Listen: Dr Megan Best talks to Katrina Roe about COVID-19 vaccine ethics. (Above: Stock image, mock labels.)
Two leading Christian medical ethicists believe there’s nothing morally wrong with accepting a coronavirus vaccine made using foetal cell lines from an abortion, if there aren’t alternatives – but that people of faith have every right to ask questions, and push for options.
The ethics of COVID-19 vaccines hit the headlines this week, when three of Australia’s most senior church leaders questioned the ethical integrity of the vaccine being trialed at Oxford University.
Sponsored by pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca, that vaccine is now in ‘Phase 3’ of trials, and is likely to be the first released for public use – out of more than 100 being tested around the world.
Last week, the Australian Government announced an agreement with AstraZeneca, to purchase 25 million doses of the potential vaccine if the trials prove successful. The deal includes the purchase of vaccine doses for less wealthy neighbouring nations in the Pacific; a move that may be in part a response to the faith-backed End Covid for All campaign.
“It is important that the government does not create an ethical dilemma for people.” ~ Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, Anthony Fisher
Within days of the Prime Minister Scott Morrison’s news, the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher, Anglican Archbishop Glenn Davies, and Australia’s Greek Orthodox leader Archbishop Makarios, had co-signed and sent a letter to the PM, warning him that believers may refuse the vaccine – because of its links to a baby aborted nearly 40 years ago.
The letter urges the government to also provide alternative vaccines, so that Australians have a choice. Other coronavirus vaccines are being worked on around the world, using methods other than the foetal cell lines of the Oxford option.
“It is important that the government does not create an ethical dilemma for people,” Fisher wrote in a post about the letter on his Facebook page (on August 21). “Along with the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Australia, I have written to the Prime Minister Scott Morrison, asking the government to pursue similar arrangements for alternate vaccines that do not raise the same ethical concerns, so that Australians will have a choice when it comes to vaccination.”
Fisher has written in more depth about his concerns in the Catholic Weekly.
Exactly How is the Vaccine Linked to Foetal Cells?
Katrina Roe of Hope Mornings asked Dr Megan Best for her expert opinion on the issue, as an academic grounded in both science and faith.
Dr Best is a Christian, a medical doctor and a senior lecturer for the Institute for Ethics and Society at the faith-based University of Notre Dame in Sydney. She served as an expert advisor during the NSW Government’s abortion legislation debates last year (though not all her advice was adopted).
The ABC reports that Oxford’s potential vaccine has been developed using a line of kidney cells known as ‘HEK-293’ – originating back to a baby aborted in Holland in the early 1970s, according to Science Magazine and the Daily Mail. The use of cell-lines from aborted foetuses, is common practice in medical research and is not outlawed.
Dr Best explained that original cells from the Dutch baby, are not actually used in the vaccine development.
“What [the archbishops’ letter is] referring to, is what’s called a cell line,” Dr Best said. “Cells were taken from the baby that was aborted in the 1960s [other reports say 1973]. And ever since then, those cells have been growing and replacing each other. This is a commercially available product which laboratories can buy, and use it as a type of a little factory to grow the viruses – which will then be deactivated… to vaccinate against Coronavirus.”
She stressed that the cells used in the research, were not in the baby: “It’s not the foetal cells that are in the vaccine. It’s the virus that’s been deactivated that’s in the vaccine.”
Should Christians Be Worried About the Oxford Vaccine?
Asked whether the cell line used in the Oxford vaccine is something Christians should be concerned about, Dr Best said there were a number of factors to weigh up.
In her view, since the abortion of the baby in question occurred decades ago, and few of us could have had any role in preventing it, there is little ethical culpability. The less power we have to influence an outcome, the less our responsibility.
“By using the vaccine, we have no role in promoting abortion,” she said. “The abortion that occurred… we have no role in deciding to use that tissue for research purposes. And there is a distance that we have from that act – which reduces our obligation to distance ourselves… The key thing will be to make sure it doesn’t happen into the future.”
People of faith, she said, will need to weigh up the tensions between the two different ethical considerations: vaccinating to “love thy neighbour”; and making a stand to protect the unborn.
