The rollout of COVID-19 vaccinations is presenting many difficulties and issues including for health practitioners who have a conscientious objection to the vaccination or administering it on the basis of personal beliefs.
One issue that is not unique to COVID-19 vaccinations is their usage of cell lines from aborted foetuses. Australia is deploying the Pfizer and AstraZenca vaccines with the latter developed with the assistance of foetal cell lines. Notably, these cell lines are not the ‘original’ cell lines from the aborted foetuses but are genetically modified cells and the foetal cells used in developing the vaccine are reportedly not present in the final product.
This creates an ethical dilemma for some health practitioners, if their religious beliefs are that abortion (including benefiting from one) is a sin and a significant evil. In light of this, there has been some controversy among religious groups regarding the use of vaccines like the AstraZeneca vaccine. For example, in August 2020, Anglican, Catholic and Greek Orthodox Archbishops requested the Australian Government ensure those who object are not placed under pressure or forced to take the vaccine, and that there is an ethically uncontroversial alternative available.
However, the Vatican released a statement in December 2020 providing it is morally acceptable to receive vaccines like AstraZeneca in certain circumstances. Other religious bodies have supported the AstraZeneca vaccine with the Australian National Imams Council highlighting that the highest principle to Islam is the preservation of life and its wellbeing, and the Hindu Council of Victoria advising that it would have no issue welcoming the AstraZeneca vaccine.
AHPRA and the National Boards’ guidance
On 9 March 2021, AHPRA and the National Boards released a joint position statement regarding the COVID-19 vaccines. The statement provides, among other things, that it is their strong view that all health practitioners and students receive the vaccine as soon as it is available to them consistent with their professional obligations to promote community health. Further, if practitioners conscientiously object to the vaccine, then they must inform their employer, relevant colleagues (where necessary) and their patients where relevant to their care while taking care not to discourage their patients from receiving the vaccine. They must also follow applicable employer or health service policies and guidelines.
This is a difficult area for practitioners with a conscientious objection to the COVID-19 vaccinations with AHPRA and the National Boards strongly encouraging vaccinations. Practitioners with a conscientious objection should be very cautious with managing their objection including any views expressed in that regard whether online or otherwise to ensure they maintain their professional obligations and seek advice before objecting. For those advising health practitioners it will be necessary to keep up-to-date with the fast moving information on COVID-19 with a list of primary sources of information available here.