February 05, 2021

COVID-19 vaccines can be used “with a clear conscience,” according to Professor of Moral Theology Paul Scherz, who joined three other Catholic University faculty members for an in-depth discussion about the ethical questions pertaining to the COVID-19 vaccine. The discussion, which was held in January, was hosted by Catholic University’s Institute for Human Ecology (IHE). 

The discussion was moderated by IHE Executive Director Joseph Capizzi and included Scherz, along with philosophy professors Melissa Moschella and V. Bradley Lewis. 

The conversation began with an explanation of a few ethical debates surrounding the COVID vaccine. Moschella and Scherz discussed the concerns about whether or not the vaccine could be morally problematic because of a connection to abortion. All of the vaccines that have been approved so far were developed, approved, or tested using the fetal cell line HEK 293 that is thought to be originally derived from an aborted fetus in 1973. That cell line is self-replicating, which means that it can be used over and over again for scientific research. 

While both Moschella and Scherz agreed that it would be morally permissible for Catholics to take the COVID-19 vaccines, they approached the ethical question from different angles. 

Scherz thought it might be worthwhile to consider how distanced each vaccine was from the immoral action of abortion and said the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were further removed than the AstraZeneca vaccine. Those two vaccines only used the cell line for testing purposes, rather than in production. 

“When we try to determine how closely our actions are related to an immoral action that has occurred previously, we should pay attention to how distanced we are from the incident,” he said. “The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were further distanced. This is the analysis the bishops have used — that you can use them all in moral conscience, but one is more troubling than the other two.” 

A different concern, which Moschella raised, is whether or not, by using the vaccine, Catholics and other life-minded individuals are in any way “approving of, or ratifying the past evil.” She pointed out the distinction between using already-existing cell lines versus the direct use of human embryos or fetal tissues, actions to which the Church remains in opposition. Neither embryos or fetal tissues are self-replicating, which means that when they are used in experiments, they will eventually be used up, creating an increased demand for more embryos or fetal tissues — and thus, more sinful actions. 

“If you’re using that fresh tissue, unlike the cell line, it doesn’t recreate itself indefinitely,” Moschella said. “It’s kind of like buying products made with slave labor. If you buy it, you’re creating demand for the product and adding to the problem.” 

Because the cell line HEK 293 is self-replicating, it can be used indefinitely. As vaccines are used, there is no increased demand for aborted tissues. 

Other ethical concerns, according to Scherz, pertain to the need to engage people and teach them about the vaccines, the safety of the vaccines themselves, and how they can be distributed fairly. 

Lewis raised the question of whether or not it should be considered a moral obligation for some to take the vaccine. While he believes that the state should not mandate vaccination, he noted that there may be a duty to be vaccinated for the sake of the common good, given the importance of widespread vaccination in order to achieve herd immunity and bring the pandemic to an end. 

When it comes to the research for the vaccine, Scherz — who has a Ph.D. in genetics and co-chairs the Catholic Clinical Ethics Certificate program — said he feels no concern that the currently approved vaccines are not ready or fully-vetted. 

“The scientific research was amazing here,” he said. “At no other point in history have we gotten a vaccine for a disease so quickly.” 

To watch the complete discussion, visit https://ihe.catholic.edu/events/the-covid-vaccine-science-life-and-the-common-good/. 

To read President John Garvey’s recent letter to the community on the ethics of the COVID-19 vaccine, visit https://president.catholic.edu/communications/letters/lets-end-the-pandemic.html.