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COVID Vaccines and Moral Evaluation

by Tony M.

Now that there are COVID vaccines being rolled out by pharmaceutical companies, a moral question has arisen because some (or all) of them have utilized cell lines that originally came from aborted babies in their development or testing. Can we use such vaccines, or does doing so constitute immoral cooperation with the evil of abortion?

Two Catholic sources have concluded that the answer is: yes, we can use them, with caveats. Both the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), and the US bishops’ conference, have stated that using vaccines from such cell lines is morally permissible in certain circumstances, if those are the only vaccines available. They obviously base their conclusion on the fact that there is medically serious reason to use the vaccine given the public health situation, so it is not automatically the case that they would have come to the same conclusion about just any illness vaccine. It is clear that they are using the doctrine of “cooperation with evil” (CwE) which sets out criteria for where it is morally acceptable to do something that is in some way connected to an immoral act, and distinguishes those from cases where it is not morally permissible.

Unfortunately, there are other Catholic sources that are rejecting that conclusion. Bishops Athanasius Schneider and Strickland have issued public comments saying that using the vaccines is wrong. In both cases they accept CwE as a moral principle, but find that it does not permit using the vaccines. Bp. Schneider said:

In the case of vaccines made from the cell lines of aborted human fetuses, we see a clear contradiction between the Catholic doctrine to categorically, and beyond the shadow of any doubt, reject abortion in all cases as a grave moral evil that cries out to heaven for vengeance (see Catechism of the Catholic Church n. 2268, n. 2270), and the practice of regarding vaccines derived from aborted fetal cell lines as morally acceptable in exceptional cases of “urgent need” — on the grounds of remote, passive, material cooperation. To argue that such vaccines can be morally licit if there is no alternative is in itself contradictory and cannot be acceptable for Catholics….
The theological principle of material cooperation is certainly valid and may be applied to a whole host of cases (e.g. in paying taxes, the use of products made from slave labor, and so on). However, this principle can hardly be applied to the case of vaccines made from fetal cell lines, because those who knowingly and voluntarily receive such vaccines enter into a kind of concatenation, albeit very remote, with the process of the abortion industry. The crime of abortion is so monstrous that any kind of concatenation with this crime, even a very remote one, is immoral and cannot be accepted under any circumstances by a Catholic once he has become fully aware of it. One who uses these vaccines must realize that his body is benefitting from the “fruits” (although steps removed through a series of chemical processes) of one of mankind’s greatest crimes.

There are in general three ways that trying to apply the morally permissible “cooperation with evil” (CwE) doctrine - which is a version of the more general “Principle of Double Effect” (PDE) - results in deciding the act is wrong. The first is that to even potentially qualify for the CoE, even to get into the arena, the species of the (cooperating) act must not be one that is intrinsically evil, i.e. evil in its very species. Nobody seriously proposes that by its species, using vaccines is intrinsically evil, and Bp. Schneider does not claim it.

The second is where the “cooperating” agent, i.e. the agent here acting (i.e. the person asking for the vaccine, or the nurse injecting the vaccine) is acting in FORMAL cooperation with the root evil act (the abortion). The cooperating agent is “involved” with the root evil act either by formal cooperation or material cooperation. Formal cooperation comes from the actual object or intention of the cooperating agent. Formal cooperation with the root evil act can be either implicit or explicit. Explicit is when the cooperating agent EXPLICITLY INTENDS the base evil act, or intends to enjoy or benefit explicitly and precisely in the evil act in its formal character. For example, if one intends to take this vaccine in preference over others BECAUSE this vaccine was made from an abortion cell line, and others were not. Nobody plausibly argues that any person asking for the vaccine MUST be explicitly intending to use it precisely because it came from an abortion cell line, such that he would necessarily decline to use that vaccine upon discovering it did NOT come from an abortion cell line and go searching for one that had used an abortion cell line.

Implicit formal cooperation occurs when what the cooperating agent intends can only be intended by reference to the root evil act in a way that formally connects the object or intention of the cooperator to either the evil object or evil intention in the root act. For example, the nurse who assists the doctor in an abortion (e.g. hands him instruments) is always guilty of implicit formal cooperation because her act can only be intended by implicitly intending the evil act: she assists it, intending to make it easier. She cannot intend to make the abortion easier without (at least) implicitly intending the abortion. Similarly, a person implicitly intends the root act when what they intend to benefit from could ONLY come about through the evil of the root act: an investor in a for-profit abortion mill can only profit by reason of the doctor performing abortions, so he implicitly (formally) intends the abortions.

