“The New Zealand Catholic bishops are strongly urging everyone in Aotearoa New Zealand to get a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available.”
The Nathaniel Centre for Bioethics, an agency of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops, is producing information to communicate the Bishops’ support for the COVID-19 immunisation and vaccine programme. The following information has been provided from the Nathaniel Centre and it is available on their website.
Vaccination against the COVID-19 virus is regarded as a critical step in overcoming the coronavirus pandemic. New Zealand has now begun rolling out its public vaccination programme using the two-dose Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.
The New Zealand Catholic bishops are strongly urging everyone in Aotearoa New Zealand to get a COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available.
Unfortunately, there has been some false information circulating about the safety, efficacy and moral acceptability of COVID-19 vaccines.
The Nathaniel Centre has produced information, available on its website, that seeks to provide accurate information based on the Catholic moral tradition and up-to-date science. The information is republished here.
1.The lethal dangers posed by COVID-19 make vaccination a vital part of the strategy for living with the virus. Getting vaccinated protects others as well as ourselves. While it is not mandatory, it is an act of solidarity that upholds our duty to the common good of society, including those who are most vulnerable to the virus.
2. Being vaccinated against COVID-19 does not imply moral endorsement of the vaccine production process or complicity with abortion.
3. There have not been any compromises made in testing the safety and effectiveness of the COVID-19 vaccines, despite the shortened development time. The vaccine offered in New Zealand has been subject to rigorous standards of testing and has been approved by Medsafe – the NZ Medicines and Medical Devices Safety Authority.
Who can get a vaccine?
The Ministry of Health website notes that ‘everyone in New Zealand is eligible for a free COVID-19 vaccination, regardless of visa or citizenship status. Any information collected will not be used for immigration purposes.’
Some people are more at risk of catching COVID-19 (for example border workers and their families) and others (people with certain pre-existing health conditions) are more vulnerable to the consequences of having COVID-19. These groups will be given priority access to vaccinations.
It usually takes years to produce new vaccines. Has safety been compromised?
No, safety has not been compromised. The approved COVID-19 vaccine has undergone the normal safety trials. The process has been accelerated by governments and companies sharing the financial risk of developing the vaccine and a level of global collaboration between researchers that has never happened previously. In some countries, including New Zealand, the medicines regulators have allowed the vaccine manufacturer to submit its data on a rolling basis rather than in fixed stages, which has also sped up the approval process.
What about adverse effects?
As with all medicines, vaccines are not completely risk-free. The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine has a safety record comparable with other (non-COVID-19) vaccines in use. The data collected to date shows that most adverse reactions to the COVID-19 vaccine are ‘minor’ – similar to what some people experience when taking the flu vaccine. While the possibility of developing a more serious reaction exists, the risk of developing a serious and even fatal illness from COVID-19 is many times greater than the risk of developing a rare disorder after vaccination. Anyone with concerns about being vaccinated should discuss them with their healthcare practitioner.
“We reject the false information circulating on the internet and elsewhere that claims vaccines should not be used. Vaccines work, and they protect against a wide range of illnesses.”
Cardinal John Dew
What about people with allergies or underlying health conditions?
Taking a vaccine always involves a risk-benefit decision. Not everyone can be vaccinated. For now, the vaccine will not be given to children under 16 years of age. Those with compromised immune systems or severe allergies need to have a benefit-risk conversation with their healthcare practitioner.
“The COVID-19 pandemic is the crisis that marks our time, a crisis from which we can either emerge better or worse. It has exposed the inequalities and injustices that threaten the well-being, security and lives of all, and exacerbated a series of interconnected crises – economic, ecological, political and social – that disproportionately affect the poorest and most vulnerable.”
Vatican COVID-19 Commission
What is herd immunity and how does it work?
People who, for health reasons, cannot be vaccinated, will still experience a significant degree of protection if they live in communities where the majority have been vaccinated – the people who have been vaccinated form a protective shield around them. This is called herd immunity. For this shield to be effective, a high percentage of the community needs to be vaccinated.
Is there a moral duty to be vaccinated?
Vaccination for COVID-19 will not be mandatory in New Zealand. However, as noted by the Vatican COVID-19 Commission, refusal of the vaccine may constitute a risk to others. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has stated in its recent document on COVID-19 vaccines that, ‘from the ethical point of view, the morality of vaccination depends not only on the duty to protect one’s own health, but also on the duty to pursue the common good … especially to protect the weakest and most exposed.’
Is there a risk that some of the vaccines will manipulate human DNA?
No, this is not scientifically correct. The mRNA in the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine does not affect human DNA for two reasons; because mRNA cannot enter the nucleus of our cells, the place where our DNA is housed, and because mRNA cannot integrate with or alter human DNA anyway.
What links are there between COVID-19 vaccines and abortion?
