CMDA's The Point

Navigating Vaccine Ethics

January 7, 2021

by Jonathan Imbody

CMDA Senior Vice President for Bioethics and Public Policy Dr. Jeff Barrows and I recently wrote a piece for The Public Discourse, “Is Receiving the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 Vaccine Ethical?” that suggested principles to consider as we navigate ethical issues related to COVID-19 vaccines. I’ve included brief highlights below; more from the original article and also new observations will be published in an upcoming edition of CMDA Today (previously known as Today’s Christian Doctor).  

CMDA has approved an ethics statement that can help guide individuals’ analyses of immunizations and the potential for moral complicity with evil:

  1. “Using technology developed from tissue of an intentionally aborted fetus, but without continuing the cell line from that fetus, may be morally acceptable.
  2. “Continued use of a cell line developed from an intentionally aborted fetus poses moral questions and must be decided as a matter of conscience, weighing the clear moral obligation to protect the health of our families and society against the risk of complicity with evil.
  3. “Using a vaccine that requires the continued destruction of human life is morally unacceptable.”

Deciding which COVID-19 vaccine poses the least ethical concerns hinges in part on the implication of abortion in (a) the initial design of the vaccine, (b) the confirmatory testing of the vaccine and (c) the ongoing production of the vaccine. Vaccines that continue to use the abortion-derived cell line in ongoing production pose the most obvious ethical barrier to use by pro-life individuals. This category includes vaccines by AstraZeneca–University of Oxford and by Janssen–Johnson & Johnson. In fact, these vaccines employ abortion-related cell lines in all three stages—design, confirmation and production.

While still ethically concerning, the fact that this remote and limited interaction with abortion does not involve the continuing use of an aborted fetal cell line makes it less ethically problematic compared to its competitors that use these cell lines for ongoing vaccine production.

Unlike the aforementioned COVID-19 vaccine candidates that rely on abortion-derived cells for their ongoing production, the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine used the HEK-293 cell line from a 1972 abortion only to confirm that messenger RNA was properly coding for the spike protein of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. While still ethically disconcerting, the fact that this remote and limited interaction with abortion does not involve the continuing use of an aborted fetal cell line makes it less ethically problematic compared to its competitors than use these cell lines for ongoing vaccine production.

A consideration of the harm to others that can come without vaccination goes to the heart of Christian ethics in a way that virtually every believer understands: Vaccinating yourself and those who depend on you is an important component of following the command to love thy neighbor.

We recognize that each individual must weigh ethical considerations before making a vaccine decision. When we examine the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine in light of ethical principles of (a) loving our neighbor by protecting them through our own vaccination, (b) the distance in time from an abortion connection and (c) the fact that the vaccine does not continue to use cell lines derived from an abortion, we find these factors considerable in mitigating the ethical concerns and opening the door to receiving the vaccine in good conscience.


About Jonathan Imbody

Jonathan previously served as CMDA's Federal Policy Analyst and as CMDA's liaison with the federal government in Washington, D.C. A veteran writer of more than 30 years, Jonathan authored Faith Steps, which encourages and equips Christians to engage in public policy issues. He has published more than 100 commentaries in The Washington Post, USA Today, New York Times, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Chicago Sun-Times and many other national publications. Jonathan's writing focuses on public policy issues including freedom of faith, conscience and speech; human trafficking; abortion; assisted suicide; stem cell research; the role of faith in health; international health; healthcare policy; sexual risk avoidance and HIV/AIDS. Jonathan received his bachelor's degree in journalism and speech communications from the Pennsylvania State University, a master's degree from Penn State in counseling and education and a certificate in biblical and theological studies from the Alliance Theological Seminary in New York. Jonathan's wife Amy is an author and leads the Redemptive Education movement. They have four children and four grandchildren.


  1. Avatar Steven Willing on January 8, 2021 at 8:21 am

    Jonathan, how about the Moderna vaccine? Both are now being deployed.

