When a vaccine is available to treat or prevent COVID-19, it is OK to take it. That’s the message from the bishops of Alberta and the Northwest Territories in a Dec. 2 pastoral letter navigating a moral dilemma presented by COVID-19 vaccine development.

While many possible vaccines are synthetic and have no relationship to abortion in their production, several contenders were developed using cell lines descended from cells originally derived from aborted fetuses or embryonic stem cells.

Even if a vaccine is sourced from cell lines distantly derived from aborted human fetuses, which is an evil act according to Catholic teaching, the bishops said taking that vaccine is morally permissible given the remoteness of the recipient from the original act of abortion, the scarcity of ethical alternatives, and the grave threat that COVID-19 poses to public health.

“Making use of abortion to create cell lines for research and development is an affront to human dignity and cannot be morally justified,” the bishops wrote.

While physicians and families should seek out ethical vaccines, the bishops said use of previous cell lines is so prevalent in research that there may not be an ethical alternative accessible during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

“With respect to someone simply receiving the vaccine, the degree of connection with the original evil act is so remote that, when there also exists a proportionately grave reason for vaccination, such as the current, urgent need to halt the COVID-19 pandemic, then the Church assures us that it is morally permissible for Catholics to receive it for the good of personal and public health.”

Dr. Moira McQueen, executive director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute and part of a group advising the bishops on the letter, said “the level of moral cooperation by people in 2020 is what the Church would call ‘remote.’”

“Here we are talking about a pandemic. The idea is because of two factors — lack of personal responsibility for an original action, yet facing serious illness and needing to protect yourselves and your children — Church teaching says, and I think it’s reasonable, that in these circumstances taking any vaccine is justified. They won’t say the action is right in the fullest sense, but they do say it’s justified. If an ethical vaccine comes along, you have to choose to use that one,” she said.

McQueen was part a group of Catholic medical, legal, and theological experts who wrote to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau early in the pandemic, pressing for any vaccine to be ethically sourced.

The bishops’ letter was released the same day British officials announced their approval of a COVID-19 vaccine by Pfitzer and BioNTech for emergency use as early as next week.

Two frontrunners, Moderna and Pfizer, are both Messenger RNA vaccines in which molecules are chemically synthesized. However, the Oxford and AstraZeneca vaccines are sourced from cell lines that were originally abortion-derived, according to the Lozier Institute, a pro-life institute based in the U.S., which studied a range of vaccines under development.

Meanwhile in Vancouver, a vaccine candidate by Eyam Chief Scientific Officer and UBC professor Wilfred Jefferies is being developed with no fetal or animal cells or by-products. In an interview with The B.C. Catholic in April, Jefferies said producing a vaccine against COVID-19 should be seen as a marathon, not a race across the finish line.

“Potentially the development process will continue until we get an optimal vaccine that works in creating widespread protection and containment of the virus.”

Jefferies’ vaccine candidate is currently moving into animal trials, which are expected to take three to four months. Archbishop J. Michael Miller, CSB, has expressed his personal support of Jefferies’ research and made a financial contribution to the project.

McQueen expects some Catholics and others will refuse a vaccine as a matter of conscience.

“There’s very much the reality of an individual conscience decision, which should always be respected. But that person always has to be thinking too about her or his responsibility to everybody else.”

Dr. David Evans, professor of medical microbiology at the University of Alberta, said vaccines are sourced differently and the bishops’ letter should not be used as justification to refuse to be immunized.

Evans noted that any government-approved vaccine should be safe and effective, but it’s not yet known how long immunity will last. Patients may have to be inoculated with a ‘booster’ after weeks or months.

Grandin Media, with B.C. Catholic files.