Many Americans are hesitant to take the Covid-19 vaccine. One issue raised by pro-life Christians is whether the vaccines are tied to the use of human cells that come from aborted fetuses. If so, are Christians complicit in abortion if they get these vaccines? How should our pro-life ethic inform our decision of whether or not to get vaccinated?
How would aborted fetal cells come to be used in vaccine development anyway? The answer lies in what are called immortal cell lines. Cell lines are cultures of human or animal cells that can be propagated for research and study. Generally, cell lines come from a single source and, as a result, have a uniform make-up. This allows for more accurate testing and better results. Sometimes, these cell lines are able to be reproduced indefinitely either naturally (due to a mutation) or artificially, thus becoming “immortal” cell lines. According to one paper published by the National Institute of Health, cell lines have “revolutionized scientific research.” They are used in everything from the medical industry (vaccine production, drug testing, generation of artificial tissues, etc.) to the food and cosmetic industries. Some of these cell lines were initially taken from fetuses and are called “fetal cell lines.” These fetuses can come from parents who donate their child’s remains after a miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy. Sometimes, though, they can come from abortions.
The Use of Aborted Fetal Cells in the Covid-19 Vaccine
The 3 major vaccines available in the United States used immortal fetal cell lines at various points in their development, testing, or manufacturing (For a complete list of all vaccines, see this document put together by the Charlotte Lozier Institute here). The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use the HEK-293 cell line whereas the Johnson and Johnson use the PER.C6 cell line. Both cell lines were derived from abortions in the Netherlands in 1973 and 1985 respectively. Over time, they have been cloned, altered, and modified to suit various medical purposes. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccine used the HEK-293 cell line in the confirmatory lab testing of their vaccines, but not in the development or production. This means that they used these cells to test the effectiveness of the vaccines, but the cells had no direct involvement in the creation of the vaccine itself. On the other hand, the Johnson and Johnson vaccine used the PER.C6 cells in the testing, development, and production. The cell matter is filtered out such that no fetal cell material remains in the vaccine itself. Nevertheless, the Johnson and Johnson vaccine uses fetal cell lines to a greater extent than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
This presents a moral dilemma for pro-life Christians. On one hand, we don’t want to be cavalier about the injustice and immorality of the abortion from which some of these fetal cells were derived. We also wouldn’t want to participate in medical technology such that our participation would further perpetuate or incentivize more abortions. On the other hand, fetal cell lines have led to many medical advances, and it would be nearly impossible to completely separate ourselves from all medical technology achieved through the use of fetal cell lines derived from abortions. As Nicholas Evans, a bioethicist at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, said, “Chances are if you have had a medical intervention in this country or pretty much any other country, you have benefited from the use of these [fetal] cell lines in some way.” Despite their corrupted origins, they have still accomplished a lot of good for people today.
What Does the Bible Say?
When presented with a dilemma such as this, we have to consider several factors in our decision-making process. Here are five biblical principles that should be highlighted:
- Scripture is pro-life. When mentioning an unborn child, the Bible is clear to treat it as an unborn human life created by God (Genesis 25:21-16; Psalm 139:13-14; Luke 1:15, 1:44).
- Abstain from every form of evil. God never calls us to do anything intrinsically evil, even if we think good might come from it (Romans 3:8, 6:1, 6:15). Christians should not use an “ends justifies the means” kind of reasoning. If any action is inherently immoral or sinful, we must always avoid and abhor evil. As 1 Thessalonians 5:21-22 says, “Test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil.”
- We live in a fallen world (Genesis 3:1-24, Romans 8:18-23). There is no earthly system that is free from sin or its influence, because not only is nature itself fallen, but every person (including us) has sinned and been corrupted by sin (Romans 3:23, Romans 5:12-21). So, whether we are talking about medicine, the media, government, education, etc., we can recognize that although each of these is corrupted by sin in some way, they can also be used to accomplish great good. Our response should not be to withdraw from the world as if it were possible to refrain from anything that might be connected to sin in some way. Then, we would have to leave the world (1 Corinthians 5:9-13)! Rather, we are to be redemptive agents in this world. As the saying goes, we are to be in the world, but not of the world (John 15:19, 17:14-16; Romans 12:2; 1 John 2:15-17).
- God works redemptively in the midst of evil circumstances. God often brings good out of the evil in this world (Genesis 50:20, Romans 8:28). The most important example of this is the crucifixion of Christ (Isaiah 53:5-6, Acts 2:23), an unjust act done by wicked people, but through which we have gained forgiveness and redemption as a result. Despite any evil intent or actions, this does not stop God from bringing redemptive good out of it. Of course, this does not make the original evil any less evil. It just shows how great God is.
- We must put others’ needs before our own (Philippians 2:3-4). It can be easy to only think of how a certain decision will affect ourselves but forget that our decisions can also have an impact on others. Christ calls us to act self-sacrificially.
It might be tempting to think that because there is a moral connection between the vaccine and abortions, then the automatic answer should be to not take the vaccine. However, this requires more careful thinking.
Living in a fallen world, it is impossible to completely separate ourselves from things that have been affected by sin. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t avoid connections with sin. It’s just an admission that this is not always possible. Our primary duty, rather, should be to avoid:
- Sinning ourselves (1 John 2:1),
- Leading others into sin (Luke 17:1-2),
- Giving approval to evil (Romans 1:32)
- Acting in such a way that sin is further perpetuated (2 John 1:9-11),
- Taking part in sin or the sins of others (Ephesians 5:11, 1 Timothy 5:22),
- Failing to do what is right (James 4:17).
