[Editor’s Note: AP auxiliary staff writer Dr. Stearsman holds an M.A. in Bioethics and Medical Humanities from the University of South Florida, as well as the Doctor of Pharmacy degree from the University of Florida. He has taught courses in the University of South Florida College of Medicine and the University of Florida College of Pharmacy.]
Can vaccines be used in good conscience if the vaccine was developed using tissue from aborted fetuses?
In 2015 a group by the name of Center for Medical Progress set up a fake company called Biomax that infiltrated Planned Parenthood, exposing some of its inner workings.1 Biomax interviewed people in high positions and exposed how Planned Parenthood stood to profit from abortions by selling recovered fetal tissue to researchers. The videos ignited a media frenzy and sent shock waves throughout the nation. In response, Raegan McDonald-Mosley, the Chief Medical Officer for Planned Parenthood, denied any wrongdoing in The New England Journal of Medicine as he reported that 1% of approximately 700 health centers nationwide assist patients who wish to donate fetal tissue following abortion.2
Advancing to 2020 with the race to find a safe and effective vaccine for treating COVID-19, questions have arisen concerning the development of potential vaccine candidates from aborted fetal cell lines. In June of 2019 the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) suspended funding for research within the National Institutes of Health (NIH) where acquisition of new fetal tissue would be required.3 While contracts within the NIH that use new fetal cell lines have been discontinued,4 cell lines from decades-old aborted fetuses are still being used in developing a vaccine candidate.5 If a candidate is developed from decade-old fetal cell lines, would consenting to vaccines or administering vaccines be justified in God’s eyes? Can a straight line be drawn from abortion to patient use?
Examining the morality of vaccine use involves looking at individual patient choices in view of the larger public and global health. Vaccines are intended either to prevent or treat disease.6 Individual patients vaccinate to prevent or treat disease that ultimately could be fatal. From a public health perspective, vaccines are intended to protect the larger public from disease and possible death but, as with any human action, it is important to consider God’s thinking on the matter before acting.7
For more than 80 years, aborted human embryos and fetuses have been used to research and develop vaccines.8 As far back as the 1930s, Olitsky and others used brain tissue from human embryos to grow poliovirus.9 Since that time, vaccines against measles, rubella, chickenpox, shingles, rabies, Hepatitis A, and polio have been created using fetal tissue.10 In addition to vaccines, fetal cell lines are used in research or treatments for Parkinson Disease,11 HIV, Hepatitis B and C, retinal disease, and fetal development.12 In 2014, the National Institutes of Health funded 164 projects using fetal tissue totaling $76 million and more than $152 million in embryonic stem cell research for the same period.13
Several prominent cell lines exist that are the products of abortion. HEK-293 is a cell line that originated from the kidney cells of an aborted embryo from 197214 and that is cited in more than 28,000 articles.15 This cell line is commonly used in gene therapy where adenovirus is used to deliver experimental genes.16 Other cell lines include: PER.C6 which was isolated from the retinal cells of an 18-week-old fetus in 1985,17 WI-38 from lung tissue of an aborted 12-week-old fetus, and MRC-5 from lung tissue of an abortion of a 14-week-old fetus.18 The WI-38 cell line goes back to a single abortion in 1961.19 To be clear, these cell lines do not require multiplied continual abortions today, but rather are the product of single abortions that happened decades ago. 20
Understanding the language of abortion is essential in examining questions of conscience since sometimes the technical language can be quite confusing.21 The way doctors may technically use terms may be quite different from the way the public uses them. In medical texts, like Williams Gynecology, abortions are distinguished as either therapeutic or elective (voluntary) and either spontaneous or induced.22 The language in medicine can be confusing and disturbing to mothers. For example, a physician might call a spontaneous delivery (miscarriage) an abortion because pregnancy ends.23 If a mother were to hear this verbiage she might be shocked, especially when she bears no moral guilt for the fetal demise and when the death was clearly out of her control. Morally, such cases are quite different than when a mother aborts for economic reasons, convenience, rape, or incest. Electively killing the unborn is a conscious choice made by some mothers and supported medically by practitioners and abortion advocates.
Moral concerns are voiced in how vaccines are researched. If vaccines are created from research that uses embryos or fetal tissue recovered from an elective abortion, can one in good conscience consent to the use of the vaccine for himself or a loved one (e.g., child)? The concern here is that consenting to a vaccine makes one a participant in abortion or, at the very least, implies an endorsement of abortion. What are the grounds of this concern? Are vaccine users contributing to the death of the unborn?
In analyzing this multifaceted issue, two clear moral questions arise. First, is it moral to abort? Second, is it moral to use aborted tissue? Morally, these are two distinct acts. In examining the moral and scientific evidence, let us examine if one can morally consent to a vaccine while not consenting to abortion. Or, is consenting to certain vaccines necessarily consenting to, or even encouraging in some way, abortion?
Morally, there are several principles that come into play in examining abortion. One principle is that human life, including the life of the unborn, is ultimately valued by God Who created man in His image (Genesis 1:27). God gives and sustains the very breath of life of all mankind (Genesis 1:30; 2:7; Acts 17:25). The ancients understood that life had value prior to birth (cf. Exodus 21:22-25). Roughly 700 years prior to Christ, God said: “Ephraim’s glory shall fly away like a bird–no birth, no pregnancy, no conception” (Hosea 9:11, ESV). From this passage, there can be no doubt that those of old possessed some knowledge of maternal changes and fetal development. Job and Jeremiah understood the value of human life prior to birth (Job 3:1-3,11; 10:18-19; Jeremiah 20:14-18). This life created by God possesses dignity that calls for respect and sanctity that calls for reverence.24
Second, human life is not only valued, but the destruction of innocent human life is condemned by God (Proverbs 6:16-17, Deuteronomy 19:10, Psalms 72:12-14). Elective abortion destroys innocent human life when pregnancy is terminated. This taking of innocent human life is condemned by God (Mark 7:21).
Third, a human owes a duty to his neighbor (Luke 10:25-37). This involves looking to exactly when a human becomes a neighbor. A human becomes a neighbor precisely at the point of fertilization—the joining of sperm and egg.25 Prior to fertilization no specific or separate human existed. God says that man has a duty to love his neighbor as himself (Matthew 22:39). Elective abortion violates the Golden Rule that states whatever we wish others would do to us, we should do to them (Matthew 7:12). Note that one’s relationship to his neighbor is not predicated on how he has been treated—the principle of reciprocity. Instead, God entreats a higher moral standard to treat people how “we wish” they treated us. The Golden Rule points to a higher moral framework, a Divine path that acts, instead of reacts. Every mother that practices abortion deprives a separate life of the opportunity that she enjoys. The glory of this distinct life that is so dependent on her is tragically cut off. These three principles prove that the act of abortion is sinful. But what about the second question: is it moral to use aborted tissue?
To answer this question, the moral principle of complicity needs to be considered. One is complicit when he consents to the acts of others, either for good or for evil. If one grants approval to evil, one bears culpability and guilt in that evil act (Romans 1:32).26 Interestingly, there seems to be no market or bank of tissue deposits that come from miscarriages or instances of natural fetal demise. The majority, if not all, of the fetal tissue comes from elective abortions. