Religion, Bioethics, and COVID-19 Vaccination

February 16, 2021

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As COVID-19 vaccines begin to be rolled out in the United States and around the world, the interface between religion, bioethics, and immunization is on the agenda as a critical issue for health policymakers and faith communities. A major concern in the U.S. pandemic response is vaccine hesitancy. Trusted messengers—including faith leaders such as Pope Francis—play important roles in bolstering support for the vaccine. The voices of community leaders are especially critical in African American communities, where there is a long history of medical racism that continues into the present day. Secular and religious ethics also contribute to ongoing debates on vaccine equity, especially as the U.S. vaccine reserve is limited and there are concerns about “vaccine nationalism” which might limit timely vaccine rollout in low- and middle-income countries and foster competition among communities and within societies.

The connection between faith beliefs and vaccination is also complex, varying both between and within religious traditions. Citing religiously grounded understandings of the common good, the U.S. Catholic bishops have called COVID-19 vaccination an “act of charity toward the other members of our community.” At the same time, however, the relationship between fetal cells and the development or testing of some vaccines has raised ethical questions for some Christian communities. Some Muslims are concerned about the halal status of various vaccines. With these and other concerns in mind, legal scholars are prepared for court cases pitting vaccine mandates against religious beliefs, overlaying ongoing debates on religious freedom in the era of coronavirus. 

Addressing some of these issues is a recent Berkley Center publication on “Religious Responses and Engagement on COVID-19 Vaccines,” highlighting contributions to a virtual consultation with health experts and development leaders held in December 2020. The report stresses the importance of faith engagement in COVID-19 vaccine rollout, building on experience from earlier health crises such as the HIV/AIDS pandemic and Ebola outbreaks. It also highlights the need to bring together key stakeholders—including religious leaders, faith-based organizations, and global health experts—for dialogue to develop messaging around faith and COVID-19 vaccination. Complementing the report, the Berkley Forum invites scholars and activists to reflect on legal, ethical, and religious issues at the intersection of faith and COVID-19 vaccination.   

This week the Berkley Forum asks: How can religious or secular ethics contribute to discourse on COVID-19 vaccine rollout and equity in the United States and abroad? How does theology interface with attitudes toward vaccination in specific faith communities? What role can faith leaders play as trusted voices in addressing vaccine hesitancy? What paths forward might inspire greater dialogue between health policymakers and religious leaders or faith-based institutions? How does vaccine hesitancy intersect with legal concerns about the freedom of religion or belief during the coronavirus pandemic? 

related publication | "Religious Responses and Engagement on COVID-19 Vaccines"

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