Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a wide range of beliefs and opinions about the disease, the response, and the development of the vaccine.
With more polarized discussions in recent weeks, Catholics in Alberta have turned to the church for guidance on how to morally navigate public health orders and the eventual distribution of the vaccine.
The challenge for many Catholics lies in the fact that both the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine delivered to Alberta on Dec. 14 and the not yet approved but anticipated Moderna vaccine, which uses the same mRNA technology, were tested using cells from an aborted fetus.
The cell line used by both in testing is HEK-293, which was originally created using tissue taken from a baby girl aborted in the Netherlands in 1973.
For Catholics and others who believe abortion is immoral, there is a deep-rooted concern that by receiving a vaccine developed this way they are condoning the use of aborted embryos in scientific research and by extension the act of abortion itself.
In response to these concerns, the Catholic Bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories published a letter on Dec. 2, saying that it is okay for Catholics to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, and explaining why.
St. Paul Bishop Paul Terrio said the letter was published because the bishops have a duty to answer these questions from a Catholic moral perspective.
He said in coming to their conclusion–that yes Catholics can be vaccinated–the bishops consulted with scientists and bioethicists and even the Vatican.
“We’ve gone to credible scientists, who happen to be informed Catholics, and they’re saying that it is effective, it can protect you from being infected. So on the basis of that, we’re saying yes, it’s okay,” said Terrio.
He said their reasoning for why the vaccine is permitted even though its development is connected with abortion is to do with how far removed it is from the original evil and compared it to the conditions of Chinese labourers when the railway was being built.
“You’re not approving of those working conditions when you take the train. Or another example, most of us are living on lands or territory that were originally the lands for the sustenance of the indigenous First Peoples here. That we live here and pay taxes and go about our lives does not mean that we approve of the way lands were occupied and force was used against indigenous peoples by the first Europeans here,” said Terrio.
He recognized that abortion has become a flashpoint in society and opposition to it is one of the most well-known Catholic teachings around the world.
“But from the perspective of Catholic social doctrine, there’s not just one issue, there are many issues. And so there’s the whole question of prudential judgment.”
“Life is a gift from God, and we are to protect our own life and protect the lives of other people. And if our lives are endangered by this virus and the lives of other people, well, then we do have a moral duty, just like we have a duty not to commit suicide, we have a moral duty not to leave ourselves exposed to a possibly fatal infection,” said Terrio.
In the letter, the bishops said, “when there also exists a proportionally grave reason for vaccination, such as the current, urgent need to halt the COVID-19 pandemic, then the Church assures us that is it morally permissible for Catholics to receive it for the good of personal and public health.”
They also urged Catholics to “make clear their moral objection to vaccine development derived from abortion, and to advocate with their governments for ethically produced vaccines,” and especially appealed to those working in the biopharmaceutical industry to work for “the replacement of morally illicit cell lines with ethically sourced ones.”