The Church and The Vaccine

We no longer have any need of a god to explain what is no longer mysterious. What believers will do now that their faith is optional and private … is a matter for them. We should not care. As long as they make no further attempt to inculcate religion by any form of coercion.

Christopher Hitchens, God is Not Great

Photo by cottonbro on Pexels.com

Spoiler alert: I am not sympathetic to religion as a source of ethics here.

In mid-2020, concern was expressed by archbishops of Sydney Catholic, Anglican and Greek Orthodox churches regarding the use of cell lines in vaccine development that originated with a human female embryo that was aborted in 1973.

Free speech is important, but given that vaccine development is hard and that many (perhaps 95%) vaccines fail in the late stages of human trials, it really matters whether this is a reasonable ethical concern.

Granted, the conversation has been more nuanced than media headlines have often suggested, as can be noted by listening to the ABC’s Religion and Ethics Report podcast.

But to what extent does this nuance translate to “the flock”?

We would do well to recall that the flock has in the past been told that the use of condoms was a sin. The Catholic Church’s stance may have moderated a little on this matter, but just think of the calamity that this one, misguided teaching has unleashed, especially upon African adherents to the faith, when AIDS was still a death sentence, compounded by poverty and unchecked population growth.

For this alone, the Catholic Church should be universally reviled, once again having proven its irrelevance to modern life and at the same time, how dangerous it still can be.

We should also remember that a mere few hundred years ago, it was much much more dangerous, when we were collectively more dim-witted and willing to cede more power to it.

That must never again be allowed happen.

Rejecting a perfectly good vaccine candidate is a kick in the guts for the work being done by the Oxford University team and others worldwide.

Suppose it is the most effective vaccine, or less likely but not impossible, the only one that works?

If it appears that I have unduly focussed on the Catholic Church, that’s only because it makes such an easy target. Other denominations do not have a squeaky clean history either.

It’s important to understand that all ways of knowing are not equal, especially in this context.

Science and reason, not faith, are required when thinking about the fitness of a vaccine and its development process.

None of this is to say that ethical concerns don’t matter here. Of course they do. But ethics must be based upon well-thought out principles and a focus upon consequences, not ill-conceived, brittle rules, and certainly never by thinking that tradition dictates truth.

A comment by Nobel laureate and immunologist Peter Doherty in this ABC News article sums it up for me:

If [Archbishop Fisher] finds that objectionable it’s his perfect right to say so and it’s our perfect right to take absolutely no notice of him.

source: ABC News

And, it’s not as if there are no other concerns…

For example, what about animal testing in vaccine development, including for COVID-19?

As someone who thinks that no-one, human or non-human, should be used as a means to an end, it would be an understatement to say that I am ambivalent about testing vaccine candidates on animals.

But, I’ve written about such dilemmas elsewhere; there is a spectrum of concern here…

I still wear boots with suede strips that I owned before going vegan. Suede is soft skin torn from the underside of some poor dead animal. I can’t help that animal now, but every time I wear those boots, I am reminded of my error…

…and, not wishing to add insult to injury, I choose not to discard them while they are still useful, perhaps somewhat akin to the way some of our ancestors are thought to have paid their respects to the animals they killed and consumed. Needless to say, my clothing purchasing decisions now incorporate vegan principles.

In a similar way, perhaps the religious objectors to the use of a decades-old cell line could chill out, just a little, and take a similar approach.

The cell line from the embryo that was aborted 47 years ago has led to great good (an unintentional means to an end), for which we should be thankful. It is unlikely to have suffered in any meaningful way.

If only the same could be said for the animals we routinely kill en masse, because we are collectively failing to tip the balance towards a plant-based diet.

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