The Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales has released a statement appearing to pledge their support for the development of a Covid-19 vaccine, even if it utilises cell-lines originally extracted from a human foetus. While some vaccine development projects are using synthetic cell lines, others, such as the one currently being undertaken at Oxford University, use cell-lines from a human foetus, prompting questions over ethics.
In a new statement, the Bishops' Conference said that, given the widespread threat to life caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, there may be "grave reasons" for using a vaccine "which is developed from cell-lines associated with the unethical exploitation of the human remains of an aborted child in the past".
The Bishops' Conference also said that they had been reassured by the Department for Health that "no new human foetal tissue will be used in making the vaccine" and that "cell-lines developed from the remains of aborted foetuses in the past are being researched by some institutions".
As a result of the ethical complexities involved in the vaccine development, the Catholic Church commissioned the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Dignitatis personae (2008) and the Pontifical Academy for Life to investigate. The CDF subsequently concluded that there are "'differing degrees of responsibility' for those who use the human ‘biological material’ of illicit origin" and that Catholics must "differentiate between those who use tissue directly from an abortion, researchers who use derived material, and those who may benefit from a vaccine produced from such material".
In its latest statement, the Bishops' Conference appears to settle on the fact that a vaccine which uses derived foetal material (i.e. not from newly aborted foetuses), may be permissible for Catholic use in these extraordinary circumstances. However, the Conference has also asked for reassurance from the Department of Health that they intend to "promote research into a vaccine derived from a source which would not be ethically problematic for Catholics and which does not involve moral complicity in abortion".
In a previous statement date 11 August 2020, the Bishops' Conference clearly stated that "the Church is opposed to the production of vaccines using tissue derived from aborted foetuses".
Under a "Principles" heading, the new statement notes that Catholic teaching "protects the good of every life and the health of all and teaches that one must not do harm to another", and argues that a vaccine will "seek to protect the whole of society from this virulent virus".
"Individuals should welcome the vaccine not only for the sake of their own health but also out of solidarity with others, especially the most vulnerable," it notes.
The Bishops' Conference also insists that individual Catholics "have a responsibility to voice their concerns about the origin of vaccines" and must "educate his or her conscience on this matter."
The statement concludes that "research towards and use of an ethically sourced vaccine is the goal which we desire", but that "if this is not achievable and widely available for all people, the Church recognises that there may be ‘grave reasons’ for using a vaccine which is developed from cell-lines associated with the unethical exploitation of the human remains of an aborted child in the past."
It adds: "The prudent judgement of conscience will depend on responsibilities to others, as well as personal health and protection of human life. Whilst many may in good conscience judge that they will accept such a vaccine, some may in good conscience judge that they will not. If the choice is made not to receive this vaccination, then the person must make other provision to mitigate the risk of harm to the life or health of others and to his or her own life and health."
Last month, leaders from three prominent denominations in Australia raised concerns about the use of foetal cell lines being used in the development of a Covid-19 vaccine, after the Australian federal government signed a provisional deal with Oxford University that would see them ship 25 million free doses to Australia if the project proves successful.