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To date, nearly 2.9 million people have died worldwide in the COVID-19 pandemic.1 The global economy struggled while nations enacted stay-at-home orders, and our politics fractured under the weight of heated disagreements. Illness, travel restrictions, and protective hospital protocols separated loved ones in the time we needed each other the most. Businesses that survived generations disappeared as the efforts to minimize our interactions spread around the globe. Reports of depression and suicide dramatically increased among the younger members of the population,2 and no one’s life remained untouched.
This collective loss drove a massive effort by the United States government to create a program called Operation Warp Speed for the speedy development and manufacturing of vaccines for COVID-19.3 Within a year, Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson & Johnson all developed vaccines capable of providing protection from the most severe symptoms of COVID-19 — welcome news for members of communities disproportionately impacted, including the elderly, those living with underlying medical conditions, and certain minority communities.
As the promise of vaccines generated new hope, a concern arose. All four approved vaccines used human fetal cells acquired through induced abortion somewhere in the development process. Some pro-life leaders, groups,4 and well-known voices, such as Abby Johnson, spoke out.5 They encouraged people to reject the vaccines, characterizing taking the vaccines as cooperation in abortion and enjoying benefits derived from acts of profound moral evil.6
Robert P. George of Princeton University and other pro-life philosophers responded that receiving the vaccines seeks the good of our community by loving our neighbors as ourselves through protecting the most vulnerable.7 They agree that people should be free to reject the vaccines in a prophetic protest against the evil of abortion, but only if those people agree to take extra measures to protect vulnerable persons from any added dangers of encountering unvaccinated members of the pro-life community. These philosophers argue there is no cooperation with evil and no appropriation of evil, so all people of good will are free to take any of the four vaccines without fear of moral condemnation.
Perhaps by addressing some key questions surrounding this issue, we can sort through these claims and make an informed decision about how to serve both the dictates of our conscience and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves.
Can We Trust the Vaccines Are Safe Given the Rush to Produce Them?
The pragmatic question of the safety of these vaccines precedes our moral reflections. In a few short months, the medical community accomplished a task that usually takes years. How can anyone trust that the accelerated process produced safe vaccines?
Dr. Seema Yasmin answers this question with seven points in a video produced by Stanford Center for Health Education.8
- Research on the SARS outbreak in 2002 prepared us to act quickly, given shared characteristics (80–90 percent) between SARS CoV-1 and SARS CoV-2, which causes COVID-19.
- Clinical trials ran simultaneously (1 and 2 and 3) rather than sequentially (1 then 2 then 3).
- Medical scientists worked together in unparalleled cooperation.
- Unprecedented financial resources fueled that research.
- Manufacturing of vaccines began prior to FDA approval, risking a financial loss in the expectation that the finished product would be needed immediately.
- mRNA vaccines take less time to develop than traditional live-attenuated or viral vector vaccines.9
- A longstanding pandemic strategy was already in place.
Consider that no medical effort in history shared more information in so short a time, had more willing test subjects volunteering for trials, had more resources made available, and had more leg work and strategic planning done prior to commencement than the pursuit of vaccines for COVID-19. For good or bad, it is remarkable what the ingenuity of human beings can produce when operating in a collective effort.
Were Fetal Cells from Abortions Used in Producing the Vaccines?
Perhaps the most pressing moral question on the minds of pro-lifers is whether the production of the four COVID-19 vaccines included human fetal cells derived from elective abortions. The answer depends on what the person asking the question means. Are they asking if the actual cellular remains from the unborn child aborted in 1972 are currently in the HEK293 cell line? If so, then the answer is no. The cell line does not contain the cells of that human being. The testing, experimenting, and research happening across a broad range of medical and commercial endeavors using the HEK293 line makes use of an immortalized cell line of human embryonic kidney cells (HEK) that probably originally derived from the remains of a fetal human killed in an induced elective abortion in the Netherlands.10 Those original cells were altered to replicate and multiply in order that offspring cells could be further modified and tailored for particular uses in a wide variety of research opportunities. They are not identical to the original cells. They are new artifacts generated from those original cells, but thousands of generations removed.
If the questioner is asking whether any cells in this research process were human cells produced from an elective abortion, then the answer is probably yes in the case of HEK293 and certainly yes in the case of PER.C6. Though they are not identical to the cells originally harvested to generate these lines, they are still human cells, as they didn’t become dog cells or dolphin cells. Their usefulness in research is precisely because they are human cells.
