There is a welter of confusing claims and counter claims about the use of fetal cells during the production of the three major Covid-19 vaccines available in the USA.
In light of the conflicting claims and the cloudy nature of the information to the public about the vaccines, people of good will are going to arrive at different conclusions on these questions. Further, the specter of public and private vaccine mandates creates a potential crisis of conscience for those who object, on moral grounds, to receiving the vaccine. It is one thing for people to reach different conclusions about the morality of using vaccines it is another to have those choices circumscribed by employers and even more problematic to have the vaccine imposed by force as is being done to more than 1,000,000 active-duty American military personnel and as is being done in cities, counties, and states in the USA. Some law enforcement officers are facing termination if they refuse to receive a Covid-19 vaccine and military personnel face punishment and a possible dishonorable discharge if they refuse the vaccine.
Evangelicals And Catholics Together
Roman Catholic and Evangelicals have agreed that it is permissible for Christians to receive the two different types of Covid-19 vaccines despite their connections to fetal cells. There are, at present, relative to the use of fetal cells, two cases: The Janssen/J&J type was formulated using cells from aborted infants (foetus is Latin for infant). The Modern and Pfizer types were tested using fetal cells.
As the case goes, the research was done using “immortalized” lines of cells that have been reproduced in a laboratory and are many generations removed from the original cell material. The Vatican describes this as “passive” but “licit” (permissible) cooperation with abortion.
As Joe Carter notes, fetal cell material has been used in life-saving medical treatment for more than 60 years. These were harvested, however, from ectopic pregnancies and spontaneous abortions. This is a significant distinction.
What has changed in more recent decades, of course, is the availability of fetal cell material from voluntary and elective abortions of human infants.
The History of the Cell Lines
The Pfizer and Moderna type vaccines were created using an immortalized line of cells known as HEK293T. These cells are from the Netherlands and their source is clouded in obscurity. Carter argues that, until we know differently, we should assume that the line is legitimate and not harvested from a child illegally aborted. The Pfizer and Moderna type vaccines were tested using this line of cells.
Carter’s essay, however, does not address the second type of vaccine relative to the use of fetal cell material. The Southern Baptist ERLC discussion of the problem is virtually identical to Carter’s and it does not mention the Janssen/J&J vaccine.
The the University of Nebraska Medical Center quotes James Lawler, who writes: “No, the COVID-19 vaccines do not contain any aborted fetal cells. However, fetal cell lines – cells grown in a laboratory based on aborted fetal cells collected generations ago – were used in testing during research and development of the mRNA vaccines, and during production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.”
One of the challenges here is the vague language used by public health authorities regarding the use of fetal cells in the production of the Janssen/J&J vaccine. The North Dakota Department of Public Health writes:
The J&J vaccine did require the use of fetal cell cultures to develop and manufacture the vaccine. The Catholic Church and the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission have both stated that receiving a COVID-19 vaccine that required fetal cell lines is morally acceptable. However, if a choice is available, the Catholic Church has state that Pfizer’s and Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccines are preferable to J&J’s COVID-19 vaccine.
Was the fetal cell material used in testing only or what does “development” mean in this context? The UNMC explains:
For the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, fetal cell lines were used in the production and manufacturing stage. To make the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, scientists infect PER.C6 fetal cell lines to grow the adenovirus vector. (Learn more about how viral vector vaccines work.) All PER.C6 cells used to manufacture the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are descended from tissue taken from a 1985 abortion that took place in the Netherlands. This cell line is used because it is a well-studied industry standard for safe and reliable production of viral vector vaccines.
PER.C6 is simply another way to refer to the HEK293T line. According to the UNMC, the Janssen/J&J vaccine was not merely tested on fetal cells but that fetal cells were material to the development of the vaccine. This is not say, as some have incorrectly inferred, that there is fetal cell material in the vaccine itself.
Remarkably, Carter traces the line of cells to 1973 as does the UNMC but the ERLC “explainer” dates the line to 1985, which changes the picture rather significantly since abortion was legalized in the Netherlands in 1985. Indeed, the ERLC explainer says that they were extracted from an 18-week old infant. If those who date the PER.C6/HEK293 line to 1985 are correct, then we may not assume that the cells were obtained innocently.
Confusion abounds at every point, it seems, in the Covid-19 crisis.
The Moral Arguments
The moral argument for the vaccines seems to rest on two points:
- The distance between the original cell material and the current cell material is so great that the pharmaceutical companies are no longer morally culpable for using them;
- The danger of the virus is so great that the benefit of the vaccines outweighs the moral risk in using them.
Still, the Vatican hedges their bet by saying that when an alternative to the current vaccines becomes available that alternative would be morally preferable.
I am not arguing that those who have been or will be vaccinated are sinning but I am trying to sketch the outlines of a case for asserting good-faith moral objections to vaccine mandates. What should we conclude? Do Christians have a right to reject the vaccine on the grounds that it implicates them in the voluntary abortion of humans and the harvesting of biological material for medical use?
Yes, they do. The moral argument rejecting the vaccine is more direct in the case of the Janssen/J&J vaccine.
The moral argument against the Pfizer and Moderna type vaccines rests on the same sorts of arguments used against animal testing: when we use products developed by animal testing we provide an economic incentive to continue animal testing. By all accounts the Covid vaccine business is big business. The financial incentive should not be underestimated. It seems reasonable to argue that every time we use the vaccine we are incentivizing pharmaceutical companies to continue using the “immortalized” cell lines.
Does the successive generations of material and the time between their harvesting and their use render them morally harmless? Again, it would be reasonable to conclude that they do not.
It is true that some amazing treatments have been created using cell lines harvested from infants lost naturally (e.g., ectopic pregnancy or spontaneous abortion). It is also true that we are harvesting material from human beings who did not have the opportunity to consent to their tissue being harvested. This distinguishes them from organ donors, who consciously volunteer the use of their tissue. Does the ends justify the means? In principle most people would say no.
It is true that, in Jacobson v Massachusetts (1905) the Supreme Court held that the police powers of the state may be used to compel Smallpox vaccinations. It is also true that it would be foolish to trust the SCOTUS to decide morality since anyone who knows the history and function of the court knows that it is not an arbiter of morality but of constitutional and administrative law.
It is also true that there are material differences between the Smallpox vaccine and the current Covid-19 vaccines. The former was not developed or tested using cells harvested from infants (who may or may not have been medically aborted). Further, Smallpox is not Covid-19. These are distinct diseases with different hosts and etiologies. The Smallpox vaccine was rather more effective than the Covid-19 vaccines, which begin to lose potency after three months and after 8 months require a booster. At its greatest potency, the J&J vaccine offers only about 60% protection. The science of the side effects of the Covid-19 vaccines is beginning to emerge at the same time authorities are doubling down on vaccines by imposing mandates. In this case it is arguable that the mandates are well ahead of the science since no one can possibly know the long term effect of the vaccines nor have authorities had time to assess the short term consequences.
Christians and others with concern about the moral problems associated with the production and testing of the Covid-19 vaccines should not be bullrushed into submitting against their conscience. There are reasonable moral grounds for vaccine hesitancy.
©R. Scott Clark. All Rights Reserved.
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