“These are my principles, and if you don’t like them… well, I have others,” said Groucho Marx. In the land down under, many are wishing the Catholic Church would be so flexible, especially as it relates to a recent ecumenical ethical development. Australian Catholic, Anglican, and Greek Orthodox archbishops authored a joint letter on August 20 petitioning the Australian government to carefully consider a coronavirus vaccine deal. Catholic Archbishop of Sydney Anthony Fisher, Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Glenn Davies, and Greek Orthodox Archbishop of Australia Makarios Griniezakis urged the ruling center-right Liberal Party to reconsider an agreement with British-based AstraZeneca that would make Australia one of the first nations to receive an Oxford University Covid-19 vaccine, albeit one that relies on “ethically tainted” research.
The controversy stems from the fact that the cell line for the research was originally derived from cells grown in tissue culture taken from an electively aborted female fetus in the 1970s. The ecumenical letter thus demanded the Australian government refrain from making the Oxford vaccine mandatory or punishing those who decline it on religious grounds, and ensure a different, “ethically uncontroversial” vaccine also be made available. The bishops clearly stated, “Please be assured that our churches are not opposed to vaccination: as we have said, we are praying that one may be found. But we also pray that it be one that is not ethically tainted.”
Responses to this ecclesial request accused church leaders of irresponsibility. Monash University head of microbiology Professor Stephen Turner told the Sydney Morning Herald that the human embryonic kidney 293 cells used in the Oxford vaccine research had been widely used in research for decades. “They’re not collecting recent fetal tissue and using those. These are cell lines that have been around for years,” he said. In other words, don’t worry, the female baby was killed a long time ago, and we’ve normalized using her biological remains for science, so no big deal. In a similar vein, Peter Doherty, Nobel laureate and professor of immunology, said that “scientifically there’s no issue…. It’s our perfect right to take absolutely no intelligence of him” (Archbishop Fisher, that is). Because scientific progress is de facto synonymous with ethics?