Since in general cell lines (even fetal cell lines) can be obtained without abortion, and since the very cell line that DID get acquired through abortion COULD (in theory) have been acquired without some evil act (for example, it could have been acquired after a spontaneous miscarriage, or through amniocentesis), it is simply not true that a person who later makes use of the cell line necessarily has implicit formal cooperation with the act of abortion, i.e. that the later agent’s concrete intention can be achieved only by reference to the cell line originating from an act of abortion and no other source. Furthermore, even granting that the baby was aborted, it is not automatically true that the harvesting of cells was intentionally connected to the abortion: suppose that the doctor performing the abortion had no other specific intention than that of making money off the abortion, and disposed of the body carelessly; suppose further than some other person (who doesn’t work for the abortion mill in any capacity) collected the tissue from the disposed-of baby only knowing that the baby had died, and having no information on whether the body had been the result of a planned and executed abortion or was the product of a spontaneous miscarriage. The harvester’s act of collecting the tissue would have NO formal connection to the act of abortion, and (as a consequence) neither would any later user of the cell lines. (I am not saying this is what happened, only that there is no necessary moral coordination between intending to collect fetal tissue and intending an abortion.)

One of the determinants of whether the cooperating agent has implicit formal cooperation is if the good of the act he takes (in its object or intention) can ONLY be achieved due to what is evil in the root act. So, one of the criteria for applying CwE is that the goods anticipated (by the cooperating agent) cannot flow from the evil in the root act, for if they flow from what is evil in the root act, he necessarily implicitly intends the evil in the root act by intending the goods that flow from them. It is my understanding that because fetal cell lines can be used that were not obtained through abortion (e.g. cell lines obtained from an in-utero operation to repair something in the fetus), the benefits obtained from using aborted fetal cell lines do not obtain precisely because the baby was aborted. This is an assumption for the rest of these comments.

Immediate material cooperation with the root evil act is generally considered to be morally equivalent to implicit formal cooperation: the nurse in my example above is not the one DOING the abortion, but she is immediately cooperating with it: there is no mediating separation between her act and the doctor’s abortive act. Immediate material cooperation with the root evil act fails to satisfy the CoE criteria, because it implies formal cooperation with evil.

The only kind of CoE that is morally OK is where the act of the cooperating agent is (a) remote material cooperation, and (b) for which the goods anticipated are proportionate to the evils anticipated.

Technically, any cooperating agent’s act is “remote” to the root act if it is not “immediate”. That is, if there is even one intervening element of action or causality between the root act and the cooperating agent’s act, it is remote from the root act. However, many scholars make a third category called “proximate” cooperation, where the cooperating agent’s act is “near” the root evil act. (By “near” we don’t mean just physically close, but causally close.) While this issue can be difficult in some cases, it does not apply here, where the cooperating agents (the administering nurse and the individual asking for the vaccine) are separated from the abortion by 50+ years in time and dozens of intervening agents’ acts and choices. There is no doubt that we are dealing with remote cooperation. Bp. Schneider calls it remote. And it is material when it is not formal.

And the last hurdle to get over for the act to be morally acceptable is if the good anticipated from the (cooperating) act is proportionate to the evils anticipated (resulting from the cooperating act, not the evils of the root act). By “proportionate to” we generally mean “outweigh” by a preponderance of goods over evils, taking different KINDS of goods as in a moral proportion, a moral “weighting” scheme.

While there are any number of evils that must be considered which are specific to the act being considered, there is a general one: that of scandal. Scandal is leading others to sin through your words or deeds. Because the cooperating act is (correctly) understood as being somehow “related to” or “involved with” the root evil act, there is the natural possibility that people seeing you choosing the cooperating act may be erroneously led to believe that the root act itself “must have been OK after all” or at least the you think the root act is OK, which may lead them to think it is OK. They then might be led to morally affirm the root evil act (and others just like it), which would be sinful. For this reason, the goods anticipated through the cooperating act must be good enough to outweigh the risks of scandal.

Hence there must be an evaluation of the risks of scandal, along with whatever actions taken to MINIMIZE potential scandal. For example, the greater the remoteness, the lesser risk that people will be led to connect your affirmation of the cooperating act with your (implicit) affirmation of the root act. (This is necessarily a matter of degree.) And the risk can be attenuated further by your making it clear (to the doctor, the nurse, and the pharmacist) that you object to the abortion, by first asking for a vaccine that is not made by using aborted cell lines, and second by registering your moral objection to the vaccine having been made using aborted cell lines. Thus these persons would not be erroneously led to believe that you think the abortion was OK.