The production of certain vaccines requires the use of continuously replicating cell lines, developed in laboratories, to grow the vaccine. While some use animal cell lines, others use human cell lines, started 40 or 50 years ago, with tissue sourced from an aborted fetus. These cell lines are accurately described as having a ‘very distant’ historical link to abortion.While some of the tests used to confirm the quality of the Pfizer/BioNTech messenger RNA (mRNA) vaccine involve a human cell line with a very distant historical link to abortion, the production of this vaccine does not require the use of human cell lines.
Catholic teaching opposes abortion under all circumstances. However, in a note on vaccines published in 2017, the Pontifical Academy for Life has stated that ‘the wrong in the moral sense lies in the actions [of those involved in the original abortion] not in the vaccines or the material itself’. This means that the use of such vaccines does not, in itself, signify any sort of cooperation with voluntary abortion.
In late December 2020 the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reiterated that the ‘grave danger’ of spreading COVID-19 outweighs moral concerns related to abortion. The Congregation concludes ‘all [COVID-19] vaccinations recognised as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience’.
The Nathaniel Centre – the New Zealand Catholic Bioethics Centre – was established in 1999 as an agency of the New Zealand Catholic Bishops’ Conference. The centre seeks to ‘bring the light of the Gospel and the moral tradition of the Catholic Church to issues in bioethics’.
The Nathaniel Centre is one of three branches of Te Kupenga – Catholic Leadership Institute, alongside two other Catholic agencies – the Catholic Theological College and the National Centre for Religious Studies.
The Nathaniel Centre team with Dr John Kleinsman as director, and Dr Claire Amos as senior researcher, is based in Wellington.
What is bioethics?
Bioethics studies the ethical issues that arise from scientific advances, especially in biology and medicine. The term ‘bioethics’ originated in the academic world in the early 1970s. Catholic bioethics was quick to develop because the Church already had a large body of bioethical thought on a range of issues.
The Church’s concern for healing, and its longstanding involvement in caring for the sick and dying, means it has a rich tradition of reflection and wisdom to bring to the study of bioethics. Catholic bioethics is distinctive for the way it has its foundations both in faith and human reason. A Catholic approach is underpinned by a strong belief in the sanctity of life and the dignity of the human person.
‘All life has inestimable value, even the weakest and most vulnerable, the sick, the old, the unborn and the poor, are masterpieces of God’s creation, made in his own image, destined to live forever, and deserving of the utmost reverence and respect.’ – Pope Francis, message to Catholics participating in annual Day for Life, 2013.
The idea of a New Zealand Catholic Bioethics Centre came about during the 1990s in response to growing concerns about the need for a Catholic voice in the ethical, moral, legal, political, spiritual and pastoral conversations stimulated by a range of technological developments in the fields of science, medicine and assisted reproduction. Having received various representations from Catholic individuals and groups over some time, the New Zealand Catholic Bishops Conference established and opened the Nathaniel Centre on 1 May 1999. The Rev Dr Michael McCabe – then recently returned from Rome and the USA where he had studied bioethics – was appointed the new agency’s first director.
For the Nathaniel Centre, the context of bioethics is pastoral, because the ethical issues arising in healthcare and the life sciences reflect the realities of people’s lives. This is reflected above all in the choice of the Centre’s name. (See below.)
In recent times, the Nathaniel Centre has been to the forefront of the euthanasia and abortion debates. Staff have also prepared submissions and published research over the years on a wide variety of topics including climate change, vaccines, IVF, surrogacy, embryo and stem-cell research, genetic modification, pre-natal testing, organ donation, drug reform, research ethics, suicide and living wills.
The centre publishes The Nathaniel Report three times a year featuring topical articles on a range of ethical issues. The report is sent to all MPs and every Catholic parish and secondary college in New Zealand as well as to interested lay people.
The red flowers of the pohutukawa appear in December each year. At Cape Reinga on the northern tip of New Zealand there is a lone Pohutukawa, thought to be 800 years old. In Māori tradition the spirits of the dying travel to Cape Reinga where they slip down the roots of the sacred Pohutukawa into the sea, to journey back to their origin in Hawaiki. Nathaniel Knoef was born on 12 December 1998, as the pohutukawa flowers were beginning to appear. He died just weeks later, on 2 February 1999, as the same flowers faded, giving way to the seed from which new pohutukawa would grow.
At his birth Nathaniel was diagnosed with incurable health problems and in the few weeks of his life his parents faced many ethical issues associated with his care. Their story highlighted the need ordinary people have for access to support in dealing with the growing number of ethical issues that surround the gift of life.
The naming of New Zealand’s national Catholic Bioethics Centre in honour of Nathaniel is a sign of the centre’s commitment to those who are most vulnerable in the complex ethical situations which develop in their lives.