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This post is by Ben of the Minimise Project and represents his take on the question. The rest of us agree with the broad outline of his argument. We all think that people should not refrain from taking the Pfizer, Moderna, AstraZeneca, and Johnson and Johnson vaccines on pro-life grounds in the current circumstances. Some of us agree with Ben entirely. Some of us don’t agree with every point he makes along the way (for example his view that one should prefer the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines to the others if one has the choice), or would get to some of his conclusions by a different route: hence this disclaimer.
As Ireland’s vaccination programme rolls out, there’s been a lot of discussion about the ethics of taking vaccines which use cells derived from the bodies of aborted babies in their production and testing.
I’m going to structure this post as a Q&A with each question dealing with a potential objection to the vaccines on pro-life grounds. What I’m looking to do with it is two things. First, I want to make the case that people need not refrain from taking COVID-19 vaccines because of ethical concerns about abortion. Second, I want to signal boost some of the writing that’s been done on this topic to help people think through the ethical questions about vaccines in a fully informed way. That’s it. I’m not saying anything in this post about vaccine safety. It’s good to keep separate issues separate. (For what it’s worth I believe that these vaccines are very safe and have taken two doses of Pfizer myself. There’s a lot of good material out there making the case for the conclusion that the vaccines available in Ireland are safe, written by people who know much more of the details than I do). Nor am I going to be arguing in favour of the positive case for taking the vaccine: I will just assume for the sake of this post that ‘bringing an end to the pandemic’ and ‘saving a lot of lives’ would, all else being equal, provide very strong reasons to take a COVID shot. There are also good reasons to think that even if a relatively low number of people refuse vaccination, that could delay the end of the pandemic worldwide and increase the chances that new variants might emerge.
I’ll address seven questions and objections:
- What exactly is the link between COVID-19 vaccines and abortion?
- Will taking a COVID-19 vaccine directly lead to more abortions being carried out?
- Is taking a COVID-19 vaccine co-operating with a past abortion?
- Is taking a COVID-19 vaccine desecrating or otherwise ill-treating a dead human body?
- Is taking a COVID-19 vaccine benefitting from an unjust action or actions?
- Is taking a COVID-19 vaccine morally wrong on the grounds that it is benefitting from an unjust action or actions?
- Would taking a COVID-19 vaccine express support for, or insufficient opposition to, abortion?
Without further ado:
What exactly is the link between COVID-19 vaccines and abortion?
Human cell lines are used in various strands of medical and scientific research. Put very basically, they are cells that originated in a human that are used in a laboratory for various scientific purposes, both in research and in industry. Some human cell lines that came from a human embryo were used to produce or test some COVID-19 vaccines (and other vaccines in use for many years). As part of a statement on the permissibility of taking vaccines, a number of pro-life moral phliosophers and other scholars provide a useful summary of what these cell lines are.
Ordinarily, cells taken from a body have a limited life span, undergoing only a fixed number of cell divisions before they arrest and die. For ongoing research, scientists prefer to use a “cell line,” or a population of cells derived from a single source that has been modified (typically by some form of genetic mutation) to divide indefinitely in culture. Such “immortalized” cell lines allow scientists to conduct many experiments on cells that are both genetically identical and routinely available in the laboratory.
HEK293 is one such commonly used line. The name “HEK” stands for “human embryonic kidney,” and “293” refers to the 293rd experiment conducted by the scientist who produced the cell line. The embryonic kidney cells were originally obtained from the remains of a deceased unborn child following what appears to be an elective abortion that took place in the Netherlands during the early 1970s. The exact circumstances of the abortion are not known, but the scientists producing the cell line were not directly involved and, crucially, the abortion was not performed for the sake of providing biological materials to researchers.
The HEK293 cells being used today are thus genetically modified clones of clones of clones of clones (etc.) of cells ultimately taken from the kidney of an aborted child. These cells are in wide use for various medicinal purposes and even for testing processed foods – not just for the production of vaccines.
Will taking a COVID-19 vaccine directly lead to more abortions being carried out?
If I buy and eat meat from the supermarket, my doing so provides demand for more animals to be killed, in an ongoing way. Is something like this true for taking COVID-19 vaccines – does taking them directly lead to more abortions taking place?