While it is generally true to say that the greater the evil concentrated into the root evil act, the greater good (anticipated from the “cooperating” act) needed to outweigh the evils anticipated from the potential of scandal, it is NOT true that a root evil that is “infinitely evil” has an infinite risk of scandal which necessarily outweighs ANY good to be anticipated. Every mortal sin offends God infinitely and merits everlasting punishment in Hell, but different mortal sins have different moral seriousness, they are not all equal; at the same time, different concrete circumstances lend themselves unequally to the risk of causing another to sin. As already indicated, some cooperating acts will be less likely to cause another to sin because of error; there are multiple causes involved, including taking steps to prevent an erroneous inference being made. So, for example, St. Paul speaks of the evil of causing scandal by a cooperating act as being contingent (see 1 Cor 8), even when the root act is as grave as that of sacrificing to idols (which, by its own nature, is a far worse evil than that of abortion). If it is contingent for so great an evil as idolatry, it is also contingent for lesser evils like abortion. Thus it becomes a matter of prudential judgment, and we must take into account numerous factors of various (and not easily measured) moral weight. For example, the very social reality that makes vaccines from abortion cell lines so common today (that abortion is accepted legally and socially) makes it UNlikely that a casual observer will be led to erroneously infer from your using such a vaccine that it implies “you approve of abortion” much less that your approval implies “abortion is OK”.

Finally: while scandal primarily concerns “what people think (and do)” as a result of observing from my actions, there are two ways this can occur. One is when people reasonably and properly infer B from A, because A necessarily implies B. People reasonably infer that a person investing in an abortion mill means the investor approves of abortion as a means of making money. But the other possibility is that people may UNreasonably and ILlogically infer C from observing A because sometimes A and C occur together. People have a duty to generally assume charitable motives when charitable motives are available and plausible for the actions observed. That someone improperly infers immoral motives to me when I take a morally licit act is only indirectly imputed to me. I have a duty to attempt to avoid even such unreasonable, incidental scandal, BALANCED BY the ordinary goods that normally attend doing good acts. The saints, (and Jesus too), often did good deeds even when they knew others would be “scandalized” through unjust inference, because the goods were right and proper and greater than the unjust inferences being drawn, even though it may have led those observers to some (even grave) sin. When the inference is unreasonable, the sin is MORE attributable to the observer’s undue act of inference than the acting person’s act. This colors the moral weight of the tertiary evil that may be anticipated.

How great are the goods to be anticipated from using the vaccines? Well, that too depends on individual cases: for an elderly person with one or more aggravating conditions (e.g. lung problems), the vaccine can literally save their life. For an ordinary 10-year old: on the probabilities, very modest direct benefit. But when considering indirect benefits, the goods may much greater: e.g. if the child lives with the elderly person at risk. Speaking generally, if the disease is grave enough to cause governments to shut down ¼ of the economy and ¾ of in-person social activity (including schools and religious celebrations), use of a vaccine to relieve those constraints brings enormous benefits indeed, because those constraints are impeding very great goods. (Due worship of God is a very great good). And, the net level of unremediable risk that someone, somewhere will illogically and erroneously infer “he must think abortion is OK” from seeing a person using the vaccine is, at least potentially, offset by equal (or greater) risks of people committing suicide (or many other gravely immoral acts) as a result (direct or indirect) of our NOT using the vaccines. Indirect good effects should be weighed in the scale along with indirect harmful effects, and unreasonable inferences resulting in scandal are indirect effects.

Bp. Schneider appears to be erroneously attaching to the cooperating act (taking a vaccine) the sort of situation-independent evil of FORMAL cooperation to what is actually remote material cooperation: in saying “The crime of abortion is so monstrous that any kind of concatenation with this crime, even a very remote one, is immoral” he is trying to shoehorn the cooperating act into the kind of evil of formal cooperation (this kind of evil is always forbidden no matter the circumstances, i.e. regardless of “any kind” of goods anticipated) by reason of the GREATNESS of the evil of abortion. But this is a logical failure. Whether abortion’s evil is greater or lesser, once you know the act is not formal cooperation and is remote material cooperation, the modality of the proportionality judgment is prudential, a consideration of plusses and minuses according to (and dependent on) the individual facts and circumstances with their various weights. Perhaps, Bp. Schneider is making this error because he has forgotten that the proportion is between the goods and the evils anticipated as resulting from the cooperating act, and is trying to weigh the goods anticipated from the cooperating act against the evils of the root evil act. This is not the correct evaluation: The cooperating agent doesn’t have the root act before him to choose it or not, that is someone else’s act (and in our current case, long past). His argument would imply that CwE is always inapplicable where the root act is gravely evil in its very species, a consideration that has NEVER been applied to it and generally is expressly rejected.

