An Outline Of A Moral Objection To Vaccine Mandates


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:

  1. 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;
  2. 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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  1. Hi Scott—

    I write this having read this post, as well as the one of yesterday re: the case of Paul, and mask mandates. I also read the comments section there. There’s no point in a rehashing of 2K theology or of the dispute over how militant postmillenial types read Psalm 2. (Incidentally, if you’re not aware, you will find Wilson making an apologia for fake vaccine ID cards as per his latest blog—based on cases of “righteous” deception in the Scriptures—ex., Rahab the harlot, etc., etc.). You already know of the impressive history of Reformed resistance to tyranny and a national appeal to such—ex., the Covenanters. But that’s not where I’m really headed here.
    If I must suffer blows (or death) for the sake of the gospel—whether as a missionary (as was Paul) or even in my daily life, then I am forced to take the blows in fulfillment of the explicit advance of Christ’s Kingdom and the gospel. I also can choose to show my faithfulness to Christ on an individual level (as did Paul) without seeking to make this ethic writ large for an entire society though complying with something so asinine as a cloth mask—which has only advanced evil men and their causes. We should suffer blows for the gospel, but why should we suffer blows for wanting to attend the opera in New York, or eat at a favorite restaurant? (Because I had COVID last year, I’m unvaccinated…why would I?…and now, NYC’s cultural life (MET Opera, Carnegie Hall, jazz clubs, all of it) is closed to me (I live in Boston). Would you make compliance in these matters a barometer of spirituality, of faithfulness to Christ? Should we erase all of the gains made since 1620 (let alone since A.D. 30) and have us worshipping in underground house churches…to prove how spiritual, faithful, and committed we are to the gospel? I’d like to think I’d have the courage and conviction to die for the cause of Christ, but I ask that our consciences not be bound re: our American birthright and citizenship. Doesn’t the Westminster Larger Catechism instruct us (in the sections pertaining to the 8th and 9th commandments) and insist that we guard the wealth of ourselves and others? Advocate for truth? “Not holding our peace when iniquity calleth…” Q/A. 145, etc., etc. The mask mandates are not a gospel issue. But the evil intentions of those in government—and how to resist them—become a confessional issue, no?? Further, doesn’t Jesus command us in the Gospels to prosper what we have been given? To grow our resources and not bury them? As the Puritans might say, we have been given “a goodly heritage”. And on a secular level, the amount of waste and this inflationary state is an abhorrence to us—as well as God. Even frugality is praised in the same section of the WLC. Why should Christian aid and abet the self-immolation?? I understand that the kingdom sphere is a pure thing and that the churches should be pure. But I don’t see how binding consciences over American citizenship juxtaposed against our reality in Christ is necessary—unless there is the circumstance of us having to explicitly CHOOSE Christ or Caesar. I love and respect you, but I wish this could all be reconsidered…or at least restated. Grace and peace.

    • Gregory,

      Where do you read me telling Christians that they can’t pursue civil remedies for injustices?

      Did Paul err in not invoking his rights immediately?

      • Scott,

        You do not say that, at all. In fact, you encourage Christians (and, I suppose all Americans) to pursue redress. No one who reads you could allege otherwise in good conscience.
        I will not say Paul erred. I do say we are not Paul, we are not professional missionaries (well, most of us), we are not in the first century, we have 2000 years of explicit Christian thought/development and leavening of the entire world, we are especially ideological heirs to explicit Christian thought in the West in the last 500 years and in the United States since the landing at Plymouth Rock, and we are not in a position yet where our reigning authorities bear no responsibility to authoritative secular, legal documents. We do not have an Imperial cult.
        I do not say we cannot learn from Paul’s example of suffering. I do say that we and he find ourselves in a different universe of surrounding contingencies. We should always choose Christ. But how pagan, reprobate minds (which are darkened and non-functional, relative to ultimate matters) interpret our “disobedience” cannot be accounted for. I ask again: why should we aid and abet the self-immolation to any degree whatsoever of the thing with which God has prospered us?
        I’m willing to be called dense/obtuse, but I fail to see how the example of Paul here is not as dissimilar as it is similar to our current predicament(s)—

        • Greg,

          We can all learn from Paul, however, can we not? Does he not reflect how to set priorities?