No new abortions need to take place for any of the COVID-19 vaccines to be produced. The cells used in the making of the Pfizer, Moderna, and Astrazeneca vaccines are a kind of stem cell known as HEK293 cells. Every HEK293 cell currently in use is ultimately derived from that same child’s kidney. Thus, no further abortions need to take place in order to make use of the cells.
HEK293 cells are not used in the day-to-day production of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, and none of the vaccines contain the cells as ingredients.
The cells were used as part of the process of getting the vaccines ready for distribution. Some people have attributed a lot of significance to a difference between using the HEK cells for development and testing of vaccines (as AstraZeneca did) and using them only for testing of vaccines (as Pfizer and Moderna do). Johnson and Johnson used a different cell line, PER.C6 derived from retinal cells of a baby aborted in 1985, in development and testing of their vaccine.
I don’t think there is much ethical significance to the difference between use of cells in development and testing. An untested vaccine would never be approved for use: testing is as much a part of releasing a successful vaccine as development is. So I don’t think this is a reason to favour one vaccine over another. However, Johnson and Johson also use PER.C6 cells in ongoing production of the vaccine – making more of the vaccine requires using more of the cloned cells. This is also true of the AstraZeneca vaccine: to make more of the vaccine requires using more HEK cells. I’ll deal with the implications of this in the question below, ‘Is taking a COVID-19 vaccine desecrating or otherwise ill-treating a dead human body?’. (It’s arguable that this gives rise to reasons prefer the Pfizer and Moderna over vaccines when you have a choice).
As far as answering this question is concerned, the key point is that use of ‘immortalised’ cell lines in testing the vaccines (in the case of Pfizer and Moderna), as well as in development and ongoing imanufacture of them (in the case of AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson) did not require that any new abortions be done. Nor does the use of these cell lines directly create demand for more abortions to be done in the future: it’s possible to continue cloning and using cell lines like HEK293 indefinitely, without having to source any new cells from any aborted children.
Thus taking a COVID vaccine will not directly lead to any new abortions being carried out.
If taking a COVID-19 vaccine was to lead to there being more abortions, it would have to be in a more indirect way. I will address that possibility below in ‘Would taking a COVID-19 vaccine express support for, or insufficient opposition to, abortion?’.
TL;DR: The development of these vaccines did not involve any new abortions, nor does their ongoing production. The stem cells used to develop and/or test the vaccines are taken from a line of cells ultimately cloned from kidney and retina cells taken from two children aborted in the early 1970s and 1985 respectively. These cells are not used in ongoing production, and their use in development and testing did not require any new abortions.
Is taking a COVID-19 vaccine co-operating with a past abortion?
A quick note to avoid confusion: a lot of the public writing on this question has been done by Catholics, some of them using terms of moral analysis used in Catholic moral thought, such as the distinction between ‘formal co-operation with evil’, ‘direct material co-ooperation with evil’ and ‘remote material co-operation with evil’. The way Catholic moral theology uses ‘co-operation with evil’ is not always co-extensive with ordinary use: it can cover notions like ‘benefitting from ethical wrongdoing’ and ‘signalling support for ethical wrongdoing’ as well as what’s generally meant by co-operation with or assistance to ethical wrongdoing. Catholic moral theology uses ‘co-operation’ in a broad sense.
Here, I am using the term ‘co-operation’ in the more colloquial, and much narrower sense, meaning something like ‘making yourself an accomplice to the action’ or ‘making yourself part of the plan of the person who carried out the action.’ There’s an obvious sense in which taking a COVID-19 vaccine can’t be co-operating with an abortion in this way: the children from whose bodies the cells used to develop HEK cells were taken were aborted long in the past, so actions we take now cannot be co-operating with that abortion. Nor are we co-operating with it in a looser sense of making ourselves part of the plan of the person or people who carried out the abortion: the children discussed in this post were not aborted so that their cells could be used for research. There’s a separate question about whether or not we are benefiting from the abortions: see below for that.
Is taking a COVID-19 vaccine desecrating or otherwise ill-treating a dead human body?
Answering this question requires making a number of important distinctions.One of these is about the different vaccines being discussed. Most of the answer to this question will deal with the mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna). I will address the AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson vaccines in an appendix at the end of it.
It’s helpful to start by noting that there are a number of different acts in the causal chain running from the abortion of a child to the taking of one of the vaccines. (Pfizer and Moderna use HEK293 cells so I will discuss those.)
