The world breathed a collective sigh of relief at news that multiple vaccines against the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 were found to be effective. No sooner had this news reached us before there was a moral greaseball gumming up the ethical works: Some of the vaccines were developed using cell lines originally derived from aborted children. For Christians who want to respect and cherish life, the use of cell lines taken from aborted children is a problem that must be addressed. This brief essay will discuss the ethical issues involved and argue for a way forward that allows us to honor the gift of life that God has given us.
First, let me say that this issue has already been addressed by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Public Discourse, and the Vatican, so my arguments here are not novel. I have also written about my experiences with vaccine side effects and the ethics of using vaccines in general here, in case that subject interests you (or you know people that would benefit from reading on that subject). There are many different facets of the ethics of vaccines worth discussing, but I will focus on the subject of fetal cell lines exclusively in this piece.
Scientists all over the world use cell lines in their research, as well as in the production of vaccines and other biotechnology products. Using cells that come from humans, but divide like the simple bacteria you may remember from your biology lab days, allows for a great deal of research to be done that would otherwise be very difficult to perform. Some of these cell lines (cells that can be reproduced in a lab) are taken from cancer cells that were naturally dividing on their own, others are cells that have been genetically modified to grow on their own (this process is called immortalization).
The world’s first and most famous immortalized cell line, HeLa, has its own ethical issues, as it was a cervical cancer cell taken without consent from a woman named Henrietta Lacks who died of her cancer just a few months later. Other cell lines are controversial because they were originally taken from aborted children, these include PER.C6, MRC-5, WI-38, and HEK293. Some of the circumstances surrounding the abortion of these children is unknown; of those that are known, none were specifically killed in order to obtain the tissue that was used to generate these stem cell lines. It has been alleged that the number in each cell line’s name refers to the number of fetuses that were aborted and experimented on, but there is no evidence that this is true and the number more likely refers to the number of times that one particular child’s cells were tested.
Some of these cell lines are used as “factories” to generate complex proteins that would otherwise be impossible to synthesize in a lab. You can read more about that process here. Several of the current COVID-19 vaccines use this process, but the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine is the only one that does so that has been approved thus far. The Moderna vaccine and the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccines do not use any fetal cell lines in their production, but they did use HEK293 cells as part of the testing process. A detailed list of vaccines in development and their use of fetal cell lines can be found here.
Christians have long sought to avoid cooperation with evil. Some Christians have even organized boycotts to use their purchasing power as a weapon against evil, both successfully and unsuccessfully. I remember my own father’s insistence one Christmas that we not buy any products made in China so as to not support persecution against Christians; his initiative deserves far more ethical discussion than it currently receives.
It is good to avoid cooperating with evil, not only to discourage further evils but also to keep our own consciences clear before God. In the case of vaccines developed using fetal cell lines, the ethical imperative would be to act in such a way as to discourage more abortions from taking places as well as not ourselves make use of a resource that was obtained, however distantly and indirectly, through sin.
However, there are three points that suggest that taking such a vaccine is morally acceptable:
The use of these vaccines does not encourage more abortions.
To the best of our knowledge, the abortions that killed these children were not committed for the specific purpose of obtaining their cell lines and because these cell lines have been long-established, their use neither requires nor encourages further abortions to take place. The ongoing use of fetal tissue for research obtained from abortions is a different ethical question altogether which you can read about here. Until abortion is illegal, scientists will continue to use tissue from aborted children in research and we can continue to advocate against this in a matter entirely separate from the use of these vaccines.
The sin of abortion in this case has been thoroughly mediated to the point that there is almost no connection between it and the act of vaccination.
All of the cell lines used in vaccine development and research are at least 30 years old; these cells have reproduced themselves millions of times and bear only the genetic memory of the child they were once a part of. They have been genetically modified to continue dividing and receiving any vaccine that uses these cells is an action so far removed from the original sin in these cases that receiving the vaccine is not in any meaningful sense cooperating with evil. If a resource that historically came out of injustice must be avoided, then most private schools south of the Mason-Dixon line should be burned to the ground.
Our ability to abstain from cooperation with evil is always limited.
Unless one wishes to live off the grid in a yurt eating only the food they grow themselves, our lives will always involve some degree of cooperation with evil of varying proximities. Millions of Americans pay state taxes that support abortion, most people worldwide buyproductsproducedunjustly, anyone who uses motorized transport subsidizes extremists and terrorists, and most Christians do not even bother to ask whether or not the meat that they eat comes from animals treated as their Creator would desire or if the mutual funds they invest in promote evil. The aforementioned injustices are far more proximate than cell lines obtained through abortion and deserve far greater ethical reflection from Christians.
However, we all accept that there are always have been and always will be tradeoffs when it comes to cooperation with evil, and anyone who wishes to abstain from a vaccine because of its connection to abortion should probably start looking up plans for a yurt if they want to avoid hypocrisy.
If the harvesting of fetal tissue from abortions was required to produce vaccines or if the use of these vaccines directly encouraged further development of fetal cell lines, that would not be morally acceptable. However, neither is the case: short of a worldwide eradication effort, these cell lines will always exist and will always be used by scientists even if tomorrow the practice of induced abortion stopped entirely.
Most ethical reflections on the problem of fetal cell lines and vaccines end with a call to develop other vaccines that don’t have abortion anywhere in their development and production process, which is a fair request.
However, in the absence of such resources, we must make our moral judgments as they are and continue to work for a more just world. Extending life and preventing disease are not absolute moral injunctions that outweigh all other concerns, but they are extremely important and vaccines are a crucial way to further these goals.
In the case of COVID-19, stopping a pandemic that is killing thousands by the day and impoverishing millions requires collective moral action: If you’re not allergic, get the shot.
Matthew Loftus teaches and practices Family Medicine in Baltimore and East Africa. His work has been featured in Christianity Today, Comment, & First Things and he is a regular contributor for Christ and Pop Culture. You can learn more about his work and writing at www.MatthewAndMaggie.org