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  • Reverend James Squire

Bioethics in the Big Easy

The Roman Catholic Church in Louisiana is against using the Johnson and Johnson vaccine because it uses a line of cells from fetuses aborted in 1970. This is similar to the ethical dilemma that faced the Church regarding the issue of condom use as a way of preventing AIDS particularly in Africa. The position of the Roman Catholic Church is that they are against abortion and contraception. Three things to consider when approaching the bioethics of Johnson and Johnson vaccine use in Louisiana. There are two teachings in the Roman Catholic Church that apply. The church opposes contraception on the grounds that every sex act should be open to procreation. Second, the church also teaches that everyone has the right to defend one’s life “against mortal danger”. Third, 87% of Roman Catholics in America do not accept the Church’s positions on these two issues.

The bioethical dilemma of vaccine use by Roman Catholics has gotten very little press until the situation in Louisiana put it in the news. Here is the issue. There is great debate in the Catholic Church over accepting vaccines and treatments that use fetal tissue, centering on HEK 293 cells which were cloned from an aborted fetus in the early 1970(s). The cells used now such as in the Johnson and Johnson vaccine are not from the original fetal tissue. All vaccines have used lines of tissues from fetuses.

According to the Inquirer, “In the case of the Covid-19 virus, the Vatican said that they could be used in good conscience given the severity of the Pandemic since the vaccine’s connection to the original abortion is remote. Pope Francis took the Pfizer vaccine.”

If the Pope says it is OK, it is OK, right? Not so fast! Dr. John Haas is the President Emeritus and Senior Fellow at the National Catholic Bioethics Center. I know John as his children attended EA although he and I have never discussed this particular issue. He is a thoughtful bioethicist, but he and I would have to agree to disagree on various topics. In essence, he is one of the key bioethicist consultants to the Pontifical Counsel.

I will quote some of Dr. Haas’s statements that appeared in the National Catholic Register. Here is the Roman Catholic Church’s position. The standard is “First do no harm, do good and avoid evil, and never do evil that good may come of it.” He is also concerned with the consent forms where companies don’t mention the “use of a cell line which had its origins in tissue from an aborted child. That does not constitute true informed consent.”

The heart of Dr. Haas’s position is: “Grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such “biological material”. Thus, for example danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines.”

Moderna and Pfizer vaccines argue that, although the vaccines weren’t produced directly from cell lines derived from aborted babies, their research and production depended on the HEK cell line derived from a baby aborted in the 1970(s). Dr. Haas’s response was “that it would have been better if there had been no connection, but it was not used for the manufacture of the vaccine so there would be a very distant connection.”

My response to Dr. Haas is simple. Time was of the essence. There were no other vaccines that are available other than those that used the HEK cell lines. There was no choice. If we are going to hold up the value of human life, we need to hold up the value of the living who are attempting to live during this Pandemic. He does have a point about consent. Consent always means full disclosure. In terms of the Catholic guideline of “never do evil that good could come of it”, I would put it another way. Abortion is wrong but necessary. The Woman should have the right to choose.

The New Orleans Archdiocese has articulated an argument that could be picked up as another reason by the anti-vaccers not to get vaccinated. Today I asked a Roman Catholic person if he was going to get a vaccine. He said no, “I don’t believe in abortion.” Vaccines and abortions could be equated as moral equals going forward. That thought could be a reason for some to not get the vaccine at the peril of their own life. It is wrong, in my opinion, to link abortion and vaccine use as wrong in the context of the deaths due to the Pandemic.

Here are two strong arguments about vaccines to simplify the matter for our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters. “The Vatican Academy for Life issued a document in 2017 with regards to vaccines using fetal cell lines from the 1960(s) to make rubella, chickenpox, polio, and hepatitis A vaccines. It stated 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.”

My mentor, Arthur Caplan, now professor of bioethics at New York University School of Medicine told Science: “If you are going to say the government shouldn’t fund things that a minority of people object to, you will have a very long list of things that won’t get funded by this government from research on weapons of war to contraceptive research.”

Enough said! Get a vaccine!

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