The United States has kicked off what will become its largest vaccination program in history, with frontline medical workers receiving the first doses of the newly approved Covid-19 vaccine this week. Going behind the story, Michael O’Loughlin, national correspondent for America Media, interviewed Dr. Moira McQueen, the executive director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute, about the moral imperative of these Covid-19 vaccines. Dr. McQueen advises Catholic bishops, some of whom recently released a letter urging Catholics to be vaccinated against the virus. The full interview can be watched here on our YouTube channel. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Michael O’Loughlin: Should Catholics feel comfortable being vaccinated against Covid-19?
Dr. Moira McQueen: I think they should feel very comfortable. Especially since these first vaccines that have been developed comply with what many of us are calling ethical vaccines. Some people have raised legitimate questions. As it happens, with Pfizer and Moderna being among the very first [vaccines approved], that relieves that particular problem for most people.
Could you briefly explain what some of those ethical concerns could have been and why they aren’t part of these two vaccines that are expected to be available pretty soon?
The main problem for many people is that so many pharmaceuticals and vaccines are made using either cells from aborted fetuses or from destroyed human embryos or from tissue from aborted fetuses. Since we feel so strongly about the importance of life from conception until natural death, to use products that are based on parts of human bodies—that’s just totally unacceptable. It’s an affront to that little person’s dignity.
[These mRNA vaccines] are certainly not using any kind of tissue or cells from aborted fetuses and destroyed embryos.
You mentioned that there are not moral questions about the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines when it comes to their origin or their testing, that Catholics should feel comfortable receiving them.
These mRNA vaccines, being synthetic, people should know that they are certainly not using any kind of tissue or cells from aborted fetuses and destroyed embryos. That’s what makes them what most of us are considering to be ethical. A secondary ethical question, although it’s still a legitimate one, is how the vaccines are tested. It’s really hard to know if some of these [fetal or embryonic] cells are actually used in the testing process. So many of the ordinary pharmaceuticals that we already use are also tested with these cells.
I think the relief that I mentioned at the beginning comes from the fact that we know that there are no components from human bodies in the actual vaccine that we will be receiving. The testing, that being a secondary issue.... I don’t think it raises the same ethical question.
Why do Catholics have a moral obligation to be vaccinated when it comes to Catholic social teaching and helping the common good?
It really is the common good. We know that they work; they’re effective. We do the best we can to make sure all of us are as healthy as possible for ourselves and our families but also for other people. The Canadian bishops, for example, emphasize this common good aspect in their pastoral letter encouraging people to be vaccinated because not only do I have that moral responsibility to look after my own health and my family’s health; I really do have a responsibility toward other people.
Looking after the common good. That should feature in any moral decision that any of us make.
I don’t think as a moral question, we can leave it just to the basis of individual choice. You know, “I don’t want to have the vaccine. I think there’s something wrong with the vaccine.” I think it’s a much broader issue. Looking after the common good. That should feature in any moral decision that any of us make.
We have seen some disinformation about vaccines, spread by ordinary people and even some faith leaders. How do you think Catholics should respond to disinformation when it comes to the vaccination program?
There’s misinformation, disinformation that doesn’t help anybody. We have an obligation then, within Catholic teaching, to be sure about the scientific facts and also the moral facts. This is straight from Thomas Aquinas: that we have to know our reality. We are really duty-bound to know a little bit about the science. I’m not a scientist. I couldn’t explain the vaccines in the way that they can, but, of course, we rely on their information. So, to know that, for example, there are these vaccines that they say [do not have] components from human bodies in them—that is number one in relieving people’s consciences. Because it’s a legitimate question about the morality of the vaccines.
The testing, that being a secondary issue.... I don’t think it raises the same ethical question.
The other side of it is to know what church teaching is. The Pontifical Academy of Life said [in response to questions on recent measles vaccines] that because there is the threat of grave illness—and if there are no ethical vaccines available—then you should feel confident taking these vaccines. And that would be [the case] even if there were sort of dubious components.
[Catholic leaders] always remind us that we have the obligation to speak out to governments, for example, to request ethical vaccines and to witness to the fact that we are concerned about the components.
The other very interesting aspect comes from a long-standing Catholic principle called “cooperation in evil.” This is perhaps [where] some of the questions stem from for many loyal Catholics because even the name, “cooperation in evil,” strikes a strange note for people.
My own experiences is that many people don’t really understand the principle. There are areas that you would rather not use or be involved in, but because of the circumstances in which you find yourself, and assuming that there’s a serious reason for such cooperation, then morally, you can go ahead and do it. And I think that particular principle needs to be explained in really great detail.
We have the obligation to speak out to governments to request ethical vaccines.
If a faith leader were to come to you and say, “I really want to encourage my congregation, those who are skeptical, to get on board with the vaccination program,” what’s a simple, pithy message you can advise them to preach, to encourage people to get behind this safe and morally acceptable vaccination program?
It would be two parts. One part would be science. One part would be faith. The science part would be avid: strongly emphasize the fact that there are no components of any human tissue or cells in the particular vaccines that seem to be available, and that people should request those vaccines. The second part is on the faith side: Let’s look at official Catholic teaching and see how it reassures us about all these issues about vaccines.
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