          We don’t live under Christendom. We live in a post-Christian, neo-pagan culture. Plymouth Rock was a long time ago. This isn’t a Christian country and hasn’t been for a long time.

          It’s a greater than/lesser than argument. If Paul was willing to suspend the protection of his rights for the sake of the Kingdom, might we not learn from him relative to a much lesser thing?

          The argument isn’t that difficult. I’m sure that you understand but but I suppose that you do not like it.

          Perhaps we differ in our analysis of where we are?

          • Scott,
            Yes, we can (and should) learn from Paul. While he was an author of Scripture and arguably the greatest Christian thinker/writer to have ever lived, there are myriad other Christian heroes found in the past two millennia to which we might appeal—who followed a different tack, right? I don’t want to make light of Paul’s plight or his strategy, either. I’d not want to be accused of some kind of sophistry. But, if I can agree that Paul’s circumstances warranted his tack, it seems fair to argue that how he engaged with the tyrants of his own day and time need not be normative across the centuries of faithful witnesses—let alone in our own day. I understand that we are not in Christendom (at least officially, although God’s sovereignty over all isn’t diminished, and the nations are compelled to confess Christ, in the Scriptures) and I also understand that Christendom was full of unrighteousness and bloodshed. I also understand that the State should not possess the Keys.
            That said, and back to Paul, I think you miss my point a bit: yes, I agree that if called upon to deny Christ—at the expense of my personal rights—then I can agree that Christian really has no alternative there. But, that’s just it. We are not yet at that moment. But, by ceding my rights such that I cannot step foot in NYC and do the secular, cultural things which add some joy and meaning to my life—absent a vaccine card—then I have just helped take us all one step closer to that Pauline crisis. Viewed in isolation, the mask issue is simply onerous. Read as a crucial step in a larger narrative, I do not want to aid and abet those who entertain a more sinister meta narrative. I just don’t. And, I don’t believe it makes our Christianity less selfless to use the courage and bravery and smarts which God granted us. If I can appeal to my birthright now—to make the soil of my nation more amenable to my heirs’ practice of Christianity in the coming decades—then I’m of a mind to resist the lunacy surrounding all of this as I’m able. As long as it’s NOT a shipwreck to faith. I repeat what I said: what Romans 1 minds make of our coherent decisions is something we will never be able to account for.
            The “analysis” of where we are…by this, do you mean where we are in terms of our late-modern decadence? The socio/ethical/cultural declension? I wasn’t sure. If that is what you mean, then yes, as a 49 yr. old who can barely recognize the country I grew up in, I’d say the hour is late. You first asked if I thought that Paul “erred” in not immediately reacting with talk of rights, citizenship, what have you. My argument would be that, if we want to make a relevant parallel example to our own day, then it would be my great-grandparents who already took the first blows. They suffered when the IRS was created and Wilson entered us into a World War. They took the blows of a needless Great Depression and the resulting oppressive tyranny that was the FDR administration. My grandparents took the blows of the ridiculous 60’s—and the costly Statism of JFK and LBJ. They also took the blows of Watergate, the insanity that was Vietnam, and the inflationary State under Carter. My parents and I have suffered the blows of a post-911 security State…where cameras watch us constantly and I’m forced to remove my shoes and shampoo and cologne bottles at an airport to go on vacation—while terrorist immigrants set up shop in my current home State in order to commandeer those same shampooless aircraft and steer them into buildings. Or, bomb a prestigious, historic marathon that has been run since the nineteenth century.
            The American people have been double-minded; they are narcissistic and selfish, and have largely given God the middle finger. But in a sense, too, they are kind and charitable and trusting. This has been exploited against them. I appeal to our directives—as per the WLC—in how to engage in faithful life and witness. We cannot shame Christ, but we cannot allow the uninstructed masses and the ignorant to be preyed upon through the medium du jour—the pernicious kinderspiel that is COVID regulations/mandates.
            Let us suffer for the sake of the gospel—if need be. But I choose not to suffer the quality of American civil/secular life which I am owed as part of my birthright. In my humble opinion, that is not prospering what God has granted us—as a people—and it would add unnecessarily to the onerous, toxic level of a kind of heaviness of life that exists already for millions. Enemies of Christ are behind all of this. Why should they be encouraged, aided and abetted?
            Thank you for allowing me to express this candidly and at length. I know these are passionate days for all of us, and I always appreciate the thoughtful remarks you make in this space—whether I always agree or not. Grace and peace.

