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As the COVID-19 pandemic stretches into its second year, with new variants threatening the recent progress made in reducing case counts, every effort is needed to speed up vaccinations so that there is no Year 3 to a scourge that has already taken too many lives.

Unfortunately, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops is working at cross purposes with public-health authorities in this regard. By calling on Catholics to choose the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines over those made by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson, the CCCB is adding to the confusion of Canadians faced with contradictory messages concerning inoculation.

Instead of seeking to provide moral clarity for Catholics, the CCCB appears to be exploiting a public-health crisis to advance a crusade against abortion by asserting that the COVID-19 vaccines produced by Pfizer and Moderna are less ethically compromised than the others because they rely less on “abortion-derived cell lines.”

The Pfizer and Moderna shots, the CCCB said this week in a note to the faithful, “can be morally acceptable for Catholics to receive since the connection to abortion is extremely remote.” The AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, in contrast, “utilized abortion-derived cell lines in their development, production and confirmatory testing.” When given a choice, it added, Catholics should thus opt for Pfizer or Moderna doses over the other two.

The CCCB’s intervention drew a stiff rebuke from politicians in Quebec, a province in which the Catholic Church’s influence once loomed large. Health Minister Christian Dubé took to Twitter to “vigorously denounce” the bishops and stress the “effectiveness” of all four approved COVID-19 vaccines, although the CCCB did not specifically call into question the efficacy of the AstraZeneca vaccine that Quebec, unlike most provinces, has chosen to administer to seniors. Quebec Liberal Leader Dominique Anglade called the CCCB’s move “irresponsible.”

Alberta Premier Jason Kenney, a devout Catholic, struck a more conciliatory tone. “I do know that some people do have ethical concerns about, for example, AstraZeneca and other vaccines that are created from fetal stem-cell lines,” he said in a Facebook video this week. “I’ve been clear with our health officials here that people must have a choice partly to reflect their conscientious concerns that they may have on those ethical issues.”

Still, the CCCB’s intervention is problematic on multiple levels. First, most Canadians do not currently have, and likely will not be offered, a choice among the various vaccines being used in this country. Pfizer and Moderna vaccines account for 7.5 million of the eight million doses Canada is expected to have received by the end of March. The other 500,000 doses come from AstraZeneca and are to be administered according to differing protocols in different provinces. No Johnson & Johnson vaccines are expected in Canada until the second quarter of 2021.

As the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines become more widely available in this country, however, any move to accommodate Catholics could create worrying bottlenecks and frustrate our collective goal of reaching herd immunity by late summer. It could also lead to demands from other religious groups or individuals to “choose” their vaccine. Some people deeply opposed to abortion may refuse to be vaccinated based on the CCCB’s edict.

The truth is, all four vaccines rely to some extent on cell lines taken decades ago from aborted fetuses and reproduced in laboratory settings countless times since. For years, the Pope has called on pharmaceutical companies to stop this practice. And in December, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued its own statement clarifying it is morally acceptable for Catholics to receive a vaccine that relies on abortion-derived cell lines, since “the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal co-operation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive.”

At the same time, however, it called on pharmaceutical companies and governmental health agencies to “offer ethically acceptable vaccines that do not create problems of conscience” for Catholics.

The Vatican’s statement was seized on by Catholic bishops in the United States, with individual dioceses issuing sometimes contradictory directives to parishioners. Many of their messages seemed to suggest only Catholics at risk of becoming seriously ill from COVID-19 should agree to take the AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson vaccines when no others are available. Texas bishop Joseph Strickland was unbending, however, tweeting: “The fact remains that ANY vaccine available today involves using murdered children before they could even be born. I renew my pledge. … I will not extend my life by USING murdered children.”

Instead of providing more nuanced guidance for Canadian Catholics, the CCCB’s statement only stirs the pot. It should know better than to play politics during a deadly pandemic.

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