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Sydney archbishop corrects misrepresentation of ethical concerns with COVID-19 vaccine option

Clarification: “It is in all our interests that a vaccine is widely taken up, and so it is deeply disappointing that my words weren’t reported accurately or fairly.” Photo: CNS

SYDNEY Archbishop Anthony Fisher has moved to dispel some mainstream media claims that he and other faith leaders opposed a potential COVID-19 vaccine because it includes cell lines from an aborted foetus.

“I have not, nor would I, call for Catholics to boycott the vaccine if it became available,” Archbishop Fisher said on Facebook, after a furore that provoked a stream of angry posts.

Archbishop Fisher, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Glenn Davies and Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Australia Makarios Griniezakis raised concerns after the federal government confirmed it had struck an agreement with British pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca to secure at least 25 million doses if Oxford University vaccine trials on humans prove successful and safe.

The Oxford vaccine trials are well advanced, but rely on cell lines from an electively aborted foetus.

There are more than 160 vaccine trials worldwide, and some of those trials don’t use foetal cells in their development.

“What I did was join with other faith leaders to ask the Prime Minister to, in addition to the agreement made with AstraZeneca, pursue arrangements for other vaccines and not just limit themselves to one, which some in our community will find ethically concerning,” Archbishop Fisher posted.

“It is in all our interests that a vaccine is widely taken up, and so it is deeply disappointing that my words weren’t reported accurately or fairly.

“If we are indeed ‘all in this together,’ then we need to ensure that legitimate concerns raised are not exaggerated.”

Archbishop Fisher describes himself as “a strong advocate of vaccinations” – and not just for COVID-19 – “as long as they are safe and ethically obtained”.

“I commend the efforts of our Commonwealth and State governments to keep us safe. I won’t be wagging my finger at anyone who uses the vaccine,” he told The Catholic Weekly.

“What people need right now is some hope that life can return to relative normalcy.

“But we do not want this at the price of many good people’s consciences and the creation of new social tensions. There are ethically untainted alternatives: let’s pursue those.”

The emotive issue of using stem cells from aborted foetuses for vaccines has been studied by the Church for decades.

The Vatican and bishops around the world have been urging governments and scientists to support the development of vaccines that have no connection to abortion.

The Pontifical Academy for Life is working on a statement regarding the development of vaccines for COVID-19, which would follow church teaching as explained in 2008 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the academy’s 2017 note on the importance of vaccines.

In the document, Dignitas Personae (The Dignity of the Person) from 2008, the doctrinal congregation said researchers had an ethical duty not to use “biological material” obtained from morally illicit procedures, especially abortion.

However, the document also recognised that apart from the question of the material used to develop a vaccine – the actual use of a successful vaccine involves “differing degrees of responsibility”.

“Grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such ‘biological material” the document states.

Thus, for example, danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while 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.”

The Church will continue to follow the ethical development of vaccines closely through the Pontifical Academy for Life.

A further, interesting perspective is contained in a briefing paper from Helen Watt, a senior research fellow with the Anscombe Bioethics Centre, Oxford.

“Boycotting a Covid-19 vaccine in the absence of an alternative is a serious action that should be carefully considered because of its potentially grave risks both for the person and for others,” Ms Watt said in the paper published on the website of the centre, that serves the Catholic Church in Britain.

She said its use was a matter of individual conscience for Catholics, although they should strive to obtain alternative vaccines, made without foetal cells, once such vaccines arrive on the market.

“The moral onus is certainly on the person to do this as a witness to the value of human life and life-respecting research,” she said.

“Boycotts are often rightly regarded simply as a means of achieving change by highlighting abuses,” she added, though “some will feel, whether rightly or wrongly, called to a boycott even if no alternative vaccine is available to them.”

Researchers at the University of Queensland working on a COVID-19 vaccine have presented the final results of animal trials to an international scientific forum, and human trials are already under way.

The animal trials conducted on hamsters show the UQ vaccine is safe and produces a good immune response, and can be manufactured in large quantities once finalised.

The vaccine uses what is known as “molecular clamp” technology, and is different to the Oxford University vaccine that the Australian Government signed a letter of intent with last week.

Human trials began on the UQ vaccine in early July, and although it is behind the Oxford University candidate it is considered to be the most promising of a few Australian vaccines under development.

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