    • Avatar Dr. Jeff Barrows on January 18, 2021 at 8:59 am

      The Moderna vaccine has the same ethical status as the Pfizer vaccine. Both utilized Abortion Derived Fetal Cell Lines (ADFCL) in the confirmatory stages of development of the mRNA. In the same way, both do not use ADFCL’s for the ongoing manufacture of their vaccines, which make them ethically superior to either the AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine or the upcoming Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

  2. Avatar Amber Carrero on January 18, 2021 at 1:31 am

    Whatabout long-term impacts of mRNA? We once believed that permanent implant devices were inert, before learning that biofilm is inherent more than 50 years later. Now you’re seeking to bypass the immune system with no understanding of long-term impacts.
    I do understand that mRNA is an alternative to the risks associated with cow-derived vaccines. (Same groups at higher risk from disease are high-risk from cow-derived vaccines.) I also understand the issues surrounding vaccine hesitancy. There are no easy answers. At this time, it requires a new approach to communications.

  3. Avatar Ronald Hamner, MD on February 2, 2021 at 10:26 am

    The concept of using what was meant for evil to, instead, produce good is not new. See the comments by Joseph recorded in Genesis. However, we must remain careful about assuming we know God’s plan about such issues. I believe that the journey of sanctification is marked by increasing dismay and discomfort with any and all sin, reflected, in this case, by use of any elective aborted source of human material for research or commercialization.
    I am receiving the Pfizer vaccine and thank God that we have that weapon to combat this plague. However, unease about the process of producing the vaccine is a gift from God reminding me that my understanding of the science and what God planned is incomplete.

  4. Avatar Tina Slusher on February 8, 2021 at 11:37 am

    Just spoke with our ID doctor and responding to Amber’s comment. First I am not the expert and cannot go into great detail re mRNA vaccines but per ID it is not correct that the mRNA vaccines bypass the immune system but rather creates a protein that the immune system recognizes and attacks. What they do is change how the protein is being presented to the immune system. mRNA does not have around as it is very labile. I think it might be helpful for CMDA to have an infectious disease doctor who understands exactly how the mRNA vaccine works in detail address some of these questions. Thanks

  5. Avatar Katelyn S on February 11, 2021 at 6:08 am

    Why are we separating who gets the vaccine 1st, 2nd, last? I’m sick of everything being divided into color. How about whoever needs the vaccine receives it. We are all in this together. Let’s start talking about issues collectively so that people will start thinking that way.

  6. Avatar Denise Sibley, MD on February 17, 2021 at 11:18 pm

    Get your facts straight: if you have read the Pfizer and Moderna protocols, decreased transmission of disease of covid was NEVER an outcome or even evaluated in the ongoing experimental protocols which conclude in 2023. Therefore, there is NO benefit of vaccination to any person other than the person vaccinated. The benefit is only a selfish desire to possibly reduce symptoms of covid for the vaccinated person but not the infectivity or disease burden of covid in the population. The only endpoint of the experimental vaccine protocols was possible reduction of symptoms of covid when infected. Therefore invoking the “love your neighbor” argument is invalid as a reason to implore “every believer” to volunteer to be an experimental subject in poorly tested and frankly biased experimental protocols with substantial potential long term harms using a new gene therapy to induce immunity.
    I have been a member of CMDA for greater than 20 years and am dismayed at the departure from sound biblical doctrine via medical ethics discussions of ethical superiority and such. An action, such as abortion, is either always wrong as sin or always right, not sometimes right or sometimes wrong. Absolute truth is truth that is absolute.
    As contrarian opinions of mine have previously been removed by CMDA in the comment section, I will be interested to see if the organization allows this one to remain in print.

    • Avatar Steven Tomski MD on February 23, 2021 at 6:55 am

      I agree with Dr Sibley’s letter above. The means (vaccine from abortion technology) doesn’t justify the ends (milder disease). There are no decreased mortality or transmissibility data. Even the decrease “case” rate of 95% relative risk reduction is a <1% absolute risk reduction. If one believes the reported 500k death number we are already at heard immunity. 500k/.02 CFR= 250M cases. Note the curves of plummeting “cases.” Making ethical choices involves knowing the facts. One must be aware of downplayed and unknown risks vs overhyped pro-ported benefits.
      One death is tragic. I care for patients across the spectrum from early outpatient (no deaths or hospitalizations for my early treatment patients) to the ICU (most seen on one or more occasion without treatment before hospitalization). It is equally tragic that early effective outpatient therapy has been downplayed and suppressed for the promotion of an experimental unproven vaccine.

