The COVID-19 vaccine began development earlier this year, with many companies competing to complete the vaccine development and trials as quickly as possible. The U.S. government's Operation Warp Speed program has offered $10 billion to help these companies fund their projects and move them into trial at unprecedented rates. Several companies have even suggested that the vaccine might be available in the coming months.

The Catholic Church continues to advocate for an ethical COVID-19 vaccine. Any vaccine should be developed without the use of cells from abortion and must be tested and distributed in an ethical way. The COVID-19 vaccine must also be readily available to those most in need: essential workers and those with preexisting conditions. 

A controversy over ethical COVID-19 vaccine development began in the spring of 2020, when Johnson & Johnson and Astrazeneca received $1.65 billion for research that utilized fetal cell lines in production (https://lozierinstitute.org/an-ethics-assessment-of-covid-19-vaccine-programs/). These cell lines were derived from an abortion that took place in the 1960s. It should be noted that these cells are only distantly related to the original fetal cells. While these cell lines were the result of an inherently sinful action, the National Catholic Bioethics Center stands by a statement from Pope Benedict in 2005 from the Pontifical Academy for Life, which suggests that it is permissible for Catholics to use vaccines (such as the MMR vaccine) that are developed from aborted cells, when necessary for their own health and safety (http://www.academyforlife.va/content/pav/en/the-academy/activity-academy/note-vaccini.html). 

Catholics are encouraged to use the virtue of prudence to maximize the greatest good for all people. Since vaccination helps to protect the lives of those who are most vulnerable, even vaccines from these cell lines are considered morally permissible. In reference to COVID-19, the NCBC released the following statement: https://www.ncbcenter.org/messages-from-presidents/covid-19-vaccines

Because the vaccine is still in development, Catholics are encouraged to advocate for vaccine development through ethical means. Our technology has progressed in a way that makes the use of any cell lines derived from aborted cells unnecessary, and we are called to represent our moral values by advocating for an ethical vaccine. 

In April, the USCCB sent the following statement to Dr. Stephen Hahn, Commissioner of the FDA: 

“It is critically important that Americans have access to a vaccine that is produced ethically: no American should be forced to choose between being vaccinated against this potentially deadly virus and violating his or her conscience. Fortunately, there is no need to use ethically problematic cell lines to produce a COVID vaccine, or any vaccine, as other cell lines or processes that do not involve cells from abortions are available and are regularly being used to produce other vaccines. 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.”

Because of this call to action, Catholics across the world have written to pharmaceutical companies and vaccine developers calling for an ethical vaccine, and several of these companies have even responded to these calls for action by changing their research models. Today, none of the five vaccines that are currently in the trial stages use cells derived from abortions. As Catholics, we can feel encouraged that our voices and moral efforts have been effective in advocating for ethical vaccine development. However, there is still more work to be done.

In September of 2020, the Catholic Health Association released a letter calling for a vaccine that is: respectful of human dignity in its development, safe and ethically tested, demonstrated to be effective and equitably distributed to those persons most at risk. While we can say with near certainty that the COVID-19 vaccine will be developed ethically, without the use of any cell lines derived from abortion, we must continue to advocate for a vaccine that is safe, effective, and distributed widely to all Americans. 

During this time, we must focus our attention on the ways that we can protect and defend the vulnerable. The COVID-19 pandemic has killed more than 200,000 Americans of all ages. A vaccine could save countless lives, offering a way to protect essential workers and persons with preexisting conditions. 

The controversy around the vaccine development has led some Catholics to consider refusing the COVID-19 vaccine. Even more people have chosen to avoid social distancing and face mask wearing, with the idea that these efforts are “too political” or “not serious enough.” 

While we are all entitled to freedom, we also understand that our Christian sense of freedom calls us to a different kind of righteousness; our Christian freedom calls us to right relationship with Christ and a defense of the common good. Catholic social teaching reminds us that the poor and vulnerable have a “preferential option,” and we are called to act first and foremost with their protection in mind. 

Our efforts to social distance and wear face masks have shown our commitment to being authentically and consistently pro-life. By following the advice of doctors and public health officials, we have been able to protect our loved ones and the most vulnerable members of our community. 

Throughout the fall and winter and beyond, we must continue to show our respect for the dignity of all people, especially those most at risk of contracting the virus, by continuing these efforts and advocating for a safe and ethical vaccine, with a preferential option for the poor and vulnerable. A truly pro-life ethic requires us to take a stand on all of these issues, and to do our best to promote and utilize a vaccine that is safe and available to all. These pro-life efforts will help us to protect the vulnerable and bring this pandemic to an end. 

(Kathryn Windels serves as the Director of Life Issues for the Archdiocese of Washington.)