Will the Cure Be Worse Than the Disease?

Great hopes and boundless resources are being poured into global efforts to fight the Covid-19 pandemic. This is a unique moment of unity and solidarity when humanity has mobilized to save lives. Billions of people are making sacrifices like staying home and shutting down events and businesses to keep others safe. This moment is particularly striking because, for the vast majority who become ill, Covid is not a deadly disease but only a mild to moderately severe one. As I have stated before, however, the ethics of a lock-down only work so long as the consequences of the cure are less severe than the dangers the pandemic itself poses to society.

At the same time, old partisan or ideological divisions have raised their ugly heads. Throughout the United States, elective surgeries were prohibited in order to focus health care resources on the response to the pandemic. Nonetheless, special exceptions, usually issued through the executive action of state governors, have allowed abortion on demand to continue in many states, while almost all other elective surgeries are banned. In states where abortions were stopped along with other elective surgeries, Planned Parenthood and other groups went to court and sometimes successfully challenged the orders to cease aborting. This reminds us that even a grave common threat will not unite a morally divided people for long.

Scientific research and medicine are sometimes invoked as enterprises based on reason, which all intelligent people should support almost unconditionally. Some ask, “Surely you can’t be against science, or dispute what science has proven?” Yet even the most naïve backers of science and medicine as abstract concepts should recognize that these disciplines can use evil means or be directed toward deadly goals. The popular nineteenth-century belief that science and medicine would only lead to ever greater progress and positive achievements was shattered in the twentieth century. From the development and use of nuclear weapons to the “medical” experiments of Dr. Mengele in the death camps, it became blindingly clear that scientists and physicians can use their professional knowledge and methods for crimes against humanity.

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The new academic discipline of bioethics came into existence as a needed response to abuses of human rights in the life sciences. People experienced revulsion at the human experiments carried out in the United States and other countries without informed consent or even concern about the well-being of the persons who were treated like guinea pigs, as happened with African American patients at the Tuskegee Institute until the 1970s.

Just as late twentieth-century medical research on human subjects began to include ethical safeguards, however, a whole new can of worms was opened by in vitro fertilization and the ability to sustain human embryos for a short time in laboratories. This quickly led to a powerful temptation to kill and dissect “spare” human embryos for their stem cells and to use them to conduct other experiments. When moral, ethical, or both sorts of objections were raised, a countering outcry arose, claiming that embryonic stem cells obtained from killing our youngest brothers and sisters were vital to future cures for a whole host of diseases and conditions. These claims proved to be largely false, and ethical alternatives to embryonic stem cells were found from a variety of sources.

Yet from the latter half of the twentieth century through today we find examples of the ideological use of science to push an agenda that Pope Saint John Paul II called the Culture of Death. Children were aborted and their cells were cultivated into cell lines that could be used for scientific and medical research. Vaccines were grown in these cell lines derived from abortions. No scientific imperative required using these ethically tainted cell lines for vaccine development, as many successful vaccines use animal cell lines or human ones that do not originate from an aborted child.

One is left with a big question: why? What is the justification for insisting on using cell lines that began with an abortion? Certainly no scientific necessity is at work. Perfectly good alternatives exist. One is left with the strong suspicion that the reasons are ideological. Representatives of the Culture of Death demonstrate a desperate desire to justify abortion and the killing of human embryos by pointing to vaccines and cures these evils brought about. That desperation could explain their bullheaded insistence on continuing research using embryonic stem cells long after it has become clear this was a scientific dead end.

The Catholic Church has never accepted the reasoning that evil can be committed if good results can be achieved through that sinful action. At the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC), on April 8, we issued a strong statement condemning the use of abortion-tainted cell lines in the development of Covid vaccines: “Calling to mind the teachings of the Catholic Church in the 2008 instruction Dignitas personae, the Center firmly opposes the plans of organizations and researchers to use cell lines derived from elective abortions—such as HEK-293 and PER-C6—to develop a vaccine against Covid, and the NCBC calls on all researchers to find alternatives to such cell lines. The use of the cell lines cannot be justified by the historical separation that exists between the deliberate abortions that gave rise to the lines and the current decisions of researchers to continue to use this biological material.”

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) made the position of the Church very clear on this question in Dignitas personae: “Therefore, it needs to be stated that there is a duty to refuse to use such ‘biological material’ even when there is no close connection between the researcher and the actions of those who performed . . . [the abortion]. This duty springs from the necessity to remove oneself, within the area of one’s own research, from a gravely unjust legal situation and to affirm with clarity the value of human life” (Dignitas personae, n. 35, emphasis original).

The CDF went on to declare in the same document: “Any appearance of acceptance would in fact contribute to the growing indifference to, if not the approval of, such actions in certain medical and political circles” (n. 35).

On April 17, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), through the bishops chairing four key committees, sent an open letter to the commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration similarly urging the use of ethical cell lines in the development of Covid vaccines. The NCBC and many other groups signed on to this letter, which made a crucial point: “It is critically important that Americans have access to a vaccine that is produced ethically: no American should be forced to choose between being vaccinated against this potentially deadly virus and violating his or her conscience.” It is a duty for the Church to continue to denounce the scandal caused by unethical scientific research. The problem of tolerating or even promoting evil in science and medicine will only be resolved through strong engagement to demand moral options both by individuals and institutions.

Photo credit: Getty Images


  • Joseph Meaney

    Joseph Meaney is president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

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