Vaccinations, Fetal Cell Cultures, and Orthodoxy

Should a Christian refuse to vaccinate their children with some vaccines because they were cultured on cells extracted from aborted fetuses? Lately, I have begun to be asked that question by young Orthodox couples who wish an Orthodox answer. Many of you may not know the background to that question. Many of you may not know that some vaccines are grown in cell cultures that were originally obtained from two human fetuses. In addition, the rubella virus used to make rubella vaccine was isolated from a third human fetus. In all three cases, the fetuses had been aborted. So, the question has risen in right to life circles as to whether it is moral for a child to be vaccinated with a vaccine produced by such a method, since it involves cells extracted from aborted fetuses.

This is a question that was so difficult to answer in Roman Catholic circles that it went all the way to the Vatican in 2003, and was dealt with by the Pontificia Academia Pro Vita (the Pontifical Academy for Life). They responded in a 9-page letter in 2005. The study performed by the Academy was approved by the Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The Academy published a short answer and said that a longer answer would be found in the journal “Medicina e Morale”, edited by the Centra di Bioetica della Universita Cattolica in Rome.

So, what did they conclude? The bottom line is that it is permitted for Christians to allow their children to be vaccinated with vaccines that are created from the tissue of aborted fetuses. But, there are some strong caveats associated with that decision for Roman Catholics. Why does the Roman Catholic Church consider it permissible to allow such vaccinations?

Well, there is an overly simplistic answer that I can give you. For those of you involved in the fields of bioethics and moral theology, I will apologize ahead of time for that over-simplification. The answer is the idea of the lesser of two evils. That is, sometimes no option is fully moral. In that case, one has permission to choose the lesser of two evils. What do I mean?

Months ago I posted on the Orthodox position about war, etc. I quoted from the OCA (Orthodox Church in America), which said:

When violence must be used as a lesser evil to prevent greater evils, it can never be blessed as such, it must always be repented of, and it must never be identified with perfect Christian morality.

As you can see, this is the lesser of two evils argument. But, the argument of the Roman Catholic Church is significantly more complex than a mere statement of the lesser of two evils; for instance, the following quote:

… doctors or parents who resort to the use of these vaccines for their children, in spite of knowing their origin (voluntary abortion), carry out a form of very remote mediate material cooperation, and thus very mild, in the performance of the original act of abortion, and a mediate material cooperation, with regard to the marketing of cells coming from abortions, and immediate, with regard to the marketing of vaccines produced with such cells. The cooperation is therefore more intense on the part of the authorities and national health systems that accept the use of the vaccines.

Rather than attempting to explain all the complexities of what is a very fine argument, let me summarize the Roman Catholic position by making the following statements. First, vaccinating our children with vaccines made from two (or three) cell lines that come from two (or three) aborted human fetuses must never be identified with perfect Christian morality. Second, if there are alternative vaccines not produced from an aborted cell line, it is the duty of a Christian to make his/her physician aware of these vaccines, and to request them. Third, it is the duty of a Christian to make both the legal authorities and the pharmaceutical companies aware of the immorality of making vaccine from those cell lines so that they may change their behavior.

But, there is a final consideration that weighed most heavily with the Roman Catholic Church. They said:

… However, if the latter are exposed to considerable dangers to their health, vaccines with moral problems pertaining to them may also be used on a temporary basis. The moral reason is that the duty to avoid passive material cooperation is not obligatory if there is grave inconvenience. Moreover, we find, in such a case, a proportional reason, in order to accept the use of these vaccines in the presence of the danger of favouring the spread of the pathological agent, due to the lack of vaccination of children.

In other words, where the danger of the loss of national immunity exists, so as to endanger living children (and adults) and permitting the spread of a preventable disease (“pathological agent”), it is the lesser of two evils to have the child vaccinated, even if it is with vaccines that would be otherwise objectionable. In other words, it is a greater evil for Christian parents to behave in such a way that the lives of living children (or adults), Christian or non-Christian, are endangered, either by death or by a loss of quality of life.

Let me put it in even simpler terms. If your decision to refuse to vaccinate your children results in the death or impairment of other children (or adults), then that is a significantly worse thing than your child receiving a vaccine cultured on the cells of a child who has been dead for many decades (this is exactly one of the points in the argument by the Roman Catholic Church). In this first case, you are directly guilty of a severe moral fault, according to both of them. This is the greater of two evils.

In the second case, if you have chosen to have your children vaccinated with one of those vaccines, then that must not be blessed by the Roman Catholic Church. But at worst you are guilty of a very indirect moral fault. And yet, if you also are involved in efforts to persuade pharmaceutical companies and the government to find non-abortion alternatives, then the moral fault is very minimal, at worst, so say the Academy and the Congregation. This is the lesser of two evils.

However, if you remember, I was asked by those young couples whether the Orthodox Church has an official position on vaccines. The Orthodox Church in America has the following comment on their website in a Q&A column, “There are no statements by the Orthodox Church against childhood immunizations / vaccinations. I have never heard of an Orthodox Christian objecting to such immunizations on religious grounds for any reason.”

So, why did I go through that whole discussion? Because there are beginning to be Orthodox couples who are asking the question, Orthodox couples who are deeply involved in the right-to-life movement. It is important, for the sake of our children, that they know not only that it is OK to vaccinate our children, but also that there is no deep moral problem or serious personal sin involved in doing so. At the same time, it is important that our Orthodox couples know that this is not a value-free subject. It is important that our couples know the background of some of the vaccines used and know the moral issues involved with that background. In this way, they can answer those who ask them questions and ask them to justify their stance. More than that, it is ultimately important that none of our children miss their childhood vaccination because of an insufficient moral view.


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