So, yes, human embryonic cells were used in the testing (Moderna and Pfizer) and/or development (AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson) of all four vaccines available.11
Does Taking the Vaccine Cooperate With Evil?
To answer the question of whether taking these vaccines is cooperating with the evil of abortion, I will focus on two distinctions. The first is between formal cooperation with evil, in which both the agent and the cooperator share the same evil intent, and material cooperation with evil, in which the cooperator doesn’t share the same evil intent but helps cause the act of evil. Another distinction is the proximity to the act of evil — proximate or remote. For example, an individual in verbal agreement with the woman getting an abortion to harvest the remains of her aborted offspring would be in closer proximity to the act of abortion than the scientists who developed the immortalized cell lines, the scientists who use those cells lines in research, and those people who enjoy the products developed from the use of those cell lines. Receiving a COVID-19 vaccine entails, at worst, extremely remote material cooperation with abortion. The discreet acts of abortion behind these cell lines happened decades ago (HEK293 in 1972 and PER.C6 in 1985). Any perceived material cooperation is so remote as to be far less significant in our moral considerations than any number of other choices we make during the day, like who profits when we buy our ketchup, coffee, and streaming services.12 We do business every day with people who financially support the practice of abortion without any personal knowledge of our cooperation. This broad application of remote material cooperation with abortion would leave us paralyzed in efforts to ferret out any and all connections to an evil so ubiquitous it touches every part of our lives. Even the seemingly simple goal of avoiding one particular cell line, HEK293, will be impossible. That line has been used in development of medicines, food products, and make-up products for decades.13
Some pro-life philosophers push back against the claim that cooperation with the acts of abortion exists at all in this case.14 How could we cooperate in an act from nearly fifty years ago? None of the abortions in question were performed for the purpose of producing these cell lines, and as the cell lines are established and producing reliable results, there is no incentive to further acts of evil. There is no need to recreate a line that already exists. University of America philosopher Melissa Moschella asks, if a murder victim killed by their mother were found to have a heart suitable for transplant, would we believe the heart was morally tainted and accuse the ultimate recipient of the heart of cooperating, however remotely, in the act of murder?15 Of course not.
Appropriation. Perhaps the wrong in taking vaccines could be understood as appropriation rather than cooperation, enjoying the benefits from an act of moral evil while being negatively transformed through the omission of protests. We risk desensitizing ourselves by continuing to enjoy those benefits while thinking less and less about any connection those benefits have to acts of evil. Soon our complacency encourages further acts of evil because everyone enjoys the benefits, and no one complains about the moral costs.
Formal cooperation with evil is always wrong, but the same isn’t true of acts of material cooperation and appropriation. Sufficient justification could exist to override those concerns. Those who argue that this is the case warn us that even though the vital need to seek the health of our community makes using the vaccines ethically permissible, we must voice our opposition and push for research tools to be utilized that are unaffiliated with the evil of abortion. This is the only way to guard ourselves against the degrading nature of appropriation on our personal character.
Moschella, George, and others argue that a problem lies in evaluating the vaccines, which are not agents but artifacts, in the category of moral or immoral at all.16 Moral agents perform actions that either comport with our objective moral duties or do not. Categories like virtuous, good, and evil apply to the actions of moral agents and not to artifacts. We should condemn the morally evil act of abortion from which the material used to generate the immortalized cell lines was originally harvested. The cell lines themselves, however, are not moral agents but things. Things should not be evaluated in those terms.
Railroads are frequently offered as an example. It is a fact of history that Chinese immigrants and Black slaves endured unspeakable abuse and were even murdered as they built the railroad lines that our current system of railways overlays. Their treatment was profoundly evil. And yet, countless commercial products move across the United States contributing to our way of life. The railroads are not immoral nor is our continued use of them cooperating with or appropriating the evil perpetrated against Chinese immigrants and Black slaves. This understanding of things versus agents eliminates the need to balance the material cooperation or appropriation of the evil act of abortion against the good of mitigating the loss of life and illness due to COVID-19.
Even if we acknowledge the dangers of appropriation, protecting the more vulnerable members of our community provides sufficient justification for taking the vaccine. We must remain outspoken in our opposition to abortion no matter what. We should never lose sight of the evil which surrounds us in our current culture, but we also ought to carefully reflect on our ability to help protect life in our communities when our choices to protect that life cannot contribute to evil actions from long ago and don’t encourage further evil.
