LEICESTER, United Kingdom – Ireland’s bishops say “safe and effective vaccination is an essential aspect” of COVID-19 prevention and are encouraging Catholics to support vaccination programs, “not only for their own good, but for the protection of life and the health of those who are vulnerable and for the common good of humanity.”

The Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine has been approved for use in the United Kingdom, and vaccinations began in care homes in Northern Ireland on Tuesday. The Republic of Ireland says vaccinations could begin next month, if the European Medicines Agency (EMA) approves the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine after it is reviewed on Dec. 29.

In their statement, the Irish bishops acknowledged “questions have arisen” over the use of human fetal cell-lines which have their origins in abortions carried out in the past, are used in the development and production of some of the vaccines for COVID-19.

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The two controversial cell lines, the HEK 293 from the 1970s and the PER C6 cell line from the 1980s, both originate in tissue from an aborted child.

The Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine did not use these cell lines in development and production, but did use them in testing. Other vaccines in development, such as the Oxford Astra-Zeneca and Janssen/Johnson & Johnson vaccines, used the fetal cell-line in design, production and confirmatory testing.

“If a more ethically acceptable alternative is not readily available to them, it is morally permissible for Catholics to accept a vaccine which involves the use of fetal cell-lines, especially if the potential risk to life or health is significant, as in the case of a pandemic. Refusal to accept a vaccine could contribute to significant loss of life in the community and especially among those who are most vulnerable. This reality must inform any judgement of conscience,” the bishops said.

In their statement, the bishop reaffirmed “the consistent teaching of the Church that abortion is always gravely immoral.”

“The Church has always made a distinction, however, between formal (deliberate) involvement in an immoral act and material involvement, which may be incidental and remote. The decision of those who decide to accept vaccines which have had some link with fetal cell lines in the past does not imply any consent on their part to abortion,” the bishops explained.

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However, they said Catholics should continue to advocate for the availability of ethically developed vaccines.

“In that way they bear witness that biomedical research should always be conducted in a manner which is consistent with respect for life and for human dignity,” the statement continues.

The bishops ended their statement by saying that access to healthcare is a fundamental human right, and that access to the COVID-19 vaccine should be made on the basis of need rather than ability to pay.

They noted the World Trade Organization has agreements in place which permits national governments to arrange for the manufacture of essential pharmaceuticals, for domestic use and for the use of poorer countries, even without the consent of patent owners.

Follow Charles Collins on Twitter: @CharlesinRome