I have the impression that experts and the general public are pinning their best hopes for resolving the current pandemic on a vaccine against the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. Huge amounts of money is being invested in research all over the world. Indeed, the only similar large-scale medical research program precedent that comes to mind is the HIV-AIDS pandemic. That is not terribly reassuring as a vaccine has yet to be developed for HIV, although many very effective treatments have emerged. 

Another unprecedented aspect of the governmental/scientific efforts aimed at a vaccine is Operation Warp Speed. The reference is to the faster-than-light speed of starships in the Star Trek sci-fi universe. The purpose of this federal government initiative is to produce a COVID-19 vaccine very fast after one is approved following clinical trials to show the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine.

Good bioethicists are nearly always wary when scientific research is rushed forward, and even more so when the potential impact on human beings could be profound. If successful, a new vaccine could be given to hundreds of millions or even billions of people in record time. Even a very low complication/mortality rate for such a vaccine could affect large numbers of people. One of the cornerstones of modern medical ethics is informed consent—the principle that patients need to understand all the relevant information, including the risks and benefits of procedures or drugs, and give their consent before any action is taken. 

It is not possible to give full informed consent if science simply does not know the long-term effects of a certain substance. Safeguards are essential to prevent abuses of people’s human rights. One can also think hypothetically about how coercive measures requiring persons to take a vaccine that has not had the time to be tested thoroughly would be ethically unacceptable.

An older ethical issue with vaccines comes from the way that some are manufactured. Many vaccines are grown in and extracted from cell lines. Several vaccines in the past were developed using cell lines derived from the organs of aborted children. This is a clear violation of the respect due to the dignity of the human person. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in the instructionDignitas Personaestated in section 35 with regard to research on biological material of illicit origin:

Therefore, it needs to be stated that there is a duty to refuse to use such “biological material” even when there is no close connection between the researcher and the actions of those who performed the artificial fertilization or the abortion, or when there was no prior agreement with the centers in which the artificial fertilization took place. This duty springs from the necessity to remove oneself, within the area of one’s own research, from a gravely unjust legal situation and to affirm with clarity the value of human life.

The National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) issued its own statement on the use of biological material of illicit origin that is in accord with the Holy See and the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). We recently completed a confidential briefing with this explanation of the ethical situation: 

All of this is important because the exploitation of human beings following elective abortion for medical research and development is a serious attack on human dignity that has persisted for decades. It was explicitly condemned by Dignitas Personae in 2008. Yet too often people have been told that there is not much that can be done about the use of aborted fetal cell lines in vaccines, particularly in pediatric vaccines. In addition, many politicians, scientists, and activists have cited the widespread acceptance of aborted fetal cell line-dependent vaccines to argue that even more unethical research (e.g., to obtain human embryonic stem cells) can be justified or that abortion must remain legal so that scientists and corporations can access the tissue and organs they need for medical research and development.

It is important for the general public to know that some of the vaccines being developed for COVID-19 are ethically tainted by the use of cell lines derived from abortions. The USCCB, the NCBC, and others raised this grave concern in a letter to the head of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Commissioner Hahn, we urgently and respectfully implore you to not only ensure that Americans will have access to a COVID vaccine that is free of ethical concerns, but to encourage and incentivize pharmaceutical companies to use only ethical cell lines or processes for producing vaccines.

To be perfectly clear, there is no scientific need to use cell lines that originated with aborted children in the development of vaccines. Most of the COVID-19 vaccines in development do not use ethically tainted cell lines. It comes down to an ethical choice made by various companies. Why do some companies persist in using aborted fetal cell lines? The ethical problem does not seem important enough to some businesses for them to take action, and there may be economic or simply convenience reasons, like the ready availability of certain ethically unacceptable cell lines. 

The NCBC is pleased to see that progress is being made in this area. We are congratulating one of the world’s largest biotech corporations, Sanofi Pasteur, for three recent initiatives on their part. 

  1. Ending production of the Poliovax vaccine that had been manufactured using aborted fetal cell line-MRC-5
  2. Replacing MRC-5 in Pentacel and Quadracel, two current important pediatric vaccines, with an ethical cell line (Vero monkey)
  3. Developing a vaccine for COVID-19 that does not make use of cell lines derived from abortions

It is my fervent prayer that no successful COVID-19 vaccine will emerge that was developed with the use of ethically tainted cell lines. If the nightmare scenario of the only available vaccine having a link to abortion comes about, it will cause major conscience problems for pro-lifers and Catholics. I am rather confident that we will be spared this additional ethical scourge from COVID-19, but the NCBC will certainly follow developments closely and use all the means at our disposal to spread needed ethical information on this issue. 

Joseph Meaney became president of the NCBC in 2019. He received his PhD in bioethics from the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart in Rome; his dissertation topic was Conscience and Health Care: A Bioethical Analysis. Dr. Meaney earned his master’s in Latin American studies, focusing on health care in Guatemala, from the University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Meaney was director of international outreach and expansion for Human Life International (HLI) and is a leading expert on the international pro-life and family movement, having traveled to eighty-one countries on pro-life missions over the last twenty-five years. He founded the Rome office of HLI in 1998 and lived in Rome for nine years, where he collaborated closely with dicasteries of the Holy See, particularly the Pontifical Council for the Family and the Pontifical Academy for Life. He is a dual US and French citizen and is fluent in French, Spanish, Italian, and English. His family has been active in the health care and pro-life fields in Corpus Christi, Texas, and in France for many years.