1. The killing of the child (for a reason other than that of cloning their cells – the Dutch child being discussed in this post was not aborted so that their cells could be used for research).
2. The removal of cells from the child’s body.
3. The cloning of these cells and modification of the clones (and clones of clones etc.) to create HEK293 cells.
4. The use of HEK293 cells to develop and test a COVID-19 vaccine.
5. The production of the vaccine (not using HEK293 cells, but relying on information gained from their use).
6. Taking a COVID-19 vaccine.
Now, which if any of these acts constitute desecrating or ill-treating a dead body? Are any of them comparable to, for example, the use of the bodies of pre-born babies in ‘waste to energy’ incinerators for heating UK hospitals? Of course, (1), the killing of the child in an abortion is not ill-treating a body. Killing someone isn’t the same thing as desecrating a body that is already dead. As for the actions described in (2), (3) and (4), these may or may not count as desecrating a dead body. What you think about this will depend on your views on questions not directly related to the ethics of abortion.
What would it take for (2) and (3) to count as desecrating a dead body? (2) is ill-treating a dead body if you believe that taking organs or cells from a body for medical use without the dead person’s consent is always ill-treating a dead body, or if you thinks that it always is if the person was killed unjustly. (3), the cloning of cells taken from the dead body, was done by the same people who did (2). Whether you think this is desecrating a body will be dependent on what you think about cloning organs or body parts obtained from dead people without consent. It’s less clear that the continued production of HEK293 cells after the initial cloning of them from the cells taken from the pre-born child’s body counts as ill-treating a dead body. This involved not making further clones of the original cells, but clones of the original clones, and clones of those clones, etc. as the cells were further modified. I don’t think making clones of cloned cells is ill-treating a dead body in the way that the initial cloning might be. Nonetheless, in case any readers disagree, I’ll assume for the sake of argument that both (2) and (3) are desecrating a dead body.
The action described in (4), using the HEK293 cells to develop and test a vaccine, raises a quite different set of questions: questions about what the most accurate way to describe HEK293 cells is. Is a genetically modified clone of a clone of a clone of a clone (etc.) of a kidney cell ‘part of a body?’ My own view is that the answer to this question is ‘no’. I think that in order to count as being ‘part of a body’ a cell or organ has to have been at some point physically united with that body as an organic unity. If it were possible to take some cells from my heart, clone them, and then grow a new heart from those cells in a lab, the new heart would not be part of my body. And if the HEK293 cells are not part of anyone’s dead body, it’s hard to see how anything you do with it could possibly count as desecrating a dead body. So, if the HEK293 cells aren’t part of anyone’s body, then using them to make a vaccine isn’t ill-treating anyone’s body.
Nonetheless, let’s assume for the sake of argument that I am wrong about whether the cells are part of anyone’s body. Let’s assume that it is accurate to describe HEK293 cells as being parts of the body of the Dutch child aborted in the 1970s. I think that even if you think this, taking the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines does not count as desecrating a dead body.
To sum up where we’ve got to so far: abortion itself (act 1 in the chain above) is is not ill-treating a body, it’s killing someone. Whether acts (2), (3), and (4) (removing the cells, cloning the cells, using the cloned cells to make a vaccine) count as desecrating or ill-treating somebody depend on what you think about questions not directly related to abortion (e.g. whether removing cells from a dead body without consent counts as ill-treatment, whether clones of clones of cells are part of anyone’s body.) For the sake of argument I will assume that they do count as ill-treating a body, even though I don’t think that it makes sense to say that (4) and at least the ‘cloning clones’ part of (3) do.
It’s at (5), the ongoing production of the vaccines that I think it becomes decisively impossible to describe the action of producing a Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine as ill-treating a dead human body – and this is true even if you disagree with me so far and think that a clone of a clone of a kidney is part of a body. As discussed in the previous question, HEK293 cells are not used in the ongoing production of the mRNA (Pfizer and Moderna) vaccines (as distinct from the testing of those vaccines). What is used in the production is knowledge gained from (4) the use of HEK293 cells to develop and test a vaccine: knowledge about how to make a COVID-19 vaccine, and knowledge about whether that kind of vaccine is safe to use on humans.
Whether or not using that knowledge to make vaccines is ethical (see the next question), it simply does not count as not desecrating or otherwise ill-treating a dead body. To see this, consider the following series of actions.
