Why I Signed “To Awaken Conscience”

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The statement “To Awaken Conscience” on so-called “abortion tainted” vaccines was meant to propose an ideal, not give arguments. I signed it because I agree with that ideal. But a philosopher should have reasons too, and here I wish to give them. These reasons also explain why I reject the statement recently offered by some Catholics under the auspices of the Ethics & Public Policy Center (EPPC).

In ethical questions, one has to follow the right method. Right method does not mean coming up with an argument that seems obvious to you, even if it implies that lots of thoughtful people are deluded. This is how the EPPC signatories proceed. It’s obvious to them that only the abortions in the past could be wrong; these are remotely distant. Therefore, only forward-looking effects can be ethically relevant now. And, so long as one limits oneself to using “immortalized cells,” there can be no such effects.  

So they say. I hold that every step of this reasoning is flawed. But more importantly, their method is flawed. If, on their view, past statements of the Pontifical Academy of Life, the CDF, the U.S. Bishops, and many other thoughtful “pro-life scholars,” such as those at the Charlotte Lozier Institute and the National Catholic Bioethics Center, end up being not simply mistaken but actually insanely deluded, then they’ve made a wrong turn. Their view cannot be correct, because it does not “save the appearances,” as Aristotle would say.  

And yet such is the upshot of their view, as they themselves concede. For them, it’s as insanely deluded to wish to avoid vaccines developed using cell lines derived from an abortion as it would be to avoid ancient Roman roads today for fear of cooperating with the Roman system of slavery which built them millennia ago. This is their own analogy.

They have not saved the appearances. They are unable to account for what pious, serious, and reasonable people have maintained in the past. In contrast, I start from these opinions. I see this constellation of views: that (i) vaccines are better or worse depending on their degree of involvement with abortion-derived cell lines, (ii) a vaccine with no such involvement is to be preferred over one with such involvement, (iii) it is licit to use such vaccines only under circumstances of genuine necessity, for the short term, and under protest, and also (iv) people should be free in conscience to reject vaccines with any degree of involvement if they wish. I also take seriously those pious Catholics who hear about cell lines derived from abortion and, as if instinctively, react that vaccines developed using these cell lines should be avoided.  

I then ask: what truth or thesis, if affirmed, would make these views and reactions understandable? And then I consider that my task, as a philosopher, is to investigate the grounds for that thesis. If I can’t discover grounds that establish the thesis, I wouldn’t consider myself authorized to assert there are no grounds. If I haven’t at least identified its plausibility—to “save the appearances”—I haven’t yet done my job.

To me, it is clear that the thesis that makes all those views understandable is that the continued possession and use by research labs of cell lines derived from abortions is itself seriously wrong. 

What grounds might there be for holding this? 

First, we need to clear up some confusions involving Liguori’s distinction, from his Theologia Moralis, between “formal” and “material” cooperation. That distinction is useful only when cooperation is verified, and one wants to know what sort of cooperation it is. The word co-operation means to assist (“co-”) in some present or future undertaking (“operatio”).  Therefore, Liguori’s distinction cannot apply to any action completed in the past, and, in particular, it cannot be applied to abortions done in the past. This is clear not only from the meaning of the words themselves, but also from Liguori’s cases, all of which concern present or future undertakings; for example: can a servant assist his master with his horse who is starting out on a visit to a courtesan? (see III.iii.2, qq. 59-80).

For Catholic ethicists to assure us solemnly, as some have done, that we can licitly take the “abortion tainted” vaccines, for the reason that our material cooperation with abortions in the past would be “very very remote,” is philosophical foolishness of the highest order.

Another confusion is a misunderstanding of what material “proximity” and “remoteness” mean in the Liguorian framework. Liguori, a good Aristotelian, conceives of matter as potentiality and power; whereas form is definiteness and specification. To cooperate materially in an action is to provide some power, or general instrumentality, for the action, in itself innocent and useful for many honest purposes, which, Liguori says, the bad actor as it were usurps for his own bad purposes. Matter is remote to the extent that the instrumentality is undifferentiated; matter is proximate to the extent that an instrumentality is more closely dedicated to the bad action.

