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Catholic University panelists address concerns raised over fetal cell line in COVID-19 vaccines

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A man at the New York state COVID-19 vaccination site, Jacob K. Javits Convention Center in New York City, receives a dose of the coronavirus vaccine Jan. 13, 2021. (CNS photo/Brendan McDermid, Reuters)

WASHINGTON — Participants in a Jan. 14 webinar sponsored by the Institute for Human Ecology at The Catholic University of America discussed concerns raised by some over a fetal cell line being used in some phase of COVID-19 vaccine development but concluded the cell line is probably sufficiently removed from the “original evil” to ameliorate Catholic apprehensions.

A Dutch researcher in the 1970s developed HEK-293, or human embryonic kidney 293 cells. Their original source was an aborted female fetus. The cell line is used to manufacture the spike protein of the coronavirus, which, in a vaccine, triggers an immune response.

Melissa Moschella, a philosophy professor at Catholic University, framed the argument as “the fact that there’s a past injustice that we’re benefiting from.”

She observed the cell line, “which is immortal,” does not, by itself, link to previous abortions.

“All these vaccines can be used with a clear conscience,” agreed Paul Scherz, a Catholic University moral theology professor.

He said the question is: “How close are you to the problematic action? What good would be foregone by stepping back and not doing whatever action you were going to do such as cooperation?”

“The good is significant enough to be removed from the evil action to make it allowable,” Scherz concluded.

In this, he echoed the Pontifical Academy for Life, which stated in 2005 and 2017 that Catholics could receive vaccines made with fetal cell lines if there were no alternatives.

Distance from the evil action “is really the key factor,” Moschella said.

[From March 2019: Academy for Life encourages parents to vaccinate children]

But she also acknowledged the moral question of the vaccines: “A more helpful way of talking about it is ‘appropriating the benefits of past evil.'” Using embryos and the direct use of fetal tissue for medical research “creates a demand for more,” Moschella said.

By mid-January, the number of people who have received at least the first dose of two COVID-19 vaccinations available in the United States soared past 11 million.

At the Vatican, both Pope Francis and retired Pope Benedict XVI are among those who have now received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.

[Pope Francis and retired Pope Benedict receive their first doses of COVID-19 vaccine]

In a statement released a month earlier, the chairmen of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ doctrine and pro-life committees said the “gravity” of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and “the lack of availability of alternative vaccines,” are “sufficiently serious” reasons to accept the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.

“Receiving the COVID-19 vaccine ought to be understood as an act of charity toward the other members of our community,” they said Dec. 14. “In this way, being vaccinated safely against COVID-19 should be considered an act of love of our neighbor and part of our moral responsibility for the common good.”

The bishops addressed the moral concerns raised by the fact the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have some connection to cell lines that originated with tissue taken from abortions.

However, this connection to morally compromised cell lines is so remote and the public health situation is too grave to reject the vaccines, said Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Doctrine, and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann of Kansas City, Kansas, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

On Dec. 29, the Vatican’s coronavirus commission, established by Pope Francis in April, and the Pontifical Academy for Life issued a joint document calling for a coordinated international effort to ensure the equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines worldwide.

The document reiterated the points made Dec. 21 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith regarding the moral implications of receiving COVID-19 vaccines that were developed or tested using cell lines originating from aborted fetuses.

The Pontifical Academy for Life also has addressed the issue of developing vaccines using tissue from aborted fetuses; while it called for a “commitment to ensuring that every vaccine has no connection in its preparation to any material originating from an abortion,” it also said that “the moral responsibility to vaccinate is reiterated in order to avoid serious health risks for children and the general population.”

During the Jan. 14 webinar, Catholic University philosophy professor V. Bradley Lewis addressed the issue of requiring everyone to get the vaccine.

“To use legal compulsion to vaccinate people, I think is wrong,” he said. “Ordinarily, any kind of medical intervention against a person’s will can constitute assault.”

But as for objecting to the vaccine over the cell line used, he said, “there are far better ways to express someone’s opposition to abortion than this.”