A. During World War II, the Nazis perform vicious and cruel experiments on people to gain knowledge about hypothermia. These experiments involve immersing people in icy water for long periods of time without their consent. Some of the test subjects die.
B. As a result of these experiments the Nazis gain and record information about the rate of cooling of humans in cold water and about when re-warming might be successful.
C. Data from the Nazi experiments is later used by scientists and doctors for various medical purposes, including developing improved methods of reviving people rescued from freezing water after boat accidents.
D. A man who knows about the Nazi experiments and their use prints out and carries a plastic card on him which says “If I should fall into cold water and am at risk of death from hypothermia, please use the best known methods of reviving me, even if they were developed using data from the vicious Nazi experiments.” He unfortunately is in a boat accident and falls into freezing water, and is revived by rescue workers who find the card and use the best known methods.
Obviously D. is fictional. But the rest of the actions described here are completely real. The Conversation has a thoughtful piece about it here. Many other medical treatments we rely on today depend on data and knowledge that was obtained through unethical and often horrible means. See, for example, this CNN piece here.
It seems very clear that (C), developing the new methods and treatments for treating hypothermia from immersion in cold water, does not count as not ‘performing a vicious experiment on an unwilling person’, even though it is using knowledge derived from a vicious experiment performed on an unwilling person. Similarly, action (5) in the previous chain of actions, (producing COVID-19 vaccines), does not count as ‘ill-treating a dead human body’, even though it uses knowledge derived from action (4), using the HEK923 cells to develop and test a vaccine (remember, I am assuming for the sake of argument that (4) is ill-treating a dead body, even though I don’t in fact think this). It is a different kind of action.
The action of taking the vaccine (6), is like the action of the man who prints out the card asking to have the latest treatments for hypothermia used on him (D). Both cases are even further removed from the unethical actions that preceded them. Printing the card and explicitly consenting to treatment is not performing a cruel and vicious experiment, and taking a COVID-19 vaccine developed as the Pfizer and Moderna were is not ill-treating a dead human body. None of this implies that the abortion of the children from whose cells immortalised cell lines were derived was anything less than grievously wrong.
TL;DR: the Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines do not use human body parts in their production. At most, they use knowledge gained from experiments conducted on human body parts. Use of knowledge about how to treat hypothermia that comes from cruel and vicious experiments conducted by the Nazis is not the same thing as doing those experiments. Similarly, taking a dose of the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine is not itself ill-treating a dead person’s body.
Appendix: AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson.
These vaccines raise some different issues from the mRNA ones. The key difference is that both use fetal cell lines in the ongoing production and manufacture of the vaccines. These cells are not ingredients in the vaccines. They’re not injected into the recipients of the vaccines. But unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, making more doses of AstraZeneca and J&J requires using more cells from the immortalised cell lines.
Thus if you think of these cells as body parts of a dead person (which, again, I do not), there is more reason not to take these vaccines than the Pfizer and Moderna ones.
As a result, the argument for the permissibility of taking these vaccines takes a different form. For Pfizer and Moderna, you could think that acts (2), (3), and (4) (removing the cells from the child’s body, cloning the cells, using the cloned cells to develop and test a vaccine) were ill-treating or desecrating a human body, and that wouldn’t make it the case that actually producing doses of the vaccine (5) was desecrating a human body. And if producing doses of the vaccine isn’t ill-treating a body, there is no reason to think that taking those doses is either. In the case of AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson, though, because the cells are used in production, one’s intuitions about (5) (ongoing production) will be more likely to match ones about (4) (development and testing of the vaccine). The clean break that exists between (4) and (5) in the case of Pfizer and Moderna (the difference between using cells and using knowledge) doesn’t exist here. Given that (6) (taking the vaccine) involves creating more demand for (5) ongoing production, this means that the argument I outlined for Pfizer and Modern won’t work here.
There are two different arguments that can be made here.
(i) A person could agree with me that HEK and other similar cells that are cloned from fetal cells are not themselves parts of a human body. This is compatible with believing that the cloned and modified cells are still worthy of respectful treatment. Nonetheless, using them to develop, test, or produce a vaccine is not a case of ill-treating a dead body. The statement of pro-life scholars I quote above take this line, as do I.