Alternatively, he is basing his conclusion on a thesis that because abortion is intrinsically evil, any cooperating act constitutes a form of being intrinsically evil also. He says

Any link to the abortion process, even the most remote and implicit, will cast a shadow over the Church’s duty to bear unwavering witness to the truth that abortion must be utterly rejected. The ends cannot justify the means.

The “ends cannot justify the means” is a true and valid principle applied to acts that are evil in their very species (i.e. which fail CwE criteria because they don’t even qualify to get into the arena). You cannot justify an act by its good consequences if it is intrinsically evil. But the whole point of CwE is that the intrinsic evil of the ROOT act does not automatically and necessarily characterize the cooperating act. Yes, the evil of the root act DOES always bear on the cooperating act when the cooperating act is present by formal cooperation, (i.e. where the cooperating agent INTENDS the root evil act), but it does not do it by making the cooperating act intrinsically evil in its very species, rather it does it because the evil of the root act is incorporated into the cooperating act by the formal connection. This direct moral connectedness fails when the act is remote material cooperation. THAT’S THE WHOLE POINT of CwE and remote material cooperation. Nobody thinks “using a vaccine” is intrinsically evil in its species. That this vaccine was developed with tissue from an aborted baby is a CIRCUMSTANCE, individual to this vaccine, and thus is not a “by its species” consideration. And since the goods anticipated do not derive causally from the abortion qua abortion (i.e. the benefits would have been the exact same had the cell line come from the same tissue if the very same baby instead had been spontaneously miscarried), those who intend to benefit from the vaccine are not necessarily intending to benefit from it qua abortion. The cooperating act is not intrinsically evil just because the root evil act is, which is the very thing that makes CwE work in the first place.

So, Bp. Schneider’s analysis just doesn’t work. Bp. Strickland said:

For university, government, or industrial scientists to use materials obtained from the remains of an electively aborted child in the research, development, testing, or production of any vaccine is immoral and constitutes formal cooperation with evil.

This simply has no support in the Catholic doctrine of "cooperation with evil". It fails on multiple counts. My example above of a situation where harvesting the cells occurs after an abortion but not on account of an abortion was just one way in which the collection of the cells would be not connected by intention to the act of abortion. There are others.

Shift forward 50 years, suppose a 23 year old researcher hired at Pfizer is asked to choose from one of the 3 cell lines A, B, and C and perform necessary tests. He is told to use the cell line that is most useful, from the known features of each cell line, which are listed in the lab's testing manual. The lab manual doesn't state WHERE each cell line had its origin, only states each line's internal characteristics for lab use. The researcher chooses Line C because its noted characteristics best match the needs of the test. Since the researcher (i) doesn't even KNOW that the cell line C comes from aborted tissue, and (ii) didn't choose Line C on account of any basis that he was able to connect to an abortion, (nor any characteristic of the fetal cell line that arose on account of the baby being aborted), the FORMAL moral content of his act (choosing Line C) is specified without "abortion" in it. He can’t have abortion as a formal element of his choice if he neither explicitly nor implicitly chooses the act with reference to abortion.

