Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Tainted vaccines: a reply to Copenhagan and Wolfe

It difficult to keep track of all the different hares being started in the debate about the liceity of the COVID-19 vaccines, and this is not an attempt to do so. It is a specific reply to two short treatments of the problem of vaccines developed, tested, or manufactured using cells taken from (or descended from those taken from) an infant who had been killed by abortion.

These treatments are those by Fr. Michael Copenhagen, here, and by Fr Phil Wolfe, here.

The agument

Both priests base their arguments on the duty of returning stolen property. The cells of the aborted infant are clearly not the lawful posession of the institutions or researchers making use of them. As noted here, the degree of use made of these cells in the manufacturing process varies, and these authors appear to be principally addressing the case in which they are used most comprehensively; for the sake of argument let that be the test case. Their claim, then, is that since it is wrong to acquire, use, or benefit from stolen property, then it is wrong to take the vaccine; the seriousness of the wrongdoing is compounded by the kind of theft at issue, one which involves the killing of the victim and a lack of respect for his mortuary remains.

Fr Copenhagan:

The recipient is an immediate participant in the commission of continuous theft of human remains obtained through deliberate killing, their desecration through exploitation and trafficking, as well as ultimate omission to respectfully bury them.

Fr Wolfe:

Human tissue obtained in such a manner is not an object of possession, and can never be an object of possession, irregardless if they are producing vaccines for every disease on Earth. The evil use of fetal tissue for someone’s good cannot justify the situation: it is a screaming violation of justice.

Response to the Argument

1. Is this principle of restitition really at issue? No.

The application of the duty of restitituion to this problem is a surprising one. One might think that, if abortion is morally tantamount to the murder of the innocent, the possession of the victim's mortal remains is the least of the problems one is faced with. It is cetainly true that these remains should be respectfully interred, but the question of restitution as such does not really arise, since it seems extremely unlikely that there are any identifiable near relations who would be willing to receive the stolen property. 

If, again, as I would prefer to say in accordance with the legal tradition of England and Wales, human tissue is never an 'object of possession', and cannot be bought or sold, then the question is not actually one of theft, but simply of the disrespectful taking and using of human issue. This is a moral issue, but if separated from the question of murder, it is not a very serious one. 

Suppose a thief entered my house and collected some living cells of mine from a bandage I had been using, or a hair follicle in my comb, or cheek cells on my toothbrush, and made off with them in order to develop a line of cells in which to breed viruses for research purposes. I should be entitled to complain, certainly, but as violations of my bodily integrity go, it is at the lower end of the scale.

2. Is the duty not to benefit from stolen property absolute? No.

Suppose we conceded to Copenhagan and Wolfe that the problem is one of stolen property, the question then is whether the duty not to benefit from stolen property is absolute. Especially in light of the fact that it is for practical purposes impossible to find anyone to whom restitution could be made in this case, does the fact that an item has been stolen at some time in the past mean that one is prohibited from making use of it today?

The answer is clearly 'no'. It is perfectly true that stolen goods, even when bought in good faith, must be restored to their rightful owner, but this principle is clearly not intended to apply beyond a certain practical limit. The owner of land who finds treasure buried by a highwayman two hundred years ago is not obliged to trace the descendents of the original owners and return it to them. (In another quirk of the law of England and Wales, it actually belongs to the Crown: though not because it had been stolen, just because it was buried with the intention of recovery.) 

The suggestion that, if it is clearly impossible to trace the original owners, then it would be morally impermissible for anyone to benefit from the treasure in any way, is, I'm sorry to say, ludicrous.

It so happens that I recently discovered that the house I have owned for more than a decade was built on land taken into private ownership under the UK Enclosures Act of 1773. I regard this Act, and even more the way it was applied, as thorougly unjust. Does that mean I should not live in it? What should I do to it? Burn it down? I think many Americans and Canadians have an even more pressing problem, occupying land once belonging to native peoples.

An aristocratic English lady who inherited property owned by a religious order until the Dissolution of the Monasteries, before becoming a Catholic, actually brought her problem to the Pope of the time, in a state of some distress. The property was not only stolen, after all, but stolen sacrilegiously and with all manner of circumstantial injustices. He (Leo XIII, I think) told her what anyone endowed with common sense would tell her: calm down! It was a long time ago. [I believe I read this anecdote in Faith and Fortune by Madeleine Beard but I can't lay my hands on my copy right now.]

The Problem with Tainted Vaccines

It was not my wish to minimise the seriousness of abortion in the forgoing remarks. On the contrary, I think that the problem with the argument made by Copenhagan and Wolfe is precisely that it distracts our attention from the real problem, the unspeakable crime of abortion, and focuses it instead on the comparitively minor issue of historic theft. 

It is very surprising that Copenhagan and Wolfe do not focus in the conventional way on the degree of cooperation the potential beneficiaries of the vaccines have with the abortion, the alternatives open to them, and the degree of inconvenience involved in refusing vaccines tainted in this way. I can only assume that their alternative approach is an attempt to circumvent the extremely well-trodden path taken by the Manualist tradition in dealing with such cases, and attempt to create a direct route to connect the end-user of the vaccine with something intrinsically evil.

Since this attempt, in my view, fails, we are forced back to the traditional way of analysing the problem. Clearly the conscientious end-user need not intend any statement of support for abortion by accepting the vaccine, and equally clearly the vaccination is only remotely connected with the original abortion. The question is not, then, a black and white matter of intrinsic evil, of actions which can never be done regardless of the consequences, but one in which the closeness of the connection, the seriousness of the original crime, and the 'inconvenience' (in the traditional terminology) of not using it. Remote material cooperation with evil can be licit if avoiding it is seriously difficult.

It is not out of softness or lack of zeal that our predecessors in the Faith accepted this conclusion. It is the only possible conclusion one can draw. Refusing to do intrinsically evil actions will occasionally require heroism, but it is always possible. Avoiding all cooperation with evil, even remote material cooperation, in simply impossible. I cannot vote, pay taxes, use the internet, open a bank account, or patronise a large shop, without remote material cooperation with evil: abortion, usury, unjust wars, pornography, slave labour, and so on. We must protest, of course, but even our protests can lose their force if we are protesting about everything.

Just to focus on the world of medicine, the case is often raised of benefitting from Nazi experimnents. Much closer to home, however, and more perhaps grist to the Copenhagan and Wolfe mill, we might ask about the work of the 'resurrection men' who for several centuries supplied medical students with subjects for dissention from freshly dug gaves, especially if the hangman ever slackened in his work. The whole of modern medicine is based on the knowledge built up on the basis of the study of these unfortunates. The very pervasiveness of the problem, however, brings its own, unfortunate, solution. Not benefitting from this work is impossible, and we are not obliged to do the impossible.

The degree of cooperation with abortion involved in using tainted vaccines is greater, and the original crime more serious, than the degree of cooperation with grave-robbing involved in using doctors educated in a body of knowledge based on that crime. Furthermore, avoiding this cooperation is not so comprehensively impossible. This is true and I urge readers to take the issue seriously. Nevertheless, it is clearly not the case that taking the vaccine is intrinsically evil, and its licitness will vary according to the circumstances of the end-user.

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