(ii) If you disagree with this and think that HEK and similar cells are parts of a human body, it’s still not clear that the use of these cells to make vaccines is actually ill-treating those body parts. Making and producing a vaccine is in and of itself a good thing. Even if it is ill-treating those cells, it doesn’t seem like a severe enough form of ill-treatment to warrant a refusal to take the vaccines, given the moral seriousness of ending the pandemic. That there can be different levels of ill-treatment of a body seems clear: a killer who hacks up their victim’s body for their own amusement is doing something much more worse than a child who rearranges the fingers of a body at a wake so that they are doing a thumbs-up sign. “Using cells to make a life-saving vaccine” seems plausibly like it might not be a serious enough form of ill-treatment to be forbidden in all circumstances.
Thus even if you did conclude that taking or producing the AstraZeneca or Johnson and Johnson vaccines counted as ill-treating a dead body, that wouldn’t settle the question of whether you should take them or not. There might be overriding reasons to take the vaccine regardless.
My view is that if you take the that line I do in (i), taking these vaccines is not ill-treating a body and thus does not justify refraining from taking the vaccines. However, concerns about respect for the cells from the cloned cell line (as things derived from cell taken from an unjustly killed person’s body) might provide good reason to favour taking Pfizer or Moderna if these are available instead (all else being equal, it seems good to go with the vaccine that relied less on cells derived from ones taken in unjust circumstances: this is why if a new, equally effective vaccine were to come out tomorrow that had no connection at all to abortion, there would be good reasons to take that one instead of all the others). For what it’s worth, something like this seems to be what the Catholic Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and US Conference of Catholic Bishops say in their vaccine guidelines.
If you instead accept (ii), and you believe that HEK and similar cells are human body parts taken from an unjustly killed person without their consent, things are less clear. This would mean that taking the vaccine creates demand for a process (the ongoing production of the AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson vaccines) that uses those human body parts in an ongoing way. However, I have argued that even if you take this line, whether taking the vaccine would then be impermissible depends on further questions. Questions that include whether you think that using the cells for ongoing vaccine production is ill-treating them; and whether you think that ill-treating a dead body in any way is always impermissible regardless of circumstances. Whether taking the vaccine is impermissible also might depend on whether you think that taking a vaccine makes you guilty in any way of any ill-treatment involved in its ongoing manufacture. I don’t think any of the more plausible answers to these questions should lead people to refuse the Astrazeneca and Johnson and Johnson vaccines if they were the only ones available, even if you do think that HEK cells are human body parts (which, again, I don’t). But they would give even stronger reasons to take the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines if given the choice.
As should be clear, the concerns raised in this appendix do not apply to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
Is taking a COVID-19 vaccine benefitting from an unjust action or actions?
Yes, on pro-life premises, it is. Abortion is the killing of an innocent person and a serious violation of the pre-born child’s human rights. The COVID-19 vaccines would not have been developed in precisely the way they were if children had not been aborted. The knowledge about how to make exactly these vaccines might well have been acquired another way, but in the world we live in it was in fact acquired through the use of cells ultimately derived from the body of an aborted child. If you share common beliefs about cell and organ donation, at least the initial taking of cells from the children’s bodies was also wrong. Depending on your other beliefs and on the vaccine, further steps in the vaccines’ production may have been unjust too. Taking a COVID-19 vaccine is benefiting from injustice.
Is taking a COVID-19 vaccine morally wrong on the grounds that it is benefitting from an unjust action or actions?
This question is not fully answerable without delving into more general questions about the ethics of benefiting from injustice, a vast topic with a huge philosophical literature. Some of the premises I rely on about the ethics of benefiting from injustice are hotly debated on grounds that are not directly connected to one’s position on abortion. Google is your friend here for more on this debate. Also feel free to email us at email@example.com, I’m happy to recommend more specific reading.
The first thing worth keeping in mind in answering this question is that most of the readers of this blog benefit from injustice all the time. Chances are high that each of us lives on a bit of land that we wouldn’t live on if someone hadn’t unjustly kicked someone else off it at some point in the past. People in rich countries benefit economically from exploitative trade arrangements with poor countries, past and present. Many of the goods we use and consume are made by people working in grim conditions for cruelly low wages. If various past injustices hadn’t happened, we probably wouldn’t even have been born. If it wasn’t for, say, World War I, some recent ancestors of ours might never have met, or they might have conceived at a different time and thus had a different child.
