This month, two vaccines for COVID-19 finished their final tests. They proved to be 90–94 percent effective at preventing COVID, and both vaccines have been ethically produced. This is very good news indeed. Some have raised moral qualms about getting these vaccines, but the moral issues with both are so remote and minor that they should prevent nobody from getting either of them.
Pfizer and Moderna Announce Vaccines
On November 10, Pfizer announced the results of its final test showing 90 percent effectiveness against COVID. On the 16th, Moderna announced similar results with a 94 percent effectiveness. Both of these vaccines are part of a new set of vaccines using artificial mRNA technology. Earlier vaccines used a dead or attenuated version of the virus that was grown on some form of stem cells in a petri dish. Both new vaccines make RNA strands in a machine rather than in cells. Thus, what is injected is not even a virus at all.
Artificial mRNA vaccines have several advantages. First, several possible but rare side effects from other vaccines are eliminated. These would include allergies, as these vaccines have far less possibility of contamination, and infection from the vaccine, which some but not all virus-based vaccines have produced in extremely rare (less than one in a million) cases. Second, because RNA cannot enter the nucleus, the new vaccines eliminate the possibility of genetic change beyond the immune system (also extremely rare but possible with some other vaccines). Third, since these vaccines are made by machines, it seems easier to quickly ramp up their production to meet our needs during the pandemic. However, as these vaccines are new, there is a risk of unknown effects, especially rare ones that might not be picked up even in the large studies that have been done. (Most serious negative reactions to vaccines are in the range of one in a million or less, and therefore hard to catch even in a large scientific study.)
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Principles for Cooperation in Evil
The question remains, then, whether the vaccines have been produced in a morally licit way such that people using them are not cooperating with evil. As readers of Public Discourse will probably remember, moral philosophy classically thinks about cooperation with evil in two ways: material or formal. Formal cooperation involves directly willing the evil at hand, and thus is always wrong. Material cooperation does not involve directly willing evil, but providing some form of material support, and it can be remote or proximate depending on how close it is to the act. Proximate material cooperation with evil is usually immoral. And while we should generally avoid remote material cooperation when possible, we are not obliged to, especially when the good effect that we intend is greater than the unintended evil effect that is connected to it.
There is also a type of cooperation that is so remote that it becomes morally irrelevant. I call this doubly or triply remote, since the act is remote cooperation in the remote cooperation of another, or even further removed.
For example, the Family Research Council keeps a list of companies that donate to Planned Parenthood. They divide it into two: those that donate directly and those that donate via third party, such as giving money to the United Way, which then gives a portion to Planned Parenthood.
We, too, can make choices on purchases based on this list. For example, we could note that Energizer gives money directly to Planned Parenthood, but that neither Duracell nor its parent company is on the list, and therefore buy Duracell batteries next time. However, we are not obliged to check this list every time we want to buy something new from the grocery store. Also, even if we want to avoid it, the work required to do such due diligence on our grocery shopping is too much to be reasonable. For example, all of the main pharmacy chains—CVS, Rite Aid, and Walgreens, along with several grocery store chains with pharmacies—give money indirectly to Planned Parenthood, and many of you reading may not have access to a pharmacy that does not give money indirectly to Planned Parenthood, without a long trip or without paying significantly more. It is essentially impossible to avoid all doubly and triply remote cooperation while living in a modern society. Indeed, part of the human condition in all ages is that the moral actions of some people are remotely connected to the evil actions of others.
Remote Cooperation and Vaccines
For a while, there has been an issue regarding some vaccines grown using fetal stem cells that are the descendants of cells harvested from abortions. The abortions were not performed for the purpose of obtaining cells, but scientists did harvest these cells from aborted fetuses. (There is a slight debate about HEK293 cells, as this cell line might have been a natural miscarriage and not an abortion, but I will assume they were from an abortion for the rest of this article.) These cells were then grown in petri dishes over the course of decades. The cells that have been used in vaccines or proposed for vaccines came from abortions in the 1960s, 1966, and 1973.
Although these cells are obviously not the ones taken from the aborted baby, using them to make a vaccine is appropriation insofar as we are taking from some evil act in the past. Appropriation is not directly immoral, but in the case of scientists’ using fetal stem cells (not an individual’s vaccination), it most likely will be remote cooperation in evil. This is likely cooperation because the continued use of fetal stem cells in research as opposed to switching to only ethically created cell lines increases the chances more fetal stem lines continue to be created from aborted fetuses. Scientists have continued to make new fetal stem cell lines intended to replace existing cell lines as fetal stem cell lines last decades but are not completely immortal: it is unlikely these would have been made had we switched away from using fetal stem cells earlier. Using fetal stem cells in research should generally be avoided but is not necessarily forbidden even for a researcher.
However, receiving such a vaccine is an appropriation and likely cooperation in evil with added degrees of remoteness. If there is an option not grown using fetal stem cells, we should still choose that, but that is not always an option. The Vatican in multiple cases, the English bishops, the National Catholic Bioethics Center, the Catholic Medical Association, an archbishop with a bioethics doctorate, a priest with doctoral degrees in both moral theology and microbiology, and most Catholic moral theologians and bioethicists all agree that it is permissible to get such vaccines if no other option is available. In fact, the Vatican noted in 2017 that there is a “moral obligation to guarantee the vaccination coverage necessary for the safety of others.” Nonetheless, most concur that some Catholics’ conscientious objection to vaccines grown using fetal stem cells is permissible.
Pfizer and Moderna’s Cooperation in Evil
In the cases of both Pfizer and Moderna, we are dealing with cases of at least triply remote cooperation in evil with HEK293 cells, which are not morally relevant when considering receiving such a vaccine. Early in the research on COVID-19, some scientists made a purified version of the protein and protein-coding genes using HEK293 cells. This information seems to have been used by both companies in working out which part of the RNA code they would use in their vaccine. But this is simply existing information; neither company is morally responsible for creating it. Moderna also did some research on HEK293 cells before COVID-19 existed. As far as I can tell, this is either completely irrelevant to its COVID vaccine or only provides prior information like the previous example. Pfizer did one of its many tests on HEK293 cells. Moderna used the same cells for a test. These tests do not seem morally relevant for choosing whether or not to vaccinate. When you vaccinate, you cooperate remotely in the production of the vaccine, which cooperated remotely in the tests that appropriated and likely cooperated remotely in the evil of abortion, so this is at least triply remote cooperation by the time we are getting vaccinated.
These Vaccines Are Moral
Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines seem to pose no significant moral concern. The Charlotte Lozier Institute is keeping a good list of the COVID vaccines. Some are listed as unethical, as they use HEK293 or similar cells in production. The difference between production—whereby they grow the vaccine used on each of us—and testing is important for several reasons. First, it is another level of remoteness removed. If the vaccine you get was produced using fetal stem cells, it was grown directly from fetal stem cells. Whereas in testing, some other copy of the vaccine or part of that copy interacts with fetal stem cells. Second, a test is done once and is already completed by the time you get vaccinated: there is no need for HEK293 cells once the test is done. On the other hand, in production, the fetal stem cells keep being reproduced, because with each batch the cells used are killed, removed from the vaccine, and disposed of. If these were the only vaccines that seemed to work, they could be morally used as noted above. However, neither Pfizer’s nor Moderna’s vaccine falls into this category. Thus, there should be no moral obstacle to getting these vaccines. Indeed, we should avail ourselves of safe and effective vaccination for our own sake and for that of the common good.