If people buy these nail clippers, would they be doing something immoral? Would they somehow be cooperating in the evil of murdering Dahmer? Would they be contributing to a “culture of prison murder”? Are your nail clippers now forever morally tainted by virtue of the fact that you first tested them on cloned Dahmer nail clippings? Should you destroy your stock of clippers, burn the blueprints, and try to forget the design? Are people morally obligated to walk around with long fingernails and toenails rather than buy your clippers, since they have no alternative products to buy?
The example is, of course, ridiculous, but intentionally so. For it allows us to consider some important moral principles without being influenced by the emotions generated by current moral and political controversies. Dahmer is (unlike, say, an unborn child) about as unsympathetic a character as can be imagined. But it was still gravely wrong to murder him. True, if the state had executed him, that would not have been wrong, but the state has the moral right to do that. Private individuals do not, and when they usurp the power of the state in this way, they are guilty of murder. So, we must firmly oppose such vigilantism.
All the same, people would not be doing anything wrong if they bought your nail clippers. For one thing, it would be ridiculous to suggest that doing so would entail “cooperating” with Dahmer’s murder. The murder happened almost thirty years ago, and had nothing to do with your nail clippers. People’s refusing to buy them would do nothing to prevent the murder, which is a fait accompli. Nor does the contingent very remote connection with the murder magically generate some sort of intrinsic moral taint in the nail clippers. Considered just by themselves, the nail clippers are morally neutral, and they do not somehow become less so just because of the way you happened to test them.
But suppose there came to be a widespread practice of using murdered serial killer fingernail clippings as a way to test products. Would this raise moral questions? It would. But it would still not make it intrinsically evil to use the nail clippers. On the one hand, we would want to make it very clear that we need to stop this practice of murdering serial killers in order to get their nail clippings to test products. But that would not necessarily make it wrong to use your nail clippers, which are only contingently and distantly related to a murder that was not done for the purpose of testing products. And since people need to cut their nails, there is a proportionate reason for using your clippers given that, in the scenario I have described, there are no alternatives on offer.
Now, this example is parallel to the way the Pfizer and Moderna Covid-19 vaccines (and many other vaccines, medicines, food products, etc.) were developed using cells descended from the cells of an unborn child aborted fifty years ago (as I discussed in my previous post on this subject). Of course, the killing of an innocent child is worse than the killing of a person guilty of grave crimes. But preventing Covid-19 and other serious illnesses is also more important than clipping one’s nails. As with the Dahmer example, the murder occurred decades ago, was not done for the purposes of product testing, and is a fait accompli that would in no way be prevented by people refusing to use the product. As with Dahmer’s nails, it is not the body parts of the victim that were used in the testing, but distant copies of those parts. And as with the nail clippers, the vaccines are, considered just by themselves, morally neutral. The contingent fact that they were tested in a certain way doesn’t somehow make them intrinsically morally problematic. In both cases, the connection with the wrongdoing is very remote.
Again, Dahmer is an entirely unsympathetic character, and using copies of his fingernails to test nail clippers is a silly and unrealistic example. But again, that is precisely the point. Because the example generates no strong emotions and involves no real-world controversies, it is easy to see the moral principles involved and to consider them dispassionately. Yes, there is a moral problem with the way the clippers were developed, and yes, in theory it could even be a significant problem under certain circumstances. But the problem has nothing to do with there being anything intrinsically evil about the clippers, and the moral concerns are still outweighed by the proportionate good of allowing people to clip their nails (which, in the scenario in question, would not otherwise be possible).
Now, when you alter the example so that it involves instead an aborted baby and the Covid-19 vaccines, very strong emotions are generated. But the relevant moral principles are the same. Yes, because abortion is extremely wicked, the very remote and contingent connection the testing of the vaccines had to a particular abortion that occurred decades ago raises moral questions that would not otherwise exist. But that does not make the vaccines intrinsically evil, and the moral concerns are outweighed by the proportionate good of protecting people from a serious disease (where, currently, there are no alternative vaccines available). (That there is such a proportionate good would, of course, be irrelevant if the use of the vaccines were intrinsically evil – we’re not talking about consequentialism here. But since it is not intrinsically evil, consideration of proportionate goods is legitimate. This is just basic Catholic moral theology.)
It is, I submit, the emotions that abortion and Covid-19 generate, and not reason, that are driving many Catholics’ resistance to the Church’s instruction on the vaccines. They think that in permitting the use of the vaccines, the Church is somehow selling out the pro-life cause, accommodating itself to secular opinion, or what have you. This is completely ridiculous and unhinged. In permitting Catholics to use such vaccines, the Church is simply reiterating a teaching that she has officially endorsed under two previous popes and that has been defended by orthodox Catholic moralists for decades. She is taking account of nuances that exist in certain problem cases even where the topic of abortion is concerned (as she does in the case of ectopic pregnancy, where the Church allows theologians to hold the view that it can be permissible to remove the tube containing the unborn baby even if it is foreseen, but not intended, that the death of the baby will result).
The hotheads who now think they see cowardice or perfidy in Catholics who call attention to these nuances did not do so in years past, before the Covid-19 situation arose. That is confirming evidence that they are letting emotion cloud their reason. They are understandably worked up over the often dishonest and destructive way in which public authorities have dealt with the pandemic. They are horrified at the insane and evil “woke” ideas and policies currently flooding our institutions. They are rightly alarmed at the failure of the pope and many bishops clearly to uphold longstanding teaching on other issues. They are worried about governmental overreach in dealing with the pandemic (in the form of draconian lockdowns, vaccine mandates, etc.). They sense that the country and indeed the Western world in general are heading into a crisis.
They are right about all of that. But it simply does not follow that the issue of whether to take the Covid-19 vaccines has any special connection with the anti-abortion cause, specifically. It doesn’t. This is a red herring. It muddies the waters, causes division among good people who ought to be allies, and clouds reason when it is more imperative than ever that we keep our wits about us.