As discussed in the last question, we also benefit from scientific and medical knowledge gained by unethical means (here’s another article on some of the examples from the BBC).
My general view is that it is not in and of itself wrong to benefit from past injustice, as long as in doing so you are not contributing to current or future injustice. (There are also degrees of ‘contributing’ to current and future injustice which make different actions permissible or not. I’ll set those aside for now). We don’t have to support the past injustice or say that it was good that it happened to continue to take advantage of the benefit.
It is not wrong for the US government to continue to use the US Capitol building even though it was built in part by slave labour. It’s not wrong for us to use methods of treating hypothermia gained from vicious Nazi experiments or other knowledge gained from unethical sources. And it’s not wrong to take a COVID vaccine even though the knowledge about how to make them was gained in circumstances that came about because a child was aborted. So no, it is not morally wrong to take a COVID vaccine on the grounds that it is benefiting from injustice. (Though the situation would be different if another vaccine were available which didn’t involve benefiting from injustice at all. Unfortunately, all the vaccines currently available in Ireland rely or relied on ‘immortalised’ cell lines ultimately deriving from cells taken from aborted children in some way.)
However, I think that when we benefit from injustices we incur additional obligations to the victims of those injustices. Sometimes that might involve compensating the victims or their families. In other cases that’s impossible and we have to do something else. Leah Libresco writes in the New York Times about some of the ways in which we might be able to meet those obligations in cases to do with the use of cell lines. I’m going to quote it at length (note that Libresco seems to disagree with me about the correct description of cells from the immortalised cell lines):
HeLa, a frequently used cell line, was also cultivated under an ethical cloud. It comes from a cervical cancer culture taken in 1951 from a Black woman named Henrietta Lacks. She consented to a biopsy for diagnosis, but she was never asked for permission or informed that her cells were used for other purposes.
Today, her cells are bought and sold until there are more of her cells living in labs than made up her body in life. But for years her family was unaware that her cells lived on, and they remained impoverished, unable to afford health care. When they were finally asked about their wishes, they didn’t ask that the cells be returned or that all research cease. Instead, they pushed for stronger consent protections and acknowledgment for the person behind the cells.
In a global economy, we aren’t directly orchestrating the suffering that sometimes produces the goods we consume, but we are the beneficiaries. How do we make amends for the benefits we receive as a result of an injustice?
Offering amends to Lacks means acknowledging who she was and making direct reparations where possible. The same applies to what I see as the unknown children in our cell lines. Where that knowledge has already been lost, it means making amends where we can and refusing to let the children who die before birth today be treated as medical waste or raw materials.
Libresco’s article is worth reading in full: she writes movingly about her own experience with miscarriage and grapples with questions about what our obligations are when we benefit from injustice. The piece is partially targeted at Catholics, but the case it makes is of wide application. While it’s not impermissible to benefit from injustice in the case of taking the COVID-19 vaccine, beneficiaries of injustice often have new obligations that arise from that benefit. One way to discharge that obligation would of course be to devote time and energy to addressing injustices being carried out against unborn children today. Which brings me to my last question.
TL;DR: It’s not impermissible to benefit from injustice: we do it all the time in various ways. But it imposes additional duties on us which we should take seriously.
Would taking a COVID-19 vaccine express support for, or insufficient opposition to, abortion?
This is a question about signalling. Signalling is sometimes treated as though it’s unimportant or trivial, but actually, what we signal with our behaviour is of critical moral importance. I claim to care about animal cruelty but never change anything about my life to do anything about it, a person might legitimately suspect that I don’t actually care all that much about it: I’d be sending a signal that animal cruelty didn’t really matter to me, and thus hurting the cause of preventing it.
I take very seriously arguments of the form ‘if you really thought abortion was killing a human, you wouldn’t…’. Pro-lifers are always open to the accusation that we are not treating abortion with the moral seriousness it deserves. Do our actions actually reflect our beliefs? Or do we, like the animal cruelty guy, not really care? These questions bother me: I know I for one do not do enough to work for justice on this issue.
So I’m in no way inclined to easily brush off claims that pro-lifers just taking the existing COVID-19 vaccines could signal to the world that abortion is ultimately no big deal. That when push comes to shove pro-lifers won’t really act as though abortion is the injustice they say it is. Might a lack of outcry from pro-lifers might even indirectly lead to more abortions, as people take widespread vaccine uptake by pro-lifers as tacit support for the practice?