              • Scott,

                You cannot be serious. If that is the sum takeaway of all that I wrote, then it’s glaringly obvious that the ability to communicate in thoughtful speech between intelligent people has been lost in our time—even when that speech is thought to be exacting. Why would you be so intentionally dismissive? You are the seminary professor, and you will be right—in the end—but, this is an exchange between two Christians…right??
                Of course I object to vaccine mandates—on its face. I understand that you do as well. I do not intentionally goad or misrepresent people whom I respect. But I object to many other things, as well—including the mask mandates that you seemed to esteem in the prior post, regarding the tribulations of the Apostle Paul. I was sort of pulling the two posts together in order to say NO. I reject both measures—out of hand—for any number of reasons, and I object to the Pauline case being used to bind Christian consciences—which are beholden to truths concerning the nature of reality itself—into the nonsensical kinderspiel of tyrants who would have us all placed in hellholes to rot, if they could. I object to any mandate—parading as it has the force of law. I object to churches not being the prophetic voice to the secular culture that is their role in this, and all other matters that could disturb the churches. It is a late hour, I don’t seek to make the church into a political action group, and I don’t advocate for either separatism or triumphalism. But I profoundly resent churches and pastors and congregants turning into functionaries of the enemies of Christ. It serves to reason that I would seek to distinguish what makes for heroic action and when the necessity of that action is imminent. Put another way, I don’t think the Pauline reference fits—for the reasons I wrote you, before. It is my view, but I am educable. At least I think I am.
                Perhaps you have a level of tolerance for the inanities—even though you point them out routinely—that I don’t share. Even Christians have different personalities/temperaments. You are typically cautious and conservative in your approaches to many issues and that indicates both a measure of intelligence and wisdom. Perhaps I’m lacking there, but we all of us are at the point where, because it’s NOW vaccine mandates we are talking about…people are drawing lines in the sand. I, on the other hand, was screaming and drawing lines in the sand over a year ago.
                The received wisdom on all of this has disturbed and damaged the churches. I have seen it locally. I have lived it. I only could wish this was strictly about vaccine mandates—

                • Greg,

                  No, but I’m really swamped. This is my last day to make progress on a large writing project and you’ve written quite a lot and we’re not making much progress so I thought it might help to clarify where we agree and disagree.

                  I understand that you’re frustrated.

  2. >>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.<<<

    From an informed (medical) consent point of view, infants would have no opportunity to consent in this situation; that would fall upon their parents. I'm less troubled by this opportunity to 'redeem' the loss of infants, but I also understand and appreciate that, if one would be cautious and not assume that said cell lines were legitimately obtained with proper consent, there is room for a conscience-binding objection still.

    • It’s one thing for parents to consent to life-saving, health-giving treatment in the place of an infant but it’s another for one’s cells/tissue/organs (it’s a continuum) to be harvested without consent.

  3. Sorry, I didn’t make a fine enough distinction; I was really referring to the first example (…from infants lost naturally) only – once deceased, may parents not exercise the right for what happens to the infant’s body? Praying not to irritate the management on this one…

    • BJ,


      It seems to me that there is a material difference between parents consenting to medical treatment on behalf of the child and consenting medical exploitation (which I don’t mean prejudicially) of a child who died spontaneously. It seems even more problematic when a child has been aborted voluntarily (as distinct from spontaneously). I do think that it’s possible for a parents to decide to volunteer, e.g., their child’s organs transplant etc. but we also face the specter of medical researchers harvesting biological material from aborted infants. We know that has happened in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. We know that Planned Parenthood has been harvesting and selling body parts.

      In the case of the fetal tissue/cells harvested that are being duplicated it has not been made clear whether it was harvested from voluntary or spontaneous abortions nor is it clear that the parent consented.

      Parental consent doesn’t make everything ok or right.

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