Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Vaccines and cell-lines descended from tissue derived from abortion

A number of Catholic authorities have made a moral distinction between the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, on the one hand, and the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, on the other, with respect to the involvement of cells that descend (after many generations) from an aborted fetus (e.g., see here and here). The difference appears to be that in the Pfizer and Moderna cases, the cells were only used in a confirmatory test of efficacy, while in the other two vaccines, they were used throughout the development and production. Consequently, the Catholic authorities said that the AstraZeneca (AZ) and Johnson & Johnson (JJ) vaccines may be used if no alternatives are available, but the Pfizer and Moderna are preferable if available.

A colleague at another institution asked me if I thought that the moral distinction here is sustainable. I do think it is, and my judgment concurs very closely with the recent statements from Catholic authorities: all four vaccines may (indeed, should) be used, but the Pfizer and Moderna ones are to be chosen when available.

In a 2004 paper, I argued that (a) while it is not categorically forbidden to engage in research using cell-lines that ultimately descend from tissue from an aborted fetus, (b) this may only be done for “sufficiently beneficial purposes”. Such research—and likewise the use of the fruits of the research—is thus a situation that involves the weighing of different factors rather than categorical prohibitions. It seems clearly right that in the case of the vaccines (AZ and JJ) where the illicitly derived cell-lines are used more heavily, we have more of the morally problematic feature, and hence we need greater benefits to outweigh them. Those benefits are available in the case of the current pandemic when alternatives that involve less of the problematic features are not available: thus the AZ and JJ vaccines may be used when the alternatives are not available. But when the alternatives—which also appear to be significantly more effective as vaccines!—then they should be used.

In a 2006 paper, I argued that the Principle of Double Effect allows one to use, and even manufacture, vaccines that make use of the morally tainted cell-lines. The use of the cell-lines in itself is not innately morally evil (after all, it need not be wrong to transplant an organ from a murder victim). What is problematic is what I call “downstream cooperation” with the plans of those involved in the evil of abortion: they likely acted in part (probably in very small part) in order to procure tissue for public health benefits, and now by using the vaccine, we are furthering their plans. But one need not intend to be furthering these plans. Thus, that “downstream cooperation” is something one should weigh using the complex proportionality calculus of Double Effect. In the paper I concluded that the use of the vaccines is permissible, and in the present emergency the point is even clearer. However, it seems to me that the more heavily the cell-lines are used, the more there is of the unintended but still problematic cooperation with the plans of those involved in the evil of abortion, and so one should opt for those vaccines where the cooperation is lesser when possible.

I note that even apart from the moral considerations involving cell-lines descended from aborted fetuses, in a time of significant and unfortunate public vaccine scepticism, it was rather irresponsible from the public health standpoint for the vaccine manufacturers to have made use of such cell-lines if there was any way of avoiding this (and I do not know if there was given the time available).


Christopher Michael said...

Why should anybody believe in such a thing as cooperation with past evil? It seems incoherent: to cooperate is to operate with, but one cannot operate with what is in the past (one can only have operated with the past). Certainly, one can formally participate in some past evil by praising it, failing to denounce it, etc. But this isn't cooperation; it is just a new sin of the same species (though typically of lesser gravity). I can, for example, become a murderer by formally praising and approving of Caesar's assassination, but I cannot in any way cooperate in his assassination.

The reason the distinction between participation and cooperation is important is because there is no such thing as material participation. All participation is formal. There is such a thing as material cooperation, but no such thing as cooperation with past completed acts, and therefore no such thing as material cooperation with past completed acts. We may not do evil that good may come of it, but we certainly may (and should, whenever possible!) make good come of evil that has already occurred.

Hawk said...

There are cases in which abortion may be morally licit or at least not morally illicit. What if the original cells were procured from such a case? Would this change the calculus?

Alexander R Pruss said...


I think a lot of Catholic authors have talked of cooperation with evil in this connection. So I'm in good company. That said, in the two papers, I actually have an account of what is going on that I think does a good job of explaining how one is cooperating with the evildoers.

As a warmup, suppose my friends are planning the vandalize a building, and I serve as their getaway driver. Then I am cooperating in their evil plan, even though my part in the plan comes after the evil is already done. For the plan includes the getting away.

For a case a bit more like the vaccine case, let's say that you kill a deer out of season, and I make sausage out of it for you. Your action plan was: kill the deer for sausage. My action cooperates at least materially in this plan, and the plan is evil. I didn't cooperate in the killing, but I cooperated in the larger plan of which the killing was a part.

Alexander R Pruss said...

That comment wasn't really finished, but I had to stop, as it was time to get my Pfizer shot. :-) Now I'm back.

And now for a case even more like the case of receiving the vaccine, Alice buys the sausage from you. Assuming this was all part of your wicked plan, her buying the sausage is also cooperation.

However, there is a possible relevant disanalogy with the fetal tissue case--besides, of course, the great disanalogy between killing a deer out of season and killing a human being. The abortions were not, as far as I know, performed primarily in order to provide tissue for research. In the paper, I argue that knowing that the abortion would contribute to medical progress might very well form a secondary goal for the medical personnel involved. This makes the cooperation more remote. Imagine that you kill the deer out of season for its antlers--a wicked deed even *in* season, unless you have a serious need for antlers (e.g., to make tools out of them)--and the sausage is a minor bonus. Then making and buying the sausage is more tangential cooperation with evil.

Alexander R Pruss said...


I think intentional abortion is always morally wrong.

Christopher Michael said...


I don't see how killing the deer for sausage is relevantly different from the Hebrew midwives lying to save the lives of babies. And surely I do not cooperate in any way with the evil plan of the Hebrew midwives if, after their lie is completed, I somehow assist in their further aim of saving the lives of babies. Likewise, assuming the deer is completely dead and there is no possibility of your being caught for the crime (such that cooking the deer constitutes destruction of evidence), it is no cooperation at all for me to make sausage out of the deer.

Evil ends corrupt the whole act, but not evil means. Evil means only corrupt the means.

Alexander R Pruss said...

To succeed is a kind of reward for the agent. We have reason to prevent bad actions from being rewarded. Thus we have reason to prevent bad actions from being successful. This reason, however, is often overridden, as in the case of the Hebrew midwives.

Doesn't it seem right that if you have a choice between eating the deer slain out of season and the deer slain in season, it is better to eat the deer slain in season?