- Not acting in faith or good conscience (Romans 14:22-23, 1 Timothy 1:19),
Since the act of taking a vaccine is neither right nor wrong in and of itself, we don’t have to worry about whether taking the Covid-19 vaccine is intrinsically sinful. And, under normal circumstances, your decision to take a vaccine won’t lead another person into sin either. However, these other points will require a more thoughtful response.
A. Giving Approval to Evil
Whether or not one takes the vaccine, Christians should be clear about what the Bible says with regards to abortion and valuing life. If someone asks us, we should be clear that a decision to get vaccinated does not negate the evil of the original abortion tied to it. It is a sad reality of living in a fallen world that can’t be avoided to accomplish the goods which a vaccine might bring.
B. Perpetuating Sin
What are the consequences of using these fetal cell lines? Will taking a vaccine with fetal cells lead to more abortions? Thankfully, it will not. These immortal cell lines reproduce on their own, and thus no new fetuses would be needed to replace the current supply of cells. Nor is any connection to the original fetus necessary. Additionally, the development of cell lines is expensive, time-consuming, and requires a lengthy testing and approval process. This provides a financial deterrent to seeking new ones.
C. Taking Part in the Sins of Others
Without a doubt, this is the most complicated aspect of the decision to get a Covid vaccine. To what extent would taking the vaccine make me take part in the original act of evil?
While we can admit that a moral connection exists, it is also important to acknowledge the ways in which this moral connection can be stronger or weaker. To do this, Christian ethicists utilize a principle called moral proximity. In this context, moral proximity means that the closer you are to the original evil, the greater responsibility you bear in connection to that evil.
For example, the person who originally sought out those abortions and the doctor who performed them bear a direct causal responsibility to that wrong. This is different from indirect connections that the researcher who used that fetus to create the cell line has; or from Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson for using those cell lines in the vaccines; or from the consumer who gets injected with the vaccine. Here is a similar scenario: Should medical knowledge gained from Nazi experiments in WWII be used to help people today? Or is that knowledge morally tainted such that it should never be used, even if used for a good purpose? It should be obvious that the moral responsibility is different for the Nazi scientists who performed these heinous actions from scientists who use that knowledge for good purposes or from a person who benefits from this medical knowledge or technology. Although not exactly the same, this example is similar to those who are benefitting from vaccine technology derived from these aborted fetal cells. Those who take the vaccine are beneficiaries of the medical advances made with these fetal cell lines but weren’t involved in the original evil itself.
Another way in which moral proximity comes into play is the factor of time. The abortions from which the HEK-293 and the PER.C6 cell lines were derived occurred in 1973 and 1985 respectively. We can intuitively know that the further back in time a moral evil occurred, the less connection or bearing it usually has to those in the present. To use an example, to what extent should the products transported on railways originally constructed by slaves bear the moral weight of that original slavery over 150 years ago? Should Christians boycott all products delivered on these rail lines, or are we distant enough from the original evil such that the good accomplished from using the rails outweighs the evil used to build them?
This is not an exhaustive list of factors related to moral proximity, but it gives us a good start. To summarize, although we cannot entirely eliminate the moral connection between the vaccines and the original abortion, it is safe to say that we can put a great deal of distance between one and the other.
D. Failing to Do What is Right
On the other side of our ethical equation, we have to also consider what reasons there may be to take the vaccine. This is what makes the decision to get the Covid vaccination so tricky. If there were only downsides to getting the vaccine because of the connection to the aborted fetal cells and no benefits, then the decision to abstain would be simple. But the fact of the matter is that there are benefits to being vaccinated. Our pro-life ethic should take into account how our decision to get vaccinated (or not) will affect our own health as well as the health of others.
E. Not Acting in Faith or Good Conscience
This decision is ultimately a matter of Christian conscience (Romans 14:1-23), and since the Bible does not address this particular situation, we should all seek to obey what the Holy Spirit lays on our hearts. Each one of us will have to give an account before God for these kinds of decisions that we make with the comfort that any error in judgment is forgiven through Christ (Romans 14:4, 12; 1 Corinthians 3:11-15).
In this author’s judgment, Christians should feel the freedom to take the vaccine, as the potential goods that come from taking the vaccine outweigh the negative (but distant) connection to past abortions. The biggest contributing factors are:
- The distance (moral proximity) that the current fetal cells have from the original abortion
- The minimal role that the fetal cells played in the development of the vaccine, particularly with Pfizer and Moderna.
- The original abortions were not obtained for the purpose of creating these cell lines.
- The use of these fetal cells does not encourage further abortion.
- There are no alternative Covid vaccines that do not have a connection to aborted fetal cells.
- Taking the vaccine provides potential health benefits to oneself and others, including reducing the risk to vulnerable populations.
The debate surrounding the Covid vaccines raises a host of pro-life concerns. All three vaccines available in the United States used aborted fetal cells at some point, however minimally. Christians must weigh the potential benefits of taking the vaccine against the moral implications of the vaccines’ ties to abortion. Some may find that the connection between these vaccines and the aborted fetal cells weighs heavily on their conscience such that they cannot take it in good conscience. Others may find the health benefits of being vaccinated to be a greater good while acknowledging the evils of abortion and any connections that these vaccines have to it. In the end, this is a decision for individual Christians to make and does not have a one-size-fits-all answer.
**This was originally published at Advocates for Truth under the title “Pro-life Concerns About the Covid Vaccine.”