Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales on Covid-19 and Vaccination

COVID-19 and Vaccination
The development of a vaccine against COVID-19 would be an important breakthrough to protect others from
the scourge of this virulent virus which has caused a global pandemic and led to huge loss of life as well as
stretching healthcare systems to their limits. Pope Francis has called for a successful and safe Covid-19 vaccine
to be ‘universal for everyone.’1 When a successful vaccine is produced, there will therefore be the further
challenge of mass production, distribution, and availability, especially for the poor of the world, as well as the
need to establish its long-term effects.
We are living with a new awareness of the fragility of being human in the world of COVID-19. The first
response for Catholics is to pray for an end to the pandemic, for the relief of suffering, for healthcare
professionals, for the bereaved and the dead, as well as for the discovery of an ethically sourced effective
Concern has been expressed by some Catholics, and others, about the potential sources of a new vaccine since
some vaccines have been developed in cell-lines which have their origin in tissues taken from human foetal
2 Other ethical issues include rigorous testing of the proposed vaccine and individual consent both for
the experimental medicine which tests the vaccine on individuals and for the vaccine itself, and justice in
access to the vaccine when it becomes available.
Bishop Sherrington wrote to the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Health asking for clarification
from the department about the potential sources of a vaccination. He sought reassurance that the department
will 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. Such a vaccine would appeal to the
conscience of Catholics and others who hold strong views against abortion.
A response has now been received from the Department for Health and Social Care which recognises that the
source of the vaccine raises moral concerns and gives assurance that no new human foetal issue will be used
in making the vaccine although cell-lines developed from the remains of aborted foetuses in the past are being
researched by some institutions. The Department has also given assurances that any vaccine which is developed
will be safe and effective.
Catholic teaching protects the good of every life and the health of all and teaches that one must not do harm to
another.3 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.
1 BBC News report: ‘Coronavirus: Pope’s vaccine plea and universities facing ‘crazy demand’’
2 It was reported that research in the University of Oxford uses cell-line HEK 293 modified from tissue removed from the kidney of
an unborn child aborted probably in 1972, while another cell-line PER C6 is sourced from the retinal tissue of an 18-week old baby
aborted in 1985. 3 CBCEW, Cherishing Life (2004), 168.
The Catholic Church respects life in the womb from conception and at every stage of its subsequent
development. The Church recognises moral complicity in the use of tissue and cells from aborted foetuses for
research and is opposed to such use. The remains of human embryos and foetuses deserve the respect due to
the remains of other human beings. The Church teaches that there must be no complicity in direct abortion and
the risk of scandal should be avoided.4
Catholics have a responsibility to voice their concerns about the origin of vaccines and argue that research and
funding should be directed to sourcing a vaccine in an ethically sound way. If this is not possible, many
Catholics and others will experience moral distress when faced with a choice of rejecting vaccination, either
for themselves or their children, with its serious and life-threatening consequences, or seeming to be complicit
in abortion. We hope that the government will ensure that ethically sourced vaccines are also available.5
The seriousness of the question has led to examination of the use of cell-lines from aborted foetuses both by
the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Dignitatis personae (2008)6 and the Pontifical Academy
for Life (2005)7
, (2017)8
. The CDF document recognises that there are ‘differing degrees of responsibility’
for those who use the human ‘biological material’ of illicit origin, i.e. we 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. Different degrees of responsibility imply different degrees of moral
complicity. These distinctions are important as we live in an imperfect world in which we may benefit from
the wrongful actions of others. The Instruction continues “Grave reasons may be morally proportionate to
justify the use of such ‘biological material’. Thus, for example, danger to the health of children could permit
parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that
everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other
types of vaccines available. Moreover, in organizations where cell lines of illicit origin are being utilized, the
responsibility of those who make the decision to use them is not the same as that of those who have no voice
in such a decision.” (CDF, Dignitatis personae 35).9
Educating Conscience
Each Catholic needsto educate his or her conscience on this matter in the light of the above principles. Research
towards and use of an ethically sourced vaccine is the goal which we desire. 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.
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.
Department for Social Justice
Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales
24 September 2020
4 CDF, Dignitatis personae, 35. 5 For further reading, Dr Helen Watt, 6 7 ‘Moral reflections on vaccines prepared from cells derived from aborted human foetuses’
8 9 Pontifical Academy for Life (2017): “The technical characteristics of the production of the vaccines most commonly used in
childhood lead us to exclude that there is a morally relevant cooperation between those who use these vaccines today and the practice
of voluntary abortion. Hence, we believe that all clinically recommended vaccinations can be used with a clear conscience and that
the use of such vaccines does not signify some sort of cooperation with voluntary abortion.”