After Australia announced a deal with AstraZeneca that will provide free COVID-19 vaccines to all citizens upon approval for human use, religious leaders wrote to Prime Minister Scott Morrison about moral and ethical concerns.
The Oxford vaccine, one of dozens being tested, relies on a line of stem cells originally obtained from an aborted fetus. Though scientists say that’s standard practice—and necessary to ensure safe use on humans—some religious groups oppose it for ethical reasons.
The Vaccine ‘quandary’
In their letter, Sydney’s Catholic and Anglican archbishops, as well as Australia’s Greek Orthodox archbishop, urge Morrison, an evangelical Christian, to pursue “alternate vaccines that do not raise the same ethical concerns” with its development. Other requests include not making a vaccine mandatory and not punishing anyone who refuses it for religious reasons.
Vaccines are needed to defeat the coronavirus, the signers admit, but, “This will be better achieved if the vaccines available do not create an ethical quandary.” The letter emphasizes that “our churches are not opposed to vaccination…but we pray that it be one that is not ethically tainted.”
Pro-life groups in America and Canada also have contacted politicians regarding ethical concerns of vaccine research.
Fetal stem cells, used in vaccine development for 50 years, are integral to safety testing, say researchers. Rubella and chickenpox vaccines emerged that way, for example. The cell lines have existed for years and aren’t from recent fetuses.
Dr. Nick Coatsworth, Australia’s deputy chief medical officer, acknowledges the religious leaders’ concerns but says vaccines need to grow in cell cultures. “There are strong ethical regulations surrounding the use of any human cell, particularly fetal human cells,” he says, adding that Oxford is reputable and uses “the highest of ethical standards internationally.”
Robert Booy, a professor in Sydney, says Christian groups have previously agreed to this testing method because there’s a “big distance between the cell line and the final vaccine.” Unlike adult cells, fetal cells replicate frequently, he adds, and “the purification of the virus means they don’t include human DNA in the actual vaccines.”
The Roles of Faith and Science
Political leaders in Australia say they’re following medical advice and will urge widespread vaccination, when available. Jim Chalmers, opposition treasury spokesman and a Catholic, says vaccines are the way to “get us to the other side of this diabolical health problem.”
Meanwhile, more than 2,700 evangelical leaders recently signed a statement from BioLogos, the nonprofit founded by geneticist Francis Collins, a devout Christian. The “Christian Statement on Science for Pandemic Times” urges believers to neither politicize the coronavirus nor “ignore clear scientific evidence.” It also recommends that Christians “listen to scientists and doctors when they speak in their area of expertise, especially when millions of lives are at stake.”
To those who accuse medical professionals of changing advice throughout the pandemic, the statement says that represents “good scientific advice and honesty,” not error.
Science and faith can work together, the statement notes. The signers recognize that “vaccination is a provision from God” but add, “It is our faith, not science, that overcomes fear and brings hope.”