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Abortion and the Covid-19 vaccine

There is a false moral controversy that is only of interest to the Vatican in its global crusade against legal pregnancy terminations

A health worker gets a shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in Mexico City on December 30.
A health worker gets a shot of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in Mexico City on December 30.Marco Ugarte / AP

Even when addressing a global emergency like the Covid-19 pandemic, the Catholic Church clings to its usual fanaticism by couching abortion as a more pressing moral concern than the possibility of saving hundreds of thousands of lives.

The trouble this time are cell lines drawn from a kidney and a cornea which have been grown in laboratories since the 1970s and 1980s. During this time they have served to produce drug treatments for such grueling disorders as hemophilia, rheumatoid arthritis and cystic fibrosis, as well as vaccines against chicken pox, hepatitis A, rubella, and shingles. But what is it about these cell lines that bothers the Catholic Church’s male leadership so much, especially US and Canadian bishops? The origin of the lines: samples from the kidney and cornea of two aborted fetuses.

Pope Francis made a statement about the issue on December 21, under the heading “Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines” – a somewhat understated title compared to earlier texts on the topic. This is not the first time the Vatican has issued a statement and spread words about what should be a matter of science and secular policy; this is the fourth time this century that the Catholic Church has engaged in lucubrations about the morality of vaccines and drugs, as if the well-being or survival of humanity could be ordained by what Catholics think about cell lines derived from a fetal kidney or cornea. But in its arrogance, this institution, which burned dissident thought at the stake in the Middle Ages and has cooperated with brutal military dictatorships like Argentina’s in the 1970s, has no qualms about the question of abortion. And the arrogance of men in power does not obey criteria of logic or coherence – it is sufficient unto itself.

The note states that there are “degrees of responsibility of cooperation in evil.” Like Pope Francis, we also believe evil is to be found in humanity – in those who rape little girls, in those who let women die because they refuse to perform abortions for reasons of personal faith, and in those who kill women out of misogyny, as in cases of femicide. The evil is even worse when suffering or death could have been prevented or when care could have been provided, as so often is the case with abortion. When a woman dies from an abortion, her death generally could have been avoided, if she had had access to information or care. But abortion has been criminalized and Catholic morality is one of the main roadblocks to converting abortion from a criminal policy matter into a matter of public health. We need only look at what has been happening on the streets of Argentina in recent days, as its senate prepares to vote on the legalization of abortion.

The arrogance of men in power does not obey criteria of logic or coherence – it is sufficient unto itself

Reflecting a different understanding of evil, the Vatican’s statement on vaccines lays out “degrees of responsibility” for Catholics – and for humanity as well, since it appeals to both government and the pharmaceutical industry in an effort to interfere in public policy, with the great evil being abortion. In convoluted language, the text invokes philosophical categories like responsibility, practical reason, passive material cooperation, and grave danger in a discussion of the ethics of these vaccines. Yes, the vaccines that can keep thousands more from dying and would have made for a less sad Christmas, without separated families or empty churches, are pronounced morally illicit because they have been produced from fifty-year-old laboratory cell lines derived from the kidney or cornea of an aborted fetus.

And so the text reiterates what is apparently the great evil presented by uteruses: “It should be emphasized, however, that the morally licit use of these types of vaccines, in the particular conditions that make it so, does not in itself constitute a legitimation, even if indirect, of the practice of abortion, and necessarily assumes the opposition to this practice by those who make use of these vaccines.” This false moral controversy interests no one but the Vatican in its global crusade against abortion as a form of health care and protection of women’s dignity.

The document speaks to the vaccines and to the Catholic believer’s free will to receive or refuse one, but the topic that troubles those defining the truth of faith is abortion. If Catholic doctrine does not classify the ideologization of pandemic suffering and of hope for a solution like the vaccine as a ‘great evil’, we can borrow a term from lay vocabulary: ‘perverse’. Perverse for whom? For Catholic women and men who want to receive the vaccine free of sin, and for Catholic women who have abortions and seek comfort in their faith. To these people we repeat what scientists have said: no aborted fetal cells are used in any of the vaccines, only material drawn from them. We must believe there is no evil in caring for each of us and for humanity. There is hope.

Debora Diniz is a Brazilian anthropologist and researcher at Brown University

Giselle Carino is an Argentinian political scientist and IPPF/WHR director

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