If I thought that, I wouldn’t have written this post. But this is a question worth taking very seriously. Why do I think that taking the vaccines would not be a bad signal in this way?
First, I don’t think using the best methods for treating cold-water hypothermia signals any kind of support for or lack of sufficient opposition to Nazi experiments. But that’s a bit too easy. This connection, after all, is not widely known. What if everyone knew about the Nazi origins of some of the data used to develop the treatments? Even then, I don’t think it would make sense to act as though we didn’t have the knowledge gained. Rather, we should continue to use the treatments and methods while ensuring that the Nazi’s victims’ families are compensated, and do other things to oppose ongoing unethical medical experimentation. The same goes for other medical knowledge gained through unjust means (yet another source for some disturbing stories about this is Bill Bryson’s book The Body): including knowledge about how to make effective COVID-19 vaccines. The alternative, that we would have to renounce every benefit coming out of an injustice or else signal support for that injustice, is crazy. Such a renunciation couldn’t be done. (Again, the argument about use of knowledge only applies to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines: for AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson there is the additional concern about creating demand for use of more cells from ‘immortalised’ cell lines ultimately derived from the bodies of aborted children.)
Second, I think that refusing to take the vaccines could itself send the wrong signals about pro-lifers’ real concerns. As our friends at Rehumanize International point out, HEK and other ‘immortalised’ cell lines derived from cells taken from aborted children are used throughout the medical, food, and cosmetics industries. They are also used in some currently used vaccines against rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis A, and shingles. If pro-life outcry over benefitting from their use is much louder about COVID vaccines than about these other cases – and from some pro-lifers it has been much louder – then that risks signalling that our real concerns are not so much about unborn children as they are about something else about the vaccines, and that we’re using our opposition to abortion as a kind of smokescreen to oppose the COVID vaccines without acknowledging our real issues with them.
Thirdly, if you are convinced that COVID-19 is a serious threat to human life – and I am – then opposing these vaccines would be a particularly costly signal. By opposing them we would be consigning a lot of people to death while we waited a long time for vaccines that do not in any way involve benefiting from injustice to arrive. That might be a grim necessity if taking the vaccines was morally wrong in itself. But as I have argued, it isn’t.
Could we not accomplish much more in the way of signalling the seriousness of the pro-life cause by taking the vaccines and doing other things to make our stance on human rights for all clear? For instance, by publicly announcing that we’re donating to efforts to develop new cell lines that are not ultimately derived from aborted children’s bodies?
I think we could.
I think concerns about making clear our moral seriousness give pro-lifers reasons to prefer vaccines that involve benefiting from injustice less directly if given the choice. I also think that if another vaccine becomes available that doesn’t use HEK or similar cells at all, signalling value would be another reason to take it, besides the moral value of not benefiting from injustice. But I don’t think concerns like this make it impermissible to take the vaccines currently available.
TL;DR: Taking the vaccines need not signal support for or insufficient opposition to abortion. Refusing to take them could itself send bad signals about pro-lifers and their real priorities.
I don’t claim in this post to have dealt with every possible objection a person could have to the currently available COVID-19 vaccines. But I have tried to address a broad cross-section of them. My conclusion is that as ongoing manufacture of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine only relies on knowledge gained from the use of ‘immortalised’ cell lines, taking these vaccines is morally similar to taking advantage of any medical treatment that was developed in seriously unethical circumstances. As ongoing production of the AstraZeneca and Johnson and Johnson vaccines involves the continuous use of ‘immortalised’ cells, any moral issues with the use of those cells will apply more to these vaccines than to the Pfizer and Moderna ones, giving pro-lifers some reason to prefer the latter. However, I have argued that the correct description of cells from cell lines is not “parts of a human body”. Further, I have argued that even if you think that I’m wrong on that, it’s not the case that the issues raised are severe enough to make people refuse to take these vaccines if they are the only option. Thus, I don’t think people should refuse to take the vaccines on pro-life grounds, even though I think there are pro-life reasons to prefer some of them to others if given the choice. Given the great goods made possible by taking the vaccines (saving lives, protecting the vulnerable, ending the global pandemic and the severe restrictions in place to blunt its impact), people should in most circumstances take them.