A clear contemporary example for us would be how, in an abortion clinic, where some foreseeable, repeated, evil action is ongoing, the electrical company is providing only very remote matter for the action (the very general instrumentality of electric power, useful for diverse honest purposes), while the maker of an electrical circuit used solely in abortion machines is providing very proximate matter. The former has a sound complaint of usurpation of his service; the latter hardly or not at all.

Again, a Catholic ethicist who gravely asserts that because of the passage of time from the abortion which gave rise to the cell line, or the number of intervening cell divisions, any putative “material cooperation” with the abortion can be only “remote and highly attenuated”—literally does not know what he is talking about.

Nevertheless, (i) there is a different kind of materiality which is relevant to abortions completed in the past; and (ii) we can indeed cooperate formally or materially with the ongoing use of abortion-derived cell lines in labs. I consider each in turn.

(i) The materiality which is indeed relevant may be deemed materiality of physical connection to something good or bad. For this kind of materiality, proximity is contact, physical continuity, or contiguity in place, and remoteness is separation. Some examples will clarify immediately what I have in mind. The most striking examples are religious: to be close to a tabernacle is to affirm and share in its goodness; a first-class relic makes one very close to the saint but a second-class relic less so; to go on pilgrimage to the room in Nazareth where (on good authority) the angel appeared to Mary is to be near that event, because physical proximity trumps the passage of time.  

Religious examples are the most obvious here, on the principle that caro cardo salutis (“the flesh—matter—is the hinge of salvation”), and yet there are many secular instances too—wedding rings; trips returning to the same place; the meaning of a home; the meaning of the land; wanting to be photographed next to someone one admires; and so on.

One important point about the materiality of physical connection is that, as was said, it negates the passage of time—a fragment of the True Cross makes me very near the Cross, not very remote from it. Another point is that, inevitably, what we do to the physically connected objects “says” something about that to which it is connected. I know someone who, in a fit of anger, flushed her wedding ring down the toilet. That said something about her marriage, and it was not easy to take back.

Now apply this truth to cell lines derived from abortion, say, HEK-293. They are physically connected to a girl murdered in 1972, no doubt. If her remains had been preserved in plastic, they would presumably be connected with her. But isn’t the connection of continuous life even stronger? The relevant criterion of identity for a group of cells is, after all, continuity of life; cells corporately last in time precisely through cell division: therefore, HEK-293 cells show exactly the sort of physical continuity that one should look for.  

If it would be absurd to say that the incorrupt flesh of St. Bernadette of Lourdes, no doubt transformed somehow over time, establishes only an “attenuated and remote” connection with the saint, then it looks equally absurd to say the same thing, as the EPPC signatories do, about HEK-293 cells and the murdered girl.

Besides, they contradict themselves. If the cells they think are acceptable are, as they say, “immortalized,” that is, these cells keep on living, then these cells now are the same as the cells that were taken from the aborted child. One could have pointed to the cells immediately after they were cultured in 1972 and have said, truthfully, “these cells of the aborted girl are immortalized,” that is, someone considering them in 2021 will be considering the same cells. 

Now apply the principle that what we do to an object physically connected to something good or bad inevitably says something. And I submit that, it is plausible at least, to sense that the reverent disposal of HEK-293 cells would “say” what a pro-life person wishes to say about the depraved view of abortion and the depraved acts which gave rise to them, while the continued use of them for our own purposes “says”—despite any private intentions we may harbor—that we are in agreement with those depraved things, and, therefore, in agreement, too, with the “structure of sin” which is society’s, and the scientific research community’s, deliberate subordination of “unborn man to born man.”

Note that I do not need to assert any of these things with certainty. I need only say, for philosophical purposes, that they seem plausible, and that, so far, I see no grounds for anyone’s confident assertion to the contrary.

(ii) I said, also, that we can indeed cooperate formally or materially with the ongoing use of abortion-derived cell lines in labs. The reason is that, while Liguori’s distinction cannot be applied to actions completed in the past, such as past abortions, it can be applied to actions started in the past and left open. Most reciprocal relationships are like this: someone does something for me in the past, with an expectation of future reward, praise, or return, and my completing of the exchange is in the present. In such cases, I typically cooperate formally, because I share with the originator of the exchange a common concept of the joint good advanced by the exchange—or at least I would reasonably be understood to be acting on that understanding.