The Greater Good
The latter two positions lead to the same conclusion. We are not morally obligated to take vaccines for COVID-19, and individuals ought to be free to pursue their conscience on this issue. Yet a strong case exists that it is morally permissible for pro-life Christians to receive the vaccines, despite the illicit origins of the immortalized cell lines used to test and develop them. It is good to work to limit the natural evil of disease and illness in our community and to value the safety of its more vulnerable members. Whatever public witness we choose to make must take those people into account.
Jay Watts is the Founder and President of Merely Human Ministries, an organization dedicated to equipping others to defend the dignity of all human life.
- John Hopkins University of Medicine, Coronavirus Resource Center, Global Map, https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html. As of April 8, 2021, John Hopkins lists the Global deaths as 2,890,842.
- William Wan, “For Months, He Helped His Son Keep Suicidal Thoughts at Bay. Then Came the Pandemic,” Washington Post, November 23, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/11/23/covid-pandemic-rise-suicides/.
- U.S. Dept of Defense, Coronavirus Operation Warp Speed, https://www.defense.gov/Explore/Spotlight/Coronavirus/Operation-Warp-Speed/.
- Sarah Quale, “The Unethical Testing of ‘Ethical’ COVID Vaccines,” Personhood Alliance, November 17, 2020, https://personhood.org/2020/11/17/the-unethical-testing-of-ethical-covid-vaccines/.
- Author screen name “Peter,” “Watch: Abby Johnson Blasts U.S. Bishops for Their Duplicitous Position on the China Virus Vaccine,” Complicit Clergy, December 16, 2020, https://www.complicitclergy.com/2020/12/16/watch-abby-johnson-blasts-the-u-s-bishops-on-their-china-virus-statement/.
- Bishop Athanasius Schneider, “Covid Vaccines: ‘The Ends Cannot Justify the Means,’” Crisis Magazine, December 11, 2020, https://www.crisismagazine.com/2020/covid-vaccines-the-ends-cannot-justify-the-means.
- “Statement from Pro-Life Catholic Scholars on the Moral Acceptability of Receiving COVID-19 Vaccines,” Public Discourse, The Journal of the Witherspoon Institute: The Human Person, March 11, 2021, https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2021/03/74594/.
- Digital Medic at Stanford University, “7 Ways Scientists Safely Developed COVID-19 Vaccines in Record Time,” March 24, 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yi9AQP6Tyjg.
- See also “How Does a mRNA Vaccine Compare to a Traditional Vaccine?” VI4 Spotlight, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, November 16, 2020, https://www.vumc.org/viiii/spotlight/how-does-mrna-vaccine-compare-traditional-vaccine.
- Alvin Wong, “The Ethics of HEK293,” The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 6, 3 (2006): 474, https://doi.org/10.5840/ncbq20066331.
- Editor’s Note: For helpful information regarding the development and production of COVID-19 vaccines, see David Prentice and Tara Sander Lee, “What You Need to Know about the COVID-19 Vaccines,” Charlotte Lozier Institute, updated March 3, 2021, https://lozierinstitute.org/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-covid-19-vaccine/.
- Fr. Matthew P. Schneider, “12 Things Less-Remote Cooperation in Evil Than COVID Vaccines”, Through Catholic Lenses, Patheos, December 18, 2020, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/throughcatholiclenses/2020/12/12-things-less-remote-cooperation-in-evil-than-covid-vaccines/.
- Fr. Matthew P. Schneider, “If Any Drug Tested on HEK-293 Is Immoral, Goodbye Modern Medicine,” Through Catholic Lenses, Patheos, January 28, 2021,https://www.patheos.com/blogs/throughcatholiclenses/2021/01/if-any-drug-tested-on-hek-293-is-immoral-goodbye-modern-medicine/.
- Schneider, “If Any Drug Tested on HEK-293 Is Immoral, Goodbye Modern Medicine,” https://www.patheos.com/blogs/throughcatholiclenses/2021/01/if-any-drug-tested-on-hek-293-is-immoral-goodbye-modern-medicine/; Schneider, “Covid Vaccines: ‘The Ends Cannot Justify the Means,’” https://www.crisismagazine.com/2020/covid-vaccines-the-ends-cannot-justify-the-means.
- Melissa Moschella, “The COVID Vaccines Are Not ‘Morally Compromised,’” Public Discourse, The Journal of the Witherspoon Institute: The Human Person, January 4, 2021, https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2021/01/73511/.
- Moschella, “The COVID Vaccines Are Not ‘Morally Compromised,’” https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2021/01/73511/; Schneider, “Covid Vaccines: ‘The Ends Cannot Justify the Means,’” https://www.crisismagazine.com/2020/covid-vaccines-the-ends-cannot-justify-the-means.