A Stronger Moral Obligation to Vaccinate (National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly)

Back in December, I published a summary of an academic article from the National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly on why COVID vaccines were ordinary means. Not only did I summarize it, but after communicating briefly with one of the authors, I decided to write a colloquy in response to it. It was just published. This colloquy makes their already solid argument even stronger. In other words, it is even clearer that COVID vaccines are ordinary means. Ordinary means cannot be skipped over preference or similar, but have a degree of moral obligation behind them.

I will take a bit from the prior article and a bit from this colloquy on each of the two points I make in my colloquy (official, if paywalled).

COVID Vaccines are Ordinary Means

Here are some key lines from McTavish and Eberl: (If you want more please read my summary or their article.)

This preliminary analysis of COVID-19 vaccination reveals that it is beneficial, not too burdensome, and relatively cheap. Thus, it fits the main criteria for an ordinary treatment… Nonetheless, we consider the obligatoriness of vaccination to arise not from the mere fact that it could be considered ordinary but from the fact that to be vaccinated is a good act. […]

We contend that vaccination is ethically obligatory, not so much because it is ordinary, although our analysis above shows that it is, but rather because it is a good act. In the same way we are obliged to help the poor, to feed the hungry, and perform other corporal works of mercy.

You can read more in my summary or their article.

My First Point: Better sourcing

COVID Vaccine
COVID Vaccine (CC0 Unsplash)

McTavish and Eberl quote me on COVID vaccines being more remote cooperation than things we accept for much lesser goods than disease prevention. In doing so, I thought they could have quoted a more relevant piece in my serious of articles on this. I suggest “12 Things Less-Remote Cooperation in Evil Than COVID Vaccines,” December 18, 2020, and “If Any Drug Tested on HEK-293 Is Immoral, Goodbye Modern Medicine,” January 28, 2021. The former summarizes in conclusion:

This leaves us with two options:

[1] Realize that some very remote cooperation in evil is inevitable. Try to avoid it when I can but not worry much when I can’t.

[2] Go and become a subsistence farmer and hermit. Even contemplative religious communities, however, can’t check the sourcing of every product they use.

One could even debate if this latter option is an option for a Catholic. In 1690, the Holy Office condemned various errors of the Jansenists. “It is not licit to follow the [probable] opinion, even the most probable among the probable ones” (DH 2303) was one of the condemned propositions. This was condemning the belief that one had to be 100% certain of the right moral act in circumstances where any doubt arose. It may apply to the rigorist interpretation allowing no cooperation in evil, even very remote cooperation.

You can read more in my piece (official, if paywalled).

My Second Point: Vatican on Fetal Cell Line Testing

McTavish and Eberl sincerely try to apply Vatican statements, but they mistakenly don’t distinguish between vaccines or other medical products grown on fetal cell lines versus those only tested on fetal cell lines. Just testing is much more remote, so less of a moral issue. I note:

In the their 2020 note on Covid vaccines, the CDF uses different terms when indicating vaccines are ethical and when indicating some Catholics might skip vaccines due to the connection to fetal cell lines. When talking about them being ethical, they use “research and production process”: “It is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.” But when talking about those skipping vaccines they refer to “vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses”: “Those who… for reasons of conscience, refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses must do their utmost to avoid… becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent.” The removal of the “research” when talking about those who skip the vaccines, seems to indicate they imagine no Catholic would skip vaccines over the remote connection with abortion in vaccines only tested on fetal cell lines, due to how remote that connection is. Every other document on fetal cell lines and vaccines indicating some Catholics might skip those vaccines over this issue also clearly refer only to those vaccines produced on fetal cell lines, and not those only tested on fetal cell lines.

A further analysis I made showing that the Vatican has never taken issue with vaccines only tested on fetal cell lines can be found here (I cite it in a footnote to this paragraph). This piece goes document by document on every formal teaching document regarding fetal cell lines or vaccines (at least since fetal cell lines were involved in vaccines, I don’t go back to the 1700s and 1800s).

You can read more in my piece (official, if paywalled).

Conclusion: All Catholics Should Vaccinate Against COVID

COVID vaccines are ordinary means, and the Vatican has indicated that the remote connection to abortion is not a valid reason for Catholics to skip them. The science is overwhelming at this point, showing that vaccines reduce deaths without a proportionally serious risk. The years that have gone by since the first approval of COVID vaccines show more and more that there is no issue long term.

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  1. I got Moderna for my COVID-19 vaccine. I just had an updated booster in June. I am just watching the CDC for guidance. I have a lot of medical problems, so I follow the immunocompromised protocol. I also am a half time college student and am around a lot of people at school.

  2. If there are breakthrough cases with vaccines, does that change the moral obligation? Or is there a suggestion that one is morally obligated to vaccinate oneself for one’s own protection? What about in a situation where natural immunity exists – what is the argument for a vaccination in addition to the existing natural immunity?

    1. Breakthrough infections are already assumed in this calculation as no vaccine is 100.00% effective. Now if natural immunity is shown, that can change things as the chance of COVID is already somewhat lower; however, both is lower than either alone & may thus still have an obligation in certain circumstances.

  3. I had COVID in late January and early February and needed the full 10 day quarantine. I was out of school for a week and a half. I still got a booster shot in June during my summer vacation. I will be going back to classes on August 28.

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