The Ethics of the SARS-CoV-2 Vaccines Revisited
September 15, 2021
by Jeffrey Barrows DO, MA (Bioethics)
In the spring 2021 edition of CMDA Today, CMDA published an article that examined the ethical basis for taking a COVID-19 vaccine. The goal of the article was to reassure CMDA members of the good reasons to utilize the COVID-19 vaccines produced in the last year. Since the article’s publication, several members have written with ongoing questions and concerns about the ethical status of the vaccines due to their association with abortion-derived fetal cell lines. The purpose of this blog post is to address those concerns. An update on the safety and efficacy of the vaccines will be addressed in the future.
Hopefully, we can all agree that the COVID-19 vaccines’ utilization of fetal cell lines from abortions generates an emotional response of revulsion and disgust. This God-given emotional response is meant to alert us to the danger of possible association with evil. However, God has also given us the capacity to reason through problems so our eventual decisions are based not just on an emotional reaction, but a mind renewed by the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Let me first begin by clearly stating that CMDA is firmly opposed to abortion, taking the stance that life begins at fertilization. Any complicity with abortion is unacceptable to CMDA. Therefore, the major ethical question for either accepting or refusing COVID-19 vaccines is whether utilization of these vaccines constitutes complicity with the evil of abortion.
CMDA’s position statement entitled Moral Complicity with Evil lays out three separate conditions that must be satisfied to avoid complicity with evil. For the utilization of the COVID-19 vaccines to be ethical despite their association with abortion-derived fetal cell lines, all three conditions must be met.
The first condition is that the association with the past evil must be sufficiently uncertain or distanced from the original evil act. Regarding the COVID-19 vaccines and their association with abortion-derived fetal cell lines, this means there should be no evidence the original abortion was performed for the purpose of creating the fetal cell line. This includes complete absence of evidence that the original abortion was coerced in any way. Finally, there should be maximal separation between the abortion itself and the development of the fetal cell line.
Only two fetal cell lines were used in the development of the SARS-CoV-2 vaccines within the United States. The first is known as HEK-293, which was used in association with the development of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. The second cell line is called PER.C6, which was used in the development of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Both cell lines were created by scientists working in the lab of Dr. Alex Van der Eb.
HEK-293 stands for a human embryonic kidney cell line derived from the 293rd attempt to establish a successful immortal cell line. The tissue utilized in the development of this cell line was obtained from an abortion performed in 1972 in the Netherlands. During the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hearing in 2001 to approve the medical use of this cell line, Dr. Van der Eb gave testimony regarding the development of these fetal cell lines, which can be found online.
Importantly, Dr. Van der Eb testified that the original reason for the abortion in 1972 was unknown to him. This critical testimony establishes that he had not engaged in motivating the woman to have the abortion in 1972. Additional testimony by Dr. Van der Eb documents that the HEK-293 cell line itself was created by another researcher one year later, in 1973, creating another layer of separation from the abortion itself and the subsequent development of the fetal cell line.
The PER.C6 cell line was created in 1995 from embryonic retinal tissue cultures derived from fetal tissue that came from an abortion in 1985. During this same hearing, Dr. Van der Eb testified that the abortion performed in 1985 was “…simply because the woman wanted to get rid of the fetus.” The 10-year interval between the original abortion and the fact that the PER.C6 cell line was developed by scientists other than Dr. Van der Eb once again increases the separation from the evil of abortion and the development of the fetal cell line.
If there was any evidence that even part of the motivation for either of these women to have the abortion was to establish the fetal cell lines, any subsequent use of the cell lines would constitute complicity with evil. Separation from the original evil of abortion is maximized by four different factors:
- Lack of association between the motivation for the abortion and the development of the fetal cell lines.
- One scientist collecting the original tissue and a different scientist creating the cell line.
- The interval between the original abortion and the development of the fetal cell lines.
- The subsequent decades that have passed since the original abortions.
Let me expand on this point through an example I have found helpful to illustrate this point. Imagine a 6-month-old child brought into the emergency department by his mother. Multiple skull fractures are found upon examination, and the mother admits previous child abuse by her boyfriend. Further evaluation of the baby reveals the tragedy that this 6-month-old child has no functioning brain activity. Also imagine that a six-month-old baby with a congenital heart defect is in the same hospital awaiting cardiac transplantation. Would the transplantation of this heart into the child with the congenital heart anomaly constitute complicity with the evil of child abuse? Most would say no, because of the clear separation between the evil of the abuse and the good of the transplant.
I believe the reason most Christians struggle with the utilization of these COVID-19 vaccines relates to their difficulty separating the evil of abortion from the subsequent use of the tissue from the abortions. However, careful comparison of the two scenarios reveals no difference in terms of the separation from the evil. In both scenarios, a horrendous evil has occurred. But completely separate from that evil, tissue is being utilized for good. Thus, the first condition of avoiding complicity with evil is met.
The second condition that must be met to negate any moral complicity with evil is that the action must not reward, perpetuate, justify, cooperate with or ignore the original evil. In the case of the COVID-19 vaccines, any utilization of a COVID-19 vaccine must not incentivize pharmaceutical companies to develop new abortion-derived fetal cell lines. Fortunately, ethical alternatives such as insect and animal cell lines have been developed that can replace abortion-derived fetal cell lines. Therefore, CMDA has actively advocated through press releases, interviews and written articles that any future development of vaccines be done in an ethically pure manner by using these ethical alternatives. This advocacy has also served to raise awareness of the use of these abortion-derived cell lines so members themselves can advocate against their future use.
The third condition that must be satisfied to avoid moral complicity with evil is that the intent of the action must be for good. In the case of the utilization of COVID-19 vaccines, this means their utilization must have some good result. It is clear from the increasing medical evidence that these vaccines are highly successful in preventing hospitalization and mortality from COVID-19. In addition, there is some evidence that utilization of the COVID-19 vaccines does decrease the spread of the SARS-Co-V2 virus. Both the decrease in hospitalization and mortality from COVID-19 and the decrease in the spread of the SARS-Co-V2 virus constitute definite goods. Therefore, the third condition for avoiding moral complicity with evil is also met.
I would be remiss if I did not briefly point out that there is a difference in the level of utilization of these abortion-derived fetal cell lines by the three vaccines currently approved for use in the United States. Specifically, both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines used the HEK-293 fetal cell line in a single confirmatory step during the development of the vaccines. Neither the Pfizer nor the Moderna vaccine utilize abortion-derived fetal cell lines for the ongoing production of the vaccine. However, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a different type of vaccine. It utilized the Per.C6 cell line in the development of the vaccine AND ongoing production of the vaccine. I make note of this to inform members of all the facts surrounding the association of the COVID-19 vaccines and abortion-derived fetal cell lines.
If utilizing the COVID-19 vaccines constituted moral complicity with the evil of abortion, there is no question CMDA would be opposed to their use. However, as is shown by this ethical analysis, the COVID-19 vaccines may be used without engaging in complicity with the evil of the original abortions, as long as their use is accompanied by efforts to raise awareness of the evil of abortion and advocate for the ethically pure development of future vaccines. CMDA has done that for its members and will continue to do so throughout this pandemic.