Archbishop’s astonishing vaccine claim
Australia's most powerful Catholic Archbishop Anthony Fisher has sparked outrage after suggesting the COVID-19 vaccine could create an "ethical dilemma" for Catholics who may refuse to take it because it uses a cell line from an aborted foetus in the 1970s.
The Catholic leader has outlined his "disappointment" in correspondence with Prime Minister Scott Morrison that has sparked fears it could encourage Catholics to refuse to take the vaccine on religious grounds.
He also complains that if the COVID-19 vaccine is linked to "no jab, no pay" rules that Catholic families could lose access to family payments if they refuse to vaccinate their children.
The letter is co-signed by the Anglican Archbishop of Sydney Glenn Davies and the Greek Orthodox Archbishop Makarios.
While noting he was "praying for a vaccine that might bring an end to the pandemic", Archbishop Fisher warned the Oxford University vaccine that Australia has signed a letter of intent to purchase was not the right choice.
The religious leaders are urging the Prime Minister to choose another vaccine instead.
"Some will have no ethical problem with using tissue from electively aborted foetuses for medical purposes,'' the letter states
"Others may regard the use of a cell-line derived from an abortion performed back in the 1970s as now sufficiently removed from the abortion itself to be excusable. (But) those troubled by this may either acquiesce to the social and political pressure to use the vaccine or conscientiously object to the use by themselves or their dependants."
Since the 1960s, cell lines from aborted foetuses have been used to manufacture vaccines, including current vaccines against rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis A, and shingles to treat haemophilia, rheumatoid arthritis, and cystic fibrosis.
At least five of the candidate COVID-19 vaccines being trialled on humans use around the world use one of two human foetal cell lines: HEK-293, a kidney cell line widely used in research that comes from a foetus aborted in about 1972; and another cell line known as PER. C6.
"The Commonwealth has chosen to throw its lot in with one that makes use of a cell-line (HEK293) cultured from an electively aborted human foetus,'' the Archbishop's letter states.
"It has been reported that if the vaccine is adopted for use in Australia it will be 'mandatory' or 'as mandatory as possible.'
"Please be assured that our churches are not opposed to vaccination, as we have said, we are praying one may be found."
But government sources have privately raised concerns that the Catholic Church has not raised similar concerns over many other vaccines that also use the same cell line.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister told news.com.au that he understood the issues being raised.
"The Prime Minister respects the views of Australia's many religious communities and understands the issues that are being raised," the spokesman said.
"The Government is investing in research and technology that we hope will produce a range of vaccines that will be suitable for as many Australians as possible.
"Many vaccines in development do not contain these cell lines, including the UQ vaccine candidate which the government is already supporting with $5 million.
"The Government will always follow the medical advice and will be encouraging as widespread use of the vaccine or vaccines as is possible."
Archbishop Fischer first complained about the Oxford vaccine on Facebook on August 20. It followed US religious leaders also raising concerns over the vaccine.
"Friends, many of you have been writing to me with questions about a COVID-19 vaccine,'' he wrote.
"This week's announcement that a Letter of Intent has been signed between our government and AstraZeneca for a vaccine raises some important ethical questions because the vaccine in question makes use of a cell line cultured from an electively aborted human foetus.
"Whether this vaccine is successful or not, it is important that the government does not create an ethical dilemma for people."
Former Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's wife Lucy Turnbull responded on Twitter that she was "flabbergasted" by the letter.
Immunologist and Nobel prize winner Peter Doherty said he wasn't fussed by the controversy.
"I wasn't aware it was using a foetal cell line. It doesn't bother me, personally, if it bothers him, fine,'' he told ABC TV.
"I will stay out of that one, I'm not Catholic. That may be an issue for Catholics. I'm not qualified to speak on it. Scientifically, there's no issue."
Deputy chief medical officer Dr Nick Coatsworth said Australians should be reassured that the Oxford vaccine will be manufactured to the highest ethical standards.
"This is one of the world's leading universities. We can have every faith the way they have manufactured the vaccine has been against the highest of ethical standards internationally,'' he said.
Labor's treasury spokesman Jim Chalmers said as a Catholic he was happy to take the vaccine and encourage others to do so.
"I'm not that keen to get into whether or not they're unhelpful. My personal view, the more Australians that get vaccinated, the better. We need to make sure it's got broad coverage. That's how we protect each other and how we protect the economy as well."
Originally published as Archbishop's astonishing vaccine claim