When, in 1972, a murdered unborn girl was delivered to Alex Van Ep’s lab in the Netherlands, he should have proceeded exactly as if any murdered human being was brought to him, which would be to look for its reverent burial. But he depravedly took samples from the murdered girl’s body, separated the cells, cultured them, and exposed them to a viral agent, which effectively turned them into ever-growing cancer cells. Thus the “immortalization” which is apparently so endearing to the EPPC signatories. You can read all about it in his explanation to an FDA meeting, here (pp. 73ff). 

The point is, there are several depraved acts, for which Van Ep was responsible, following the abortion. Now consider that at the FDA meeting, Van Ep also refers to the service he has provided for the scientific community. Other researchers, he says, were experimenting on fetal cells at the time for therapeutic purposes, to find fetal cell models of cancer, but his purposes were basic research, and, he is pleased to say, his lab’s concoction of HEK-293 cells has turned out to be such a contribution.   

But surely, then, Van Ep’s production of the cell line, and the eventual marketing and sale of the cells (see HEK293.com), is an incomplete action in the past, the first half of a reciprocal exchange, which is completed now in the present by anyone who purchases and uses those cells, and which amounts to formal cooperation in Van Ep’s depraved purposes and acts.

The EPPC signatories seem to concede as much. “Crucially,” they say, “the abortion was not performed for the sake of providing biological materials to researchers.” But why should this be “crucial” to their analysis when the abortion, they say, is so “attenuated and remote”? I suggest it is because they sense that, in that case, there would indeed be an open, reciprocal relationship, which the present act of using HEK-293 cells would complete. They simply fail to note that it’s Van Ep’s actions, not the abortions, which implicate researchers who use HEK-293.

Obviously, if the continued possession and use of cell lines derived from abortion is illicit, then we have a prima facie responsibility to separate oneself from products developed using these cell lines, including vaccines—which admittedly can be overruled, but only on the conditions already explained clearly by the 2005 PAD and CDF statement.

Again, for philosophical purposes, I do not need to assert any of these things with certainty. I need only say that they seem plausible—they go far toward “saving the appearances”—and that, so far, I see no grounds for anyone’s confident assertion to the contrary—say, in a public declaration which was apparently designed to contradict the guidance of some U.S. Bishops.

On this last point, note that three days after the EPPC declaration, one of the signatories, Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, was explaining his motivation in Crux. “You’ve got American Catholics [bishops?] telling Catholics all over the world that receiving the vaccine is a ‘lesser evil.’”—And yet what could be wrong with that, if it is true?—Well, Fr. Austriaco says, “The Philippines is pro-life by constitution, and profoundly Catholic…No one wants to participate in any evil, so when you categorize this as a ‘lesser evil,’ what happens is that vaccine hesitancy skyrockets.”  

His view seems to be that even those who believe this truth should not speak up, so as not to hinder general vaccinations. Note that Fr. Nicanor is the same priest who has argued that those who, for ethical reasons, choose not to receive the vaccine should be placed under house arrest until they relent. And apparently he thinks the instincts of pious Filipinos should be given no sway.

But why am I speaking out? Because in conscience we must give witness to what we regard as true. Because it is important to assert that pro-life people have a moral basis in conscience (and not simply fear, distrust of authorities, or self-interest) to refuse the current vaccines—if they judge that the necessity is not genuine, or that they won’t be able to break free of taking like or worse products repeatedly in the future. Because it is best for the Church, and for society in the long run, that these reasonable doubts and truthful concerns be given full play, not be overridden. Because the EPPC signatories, through outrageous overreach, eviscerated any grounds for principled concern.

[Photo Credit: Shutterstock]

Michael Pakaluk

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Michael Pakaluk is a philosopher who lives in Hyattsville, Maryland, with his wife and their eight children. His most recent book is Mary's Voice in the Gospel According to St. John (Regnery Gateway).

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