Unlike the fears raised by the three archbishops, she says believers can use the Astra Zeneca vaccine (if it’s released) with a clear conscience – especially if no alternative is offered.
“We don’t get vaccinated for our own protection, so much as to contribute to the good of the community. It’s a way of loving your neighbor.” ~ Dr Megan Best, Christian medical ethicist
“Firstly, we have an obligation to get vaccinated to protect our neighbors from coronavirus infection, and if there is an ethical virus vaccine available, we should choose that,” she said. “But in the absence of an alternative to one developed from foetal cells, we should still get vaccinated, and realise that we are not cooperating with evil – because the events which led to this cell line, occurred so long ago, and we really had no role in making it happen.”
She maintains that participating in vaccination programs to help improve the health of the community overall is “ethically correct”.
“We don’t get vaccinated for our own protection, so much as to contribute to the good of the community,” she said. “It’s a way of loving your neighbor.
“We need to realise that it will only work if the majority of the community is vaccinated. And so we have to weigh up the ethical issue of being a good member of society contributing to the common good; and weighing up our role in seeming to condone abortion by accepting a vaccine which was developed from foetal cells from an abortion. I believe that it is so long ago that that abortion occurred, that that is a less of an ethical concern, than refusing to cooperate with a scheduled vaccination program.”
The Push for More Options, and Concerns Over Vaccine Safety
Dr Best added that we have a role to play in encouraging the government to provide other vaccines not linked to foetal cell lines – as the Archbishops have urged.
In a media release last week, Reverend Fred Nile of the Christian Democratic Party also raised concerns about the safety of the vaccine, which is, by comparison, being rushed. Ordinarily, researchers spend years trialing and testing vaccines for safety before they are released in the community.
“I am curious why the Federal government has not yet engaged a formal inquiry into the alleged risks of vaccines which are made with dangerous chemicals, or the impact of vaccines which may involve productions methods that offend the sensibilities of faith communities,” Rev Nile said.
“I am curious why the Federal government has not yet engaged a formal inquiry into the alleged risks of vaccines which are made with dangerous chemicals, or the impact of vaccines which may involve productions methods that offend the sensibilities of faith communities.” ~ Rev Fred Nile
Vaccine safety awareness advocates fear that there’s no way of knowing whether the vaccine will have longer-term impacts, no matter how rigorous the current trials are.
These concerns about safety were echoed by Christian medical ethicist Dr Denise Cooper-Clarke of Ridley theological college, in an interview with Eternity News.
“Normally the process [of testing] takes several years, and we’re talking about possibly 18 months,” she said of the Oxford trials.
Around 40,000 people in the USA and UK are participating in the current Phase 3 trials, as well as thousands in lower income nations such as South Africa and Brazil. Some trial participants are keeping an e-diary of any adverse symptoms they experience, for a month after receiving the vaccine, says Oxford University.
Dr Cooper-Clarke also raised ethical concerns about how readily available the vaccine will be if it is approved and released.
“Will it be available – particularly to the people who need it most?” she said. “And I’m not talking about the elderly and immunocompromised in Australia. I’m talking about people in countries overseas who probably wouldn’t be able to afford it.”
However Cooper-Clarke also said that Christians objecting to the Oxford COVID vaccine, would have to rethink their stance on the other Australian vaccines and treatments developed with similar methods. These include the vaccines for rubella, chickenpox, rabies and hepatitis A – as well as treatments like immunotherapy for cancer patients.
Scott Morrison Softens His Tone on AstraZeneca Vaccine
After the backlash, the Prime Minister has softened his language around the vaccine since first making the AstraZenaca deal public last week.
Initally, he told Melbourne talk radio station 3AW he intended to make the vaccine “as mandatory as you can possibly make it”, a message repeated by Science Minister Karen Andrews on radio 2GB. But within hours Morrison had backed up, telling 2GB there would be “no compulsory vaccine but there will be a lot of encouragement and measures to get as high a rate of acceptance as usual”.
On Monday, a spokesperson told Guardian Australia that Mr Morrison “respects the views of Australia’s many religious communities and understands the issues that are being raised”.