One other model (arguably) could construct a plausible basis for saying there is formal cooperation. Let us suppose that the original doctor performed the abortion in order to procure the cell lines for further use. Let us suppose further that the each successor doctor to work on the tissues formally intended to employ the cell lines “as the previous doctor intended”, so that the successor doctor rested his intention on that of the prior doctor’s intention. Arguably, each successor doctor’s act would be tainted by the formal intentional connection to the prior doctor’s intention. (This is a theoretical derivation on the CwE concept, and would be morally debatable in its own right; I use it merely to illustrate a point). However, the additional interplay of MANY agents, in between the original abortion, and the 50-years-later researcher, makes it highly likely that at least one of those agents took their actions NOT in the formal intention to use the cells “with the same intention as the previous doctors, using it insofar as he intended”, but because the cell lines were biologically useful (just like fetal cell lines not from aborted baby are biologically useful). But even ONE such break in the chain of intentionality would mean that every later agent, even if formally intending “what the prior doctor intended” would not be tainted by the intent of the ORIGINAL abortionist. And we would be justified in presuming, over such a long period, that there probably is at least one such break in the chain of intentions. It is even true that even though there MIGHT have been one intermediate agent in the chain who explicitly formulated an intention to choose the cell line on account of its coming from an aborted baby, that evil act by that doctor would not color later uses, because nothing about his intention makes the later uses hinged on his intention: the later uses are not “better”, or more profitable, or more scientifically satisfying, on account of his intention, and so later users’ intentions based on the inherent character of the cells themselves would not bear the intention of the one who sinned by an intention of formal cooperation with the abortion. Since, as far as I have discovered, there is nothing about the cell lines from aborted babies that makes them better for biological purposes than fetal cell lines from other sources, it is reasonable to assume that very remote agents only have such intentions as are implicit in the use of “fetal cell lines” (i.e. intentions that are identical whether the cell lines were from aborted babies or from untainted sources). It is reasonable to assume that at this point, 50+ years from the abortion act, that the agents are not formally cooperating with the act of abortion.

(I would point out that if we followed these two bishops in their analysis, it would present impossible moral conundrums. For example, suppose a bad son hires a killer to kill his father to get his inheritance early. The police figure it out, and the son is executed instead of inheriting. But (because of inheritance laws), the father’s estate now falls to the son’s son, (the only living relative). The grandson would (under the analysis of Bishops Strickland and Shcneider) be in formal cooperation with murder if he took the property. But it would be equally true that anybody else would be in formal cooperation with murder if the grandson gave it away to them – regardless of how remote they were to the actual act of murder. And the taint would follow: no matter how many agents chose to rid themselves of the taint by giving the property away, the new owner would still be in formal cooperation with murder, no matter what his intentions were.

Since the same result would apply to lands and whole countries obtained by wars of conquest, and since virtually every piece of habitable land on Earth has been the subject of wars of conquest, we would ALL be tainted by formal cooperation with evil wars of conquest. And there are numerous other causes by which we would all be in the same boat.)

So, no, I think we can reject the analysis given by Bps. Schneider and Strickland. I have immense respect for both of them, and I have greatly enjoyed / benefited from their other stuff. But this time it just plain looks like they got it wrong. And while I might normally be more cautious in saying “the bishops got it wrong” on my own steam, because they have guidance from the Holy Spirit that I don’t have, in this case they are out of step with the bishops in the Vatican, and bishops in the USCCB, and in addition we can point to specific errors made in analysis, rather than just finding their conclusions unpalatable. I am not the only one who thinks this way: for example, Fr. Z, an extremely cautious thinker and not one to go along blithely with the Vatican just because it’s the Vatican, agreed with the conclusion that using the vaccine can be morally permissible when a vaccine not from aborted cell lines is unavailable.

Final point: I have read that the Pfizer and Moderna mRNA vaccines were ”tested” with aborted tissue cell lines, but that what really is meant is that the mRNA vaccine concept was tested early on with such cell lines, not that any such cell lines were used in testing FOR THIS COVID vaccine. This proof of the concept testing would be another example of an intermediate causal factor between the abortion and the new vaccine: unless someone were to show that the mRNA vaccine concept could ONLY be established on the basis of testing with aborted cell lines, the testing (and eventual “proof of concept”) does not imply (either explicit or implicit) formal cooperation with abortion. So, while development of this specific vaccine would be morally connected to the earlier “proof of concept”, the connection to the acts of proof of concept would preclude an assumption of any stronger connection than remote material cooperation with abortion. Several ethics bodies have found the use of mRNA vaccines to be free of the taint of abortion. But this conclusion is based on what I have read about the testing involved being for proof of concept, and I am not representing that this information is definitive. Whether it is or not, the other reasons given would still hold for the mRNA vaccines.

This does not mean that I recommend taking the vaccine, or that I have concluded that it is medically safe or advisable to do so. These are outside of the scope of what I have considered above.

Comments (1)

Right, I think a number of people actually think that the vaccines are made with aborted fetal tissue. Being mRNA vaccines, that can't actually be true, and as you say, there are multiple intermediate links, making any connection to testing and development very remote indeed.

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