in 1973 was used to develop the AstraZeneca/Oxford University vaccine. However, the vaccine itself does not contain foetal cells.
- New mRNA vaccines, such as those being developed by Pfizer and Moderna, are synthetic vaccines, sequenced on a computer in a lab, and do not use foetal cell lines in their production.
On 2 December the first COVID-19 vaccine for the UK, developed by Pfizer/BioNTech,was given approval for use following a thorough review carried out by the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). On 15 December, Public Health England (PHE) wrote “In the UK, there are 2 types of COVID-19 vaccine to be used once they are approved” [emphasis added]. Despite the options which may become available in the UK through hospital hubs and GP-led vaccinations, it seems unlikely at present that it will be possible to opt for a particular vaccine, although it will be possible to refuse one. However, the logistics of vaccine distribution and usage are complex, and are likely to change as practical experience is developed, and other vaccines are approved for use.
On 16 December, the National Audit Office issued Investigation into preparations for potential COVID-19 vaccines, which reports that government has worked quickly to secure potential COVID-19 vaccines, successfully signing deals for five vaccines providing up to 267 million doses at an expected cost of £2.9 billion. The report stated that “as at 8th December 2020, NHSE&I [was ]planning on the assumption it could vaccinate up to 25 million people with two doses throughout 20212. NHSE&I has developed delivery models that take account of the range of different possible characteristics of the vaccines BEIS has bought, the different groups that will require vaccinating and regional needs.
‡ The CDF’s Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions, issued on 8 September 2008, addressed a number of issues including “The use of human “biological material” of illicit origin” . With regard to the “recent forms of intervention on human embryo”, “these forms of experimentation always constitute a grave moral disorder” . However, “[a] different situation is created when researchers use “biological material” of illicit origin which has been produced apart from their research center or which has been obtained commercially…
…According to this criterion [of independence, as formulated in Instruction Donum vitae] the use of “biological material” of illicit origin would be ethically permissible provided there is a clear separation between those who, on the one hand, produce, freeze and cause the death of embryos and, on the other, the researchers involved in scientific experimentation.
§ The Pontifical Academy for Life issued a document commenting on the Italian vaccine issue, in collaboration with the “Ufficio per la Pastorale della Salute” of Italian Bishops’ Conference and the “Association of Italian Catholic Doctors”, on 31 July 2017. The document notes that it is now no longer necessary to obtain cells from new voluntary abortions, and that the cell lines on which the vaccines are based in are derived solely from two foetuses originally aborted in the 1960’s. Also, “[f]rom the clinical point of view, it should also be reiterated that treatment with vaccines, despite the very rare side effects (the events that occur most commonly are mild and due to an immune response to the vaccine itself), is safe and effective”.
In 2005, it published a document entitled: “Moral reflections about vaccines prepared from cells of aborted human foetuses” which, in the light of medical advances and current conditions of vaccine preparation, could soon be revised and updated. In particular
“the cell lines currently used [in 2005] 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…
…The technical characteristics of the production of the vaccines most commonly used in childhood lead us to exclude that there is a morally relevant cooperation between those who use these vaccines today and the practice of voluntary abortion. Hence, 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.”
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