Moral Culpability: Vaccines and Cheese & Crackers (Updated)


There’s been a lot of buzz for a long time over vaccinations, and some Catholic parents have chosen not to vaccinate over a fear of being morally complicit if they use vaccines that were developed using a line of stem cells derived from abortions done 40+ years ago. The Vatican considered the use of these vaccines and has not determined it to be immoral to make use of them. Catholic ethicists have also studied the situation and determined that parents have a moral obligation to protect their children from diseases that can very well be deadly.

The reasoning here is that, though the origins involve children who were aborted more than 40 years ago, the benefits of the vaccines far outweigh this. As the article at the second link says:

As for receiving benefits from past immoralities, that is a common feature of our fallen world. Human history is filled with injustice. Acts of wrongdoing in the past regularly redound to the benefit of descendants who had no hand in the original crimes. It would be a high standard indeed if we were to require all benefits that we receive in the present to be completely free of every immorality of the past.

Even in the Vatican document itself, the final footnote discusses the importance of herd immunity, especially for German measles, which can infect a pregnant woman with Congenital Rubella unbeknownst to her (and with very little contact, to boot):

15 This is particularly true in the case of vaccination against German measles, because of the danger of Congenital Rubella Syndrome. This could occur, causing grave congenital malformations in the foetus, when a pregnant woman enters into contact, even if it is brief, with children who have not been immunized and are carriers of the virus. In this case, the parents who did not accept the vaccination of their own children become responsible for the malformations in question, and for the subsequent abortion of foetuses, when they have been discovered to be malformed.

In these situations, cooperation is extremely remote, and parents who make use of these vaccines (for which there is no completely moral substitute) are not guilty of material cooperation. There are a lot of good things about herd immunity, which protects not just the people who are vaccinated, but also those who cannot be vaccinated for one reason or another.

And so, I did not sin when I vaccinated my children with the MMR vaccine, because it protected them from dangerous diseases, as well as protecting people around them who may not have been able to get the vaccinations themselves.


Now, on to the cheese and crackers part of this post.

A few years ago, Children of God of Life brought up a story about a handful of companies that contracted with Senomyx to do taste-testing of their products. The ethical dilemma came up when it was discovered that some of the taste-testing is being done using stem cell lines derived from the same two aborted children as were used to develop cultures for vaccines. I wrote about it on my now-inactive blog:

The idea that a company would do such a thing was so repulsive that I decided I would boycott Pepsico, Nestle, and Kraft Foods – the three companies cited as having ties with Senomyx.

PepsiCo eventually made it clear that they wouldn’t allow this kind of taste-testing to be done, but Kraft did not end their contract until late last Summer. (A fact that I only just learned today, by searching here for updates.)

But I am still interested in a discussion/debate/conversation about this subject. As the West loses its grip on a steady morality and slides more and more into the paradoxical absolute relativism we find ourselves in, I’m sure more and more situations will arise where we must think carefully and logically about how culpable we are for our cooperation in various activities.

So here’s the question to discuss (and, yes, let’s please discuss this):

Is it material cooperation, and therefore immoral, to buy products from a company that allows taste-testing to be done in this way? Or is this so remote that someone would not be held morally responsible for it? How far removed must an action be, and what kinds of actions are acceptably remote?

Like the ethical paper I linked to and quoted mentioned, we’d be hard-pressed to find much of anything in this world that hasn’t come as a result of an immoral action in the past. A great deal of the United States itself is a result of the oppression of Native American Indians and the making and breaking of treaties as our government touted Manifest Destiny and shoved Indians into reservations on the most worthless land we could find. So at some point, we stop being culpable for the sins of the past and the way they benefit us today.

Where is the line drawn? WHEN is the line drawn?

Note: I am not interested in discussing any supposed connections of vaccines with autism. This is only focusing on remote versus material cooperation

Update: Simcha Fisher has written about this in the past. I’ve always been choosy about what company I decide to personally boycott. If I refused to buy any product that was on any pro-life or Catholic boycott list, I’d be naked, hungry, and homeless.

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