On religious objections to the use of vaccines derived from aborted fetuses – A case study

Print This Post


Recently a Catholic U.S. Coast Guard officer filed suit to prevent being forced to receive a vaccination he believed morally objectionable since the vaccine derived from the remains of an aborted child. The officer, Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Healy filed a complaint just last week, charging the government with using “its own arbitrary judgment of what constitutes Catholic theology while permitting religious exemptions to others.”

Recently a Catholic U.S. Coast Guard officer filed suit to prevent being forced to receive a vaccination he believed morally objectionable since the vaccine derived from the remains of an aborted child. The officer, Lt. Cmdr. Joseph Healy filed a complaint just last week, charging the government with using “its own arbitrary judgment of what constitutes Catholic theology while permitting religious exemptions to others.” (http://www.catholicnewsagency.com; last accessed January 15, 2008) The Coast Guard denied Healy’s request, made in May 2007, and claimed Catholic teaching “does not state that these immunizations are against the religious tenets of the Catholic Church.” (ibid) Healy’s complaint contends that the Coast Guard’s mandatory vaccination policy discriminates against his Catholic faith. Let’s look a bit more closely at the available facts and see if we can make sense of the issues involved.

Since May 2006, the U.S. Coast Guard has made mandatory the vaccination of its active-duty personnel against Hepatitis A. The Hepatitis A vaccine is based on lung cells taken from an elective abortion performed at 14 weeks some forty years ago. There is currently no alternative vaccine, though apparently one awaits FDA approval. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), Hepatitis A is a disease of the liver causing nausea, abdominal pain, weight loss, and fever. It is not a particularly fatal disease: the vast majority of people infected with it do not die, but the symptoms can last for two months typically and sometimes as long as six months. The Hepatitis A virus is passed from person to person by contact with the infected person’s stool; for instance, through food or water contamination. The CDC thus lists at high risk “persons traveling to countries with high or intermediate endemicity of hepatitis A virus infection, men who have sex with men, and users of injection and non-injection illegal drugs.” Since the introduction of Hepatitis A vaccinations, the incidence of infections has declined some 89%. Obviously, the vaccinations work and serve a variety of public goods, including keeping people healthy and productive.

Lt. Cmdr. Healy no doubt understands the goods gained by universal vaccination against infections like Hepatitis A. He objects not to vaccination, but to the use of this particular vaccination which traces to an elective abortion. As his complaint states, he finds objectionable the notion that the government can determine the state of Catholic theology on the use of vaccines connected to abortion. He desires an exception like that granted to other religious objectors to the vaccination.

Among the issues raised are those identified in Healy’s complaint. First, the substantive question of the state of Catholic doctrine: does Catholic doctrine require that Catholics object to the Hepatitis A vaccination? Second, that the government does not have the capacity to determine the state of Catholic theology on the question. A third issue concerns the authority of the government to compel Healy to receive the vaccine. There are other issues, but space limits us to these and to these briefly.


Catholic moral doctrine does not require Catholics to refuse the use of Hepatitis A or other vaccinations based on cell lines coming from the abortion in question if there is no available alternative vaccination and if rejecting the vaccination poses health risks to children and the population as a whole . But Healy’s concern is appropriate and clear to any one opposed to abortion: how can we make even good use of something connected to the grave evil of abortion? In Catholic moral thinking, such questions were analyzed through the principle of “cooperation with evil.” There are different categories within “cooperation with evil,” beginning with a distinction between formal and material cooperation. Formal cooperation, involving a shared intention to do evil, is always sinful; material cooperation, because the cooperator does not share the intention to do evil, may or may not be sinful. In the case of the vaccination, the potential recipient clearly does not share in the intention of the people who procured the abortion, and thus we’re speaking here of a species of material cooperation. Indeed, the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAV) adjudged such use as an instance of “very remote mediate material cooperation,” (http://www.catholic.org/featured/headline.php?ID=2410&page=4) which confirms the lay intuition that the use of the vaccine, in the absence of an alternative, has very little to do with the original abortion and in no way is “doing evil (procuring an abortion) so that good (of vaccination against disease) may come.” On the other hand, the PAV strongly encourages us, in particular doctors and fathers of families, to pressure the pharmaceutical industry and the government requiring these vaccines to find alternatives not tainted by moral evil. The point being emphasized here is that despite the remote nature of making use of the vaccine, Catholics need also to counter a culture in which pharmaceutical companies have no qualms about the use of aborted fetuses for the production of vaccines and thus legitimize or redeem abortions by associating them with life-saving therapies. Thus, the PAV encourages Catholics to make a “conscientious objection” to vaccines with moral problems. Not to challenge our reliance upon tainted vaccines would, the PAV states, constitute a greater proximity to the evils of the original abortion. In other words, Catholic heads-of-households have the unavoidable responsibility to challenge a culture predatory on innocent life.


As a trained theologian, I have above done my best to make clear the state of Catholic teaching on this question. As the reader can tell, there is an absence of clarity on the question; an absence vexing theologians and the faithful. Different theologians have come to different conclusions on these questions; how, then, can the government claim that “these immunizations are not against the religious tenets of the Catholic Church?” Only with great difficulty, one must admit. There are at least two levels of teaching germane to Healy’s appeal for an exemption. First, there is the substantive doctrinal conclusion, addressed above: under certain conditions a Catholic may make use of these vaccines; this is affirmed by many theologians, by the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and by the U.S. Bishops. Second, and contained within that doctrine, concerns Healy’s conscience. Despite allowing that in the absence of alternative vaccines a Catholic may make use of the tainted one, the PAV shows that the teaching encourages Catholics to object in conscience to the production, marketing, and distribution of these vaccines to pressure society to a point where such alternatives exist. Based on that teaching, Lt. Cmdr. Healy conscientiously objects: he judges that to use the vaccine would violate the teaching and thus involve him in grave sin. It would be a gross violation of his conscience for him to acquiesce to the government’s demand that he receive the vaccination.


On the other hand, the government possesses the authority to compel Healy to receive the vaccination. As a volunteer member of the Coast Guard, Lt. Cmdr. Healy must subject himself to the reasonable requirements of the Coast Guard. Because he is a volunteer member, Healy’s objection to the vaccination is unlike the objections of Catholic soldiers to particular wars as unjust. During the Vietnam War, many conscripted Catholics objected to their participation in a war they determined was unjust. Despite this conscientious determination, despite the compulsory nature of their service, and despite exemptions from fighting being granted to other believers (like Quakers, for instance) the government refused to recognize Catholic claims to conscience and compelled Catholics to fight or be dishonorably discharged and otherwise sanctioned as permitted by law. The government was claiming that these individual conclusions about the justice of the war were not required by Church teaching (since Catholic teaching doesn’t object to “war in any form”) and that it would thus be burdensome for the government to sort through such claims.


In essence, the government’s claim in both cases is that it possesses the limited capacity to determine whether a faith community objects in principle to vaccination or war. If the community does, then the government may respect the conscientious claim as it has with Quakers and war; if the community does not object in principle, however, the government refuses to defer to individual determinations about the morality of the situation. It can and will compel the soldier to fight or to be vaccinated; or, in the case of voluntary service, presumably the soldier will have to follow his conscience and resign his commission.


Given all this, I am not convinced Lt. Cmdr. Healy merits the exception on religious grounds. The current state of Catholic teaching on these vaccines is not comprehensive enough to grant him a religious exemption. Debi Vinnege, the head of Children of God for Life and a critical force behind Catholic concern about vaccinations, puts the problem simply, “We need a stronger statement.”