      • Avatar Steven Tomski MD on February 25, 2021 at 1:24 pm

        Let me update the the vaccine morbidity and mortality data.
        From the England journal of medicine dated today.

        Smoke and mirrors.
        3.1M patients whittled down to 597k in each group (~1.2M total).
        9 deaths in treatment group. 32 deaths in placebo group. Relative Mortality decreased 72%. Absolute mortality decreased 0.004%. Number needed to treat to prevent one death 26,000 vaccines. 55 severe cases in the vaccine arm and 174 severe cases in the placebo arm. Relative risk reduction between 62%to 92% depending on days since vaccine. Absolute risk reduction 0.02%. Number needed to treat to prevent one severe case 5000 vaccines. Headlines tomorrow will tout how great the vaccine is.

      • Avatar Steven Willing, MD on March 8, 2021 at 11:40 am

        Dr. Tomski, there are several factual errors behind your analysis.

        Your math is wrong. 500k/.02=25M, not 250M. Are you confusing case fatality rate (much higher) with infection fatality rate (IFR – much lower)?

        The best approximation of the IFR is around .4 to .6%. It has to be higher than 0.28%, unless you’re prepared to prove that the entire population of New Jersey has now been infected – because that’s the current population-wide fatality rate.

        It’s already been established that there really is both decreased mortality and transmission. Your moral argument has already been refuted and there’s no need to revisit that.

        Personally, I’m fine if some people choose not to get a vaccine as long as they don’t promote disinformation. Once everyone has had a chance to receive the vaccine, the refusers are mostly just a danger to themselves, since their children are mercifully at an extremely low risk.

    • Avatar Steven Willing on March 3, 2021 at 2:13 am

      Please get YOUR facts straight. Since the safety and efficacy studies were never designed to measure transmission, your first point is a red herring. In fact, we now know for sure that vaccination does reduce transmission based on data from both Israel and UK. As reported in the March 3 London Times:

      “Vaccination will stop people passing on the coronavirus “almost completely”, the Public Health England head of immunisation has forecast. Dr Mary Ramsay said evidence was mounting that vaccination worked to prevent infections and stop people transmitting the virus, something that would make it much easier to ease lockdown quickly and permanently.”

      The CMDA most clearly has NOT departed from “sound biblical doctrine”. There is no such thing as a product or service that is untainted by human sin. Allowing countless innocents to die because a life-saving treatment had a very peripheral connection to a single abortion 40 years ago is neither moral nor ethical.

  7. Avatar Gloria A. on March 11, 2021 at 2:17 pm

    I am NOT a physician. I am a grandmother of four-seeking information-and wading through the wide spectrum of opinon regarding the vaccine. I am 64 years old. I am Ortodox in my belief of Scripture. I do not pick apart what I choose to believe. SCRIPTURE IS ABSOLUTE. The Word of God does not need me to confirm His Word. He is the Author and Finisher. That said-at this time, I have chosen not to receive the vaccine because a percentage of testing, reseach, AND production involved the murder of God’s precious babies in order for this to come to fruition-how manydecades ago does NOT matter-lives of an unborn was still brutally taken. When I was a child, I was vaccinated againist polio, Rubella, Measles. I was a child, and had no knowledge of vaccine ethics.
    In the meantime, I will continue to seek God’s voice-and ask in my daily petitions that He provides protection for me against COVID-19 as I contiune with the safe practices in the Power, Name, and Authority of My Lord, Jesus The Christ-My Saviour—-By His Spirit-Amen.

  8. Avatar Barbara C on June 18, 2021 at 12:13 am

    Thank you for the information. Any talk on any new vaccines not using human or animal cells. Somewhere I thought I had read about three which were being developed using a different technology. Also, what is this I heard about the spike proteins being “cytotoxins”, breaking off and floating all over the body. It seemed the speaker was implying this was the reason for so many unexpected and unexplained negative side effects of the covid vaccine ( which particular one I don’t know ).

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