By Dr. Tim Millea
Over the past five months, we have been bombarded with the alphabet soup of the coronavirus pandemic: COVID, CDC, FDA and NIH have become part of our daily conversations and news updates. As we continue to watch and pray for indications of slowing spread of the virus, we look forward to measures that will help lessen the risk in the years to come.
Ultimately, safe and effective vaccines will be a critically important component in those efforts. However, as Catholics committed to the dignity of life at all stages, it is necessary to be informed and cautious about the vaccines that will be developed and the means used to manufacture them.
The alphabet soup of vaccine development is extensive. WI-38, MRC-5, HEK-293, PER C6, WI-26, VA4, and Walvax-2 are all human cells used in vaccine development and manufacturing. However, they all share the same tragic history: all of them are derived from tissue from aborted fetuses. WI-38 dates back nearly six decades, with cells from lung tissue “harvested” from an abortion in Sweden in 1962. Likewise, MRC-5 cells resulted from the abortion of a 14-week old fetus in 1966 and PER C6 from an 18-week old fetus in 1985. Sadly, some are much more recent abortion-derived cells, such as Walvax-2, which was introduced in 2015.
Certainly, vaccines are important and necessary. However, it is even more important to remind ourselves of the adage, “the end doesn’t always justify the means.” The ethical and morally correct development of vaccines is not only possible, but is already available and functioning.
Cell lines obtained from aborted babies are not necessary to produce safe, effective and cost-conscious vaccines. A variety of techniques and procedures will meet the demand, both in epidemiologic and moral terms, without violating the ethics of our faith.
The use of adult stem cell lines is a significant advance in vaccine development. The John Paul II Medical Research Institute in Coralville has been a leader in this area for more than a decade. These cells are grown in the laboratory, are inherently safe and morally acceptable. Other means include genetic coding with messenger RNA (mRNA) or DNA, which do not require the use of cultured cells at all. Cell lines obtained from primates and even insects have been successfully utilized.
It is a moral imperative for us to support and promote vaccines as a common good for all. From a medical standpoint, the benefits of a tested and proven vaccine greatly outweigh the risks. However, if we are to have vaccines that are morally and ethically sound, what do we need to do?
We can take several actions. A basic first step is to ask your physician about the source of the vaccine that is recommended. If it utilized cells from an abortion, request an ethical alternative. Be aware that currently three vaccines do not have such an alternative: rubella, chickenpox and hepatitis A.
The Vatican’s 2008 document, Dignitatis personae, addressed this dilemma and recognized that “grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify” the use of these vaccines. However, the document goes on to emphasize the importance of “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.” Thus, we need to recognize that part of our moral duty is to lobby for ethically correct alternatives.
The efforts to promote, to expect and ultimately demand ethical vaccines has several targets. We must contact the pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies working on vaccine development to insist on the use of proper moral procedures and techniques. Our local, state and national legislators must hear from us clearly and frequently with our expectations for their help and support. Our hospitals and health care systems must be on notice that this issue is important and critical, and not just as a “religious issue” but as a public safety measure.
Most importantly, as a community of followers of Christ, we all have a role in this battle for the good and the truth. If we do not demand alternatives to these vaccines, we will continue to allow the immoral means that have persisted for many decades. Whether we are preaching from the pulpit or praying in the pews, we are all called to be a voice that protects lives with proper vaccine development.
(Dr. Millea is a physician, president of the St. Thomas Aquinas Guild of the Quad Cities and member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish, Davenport.)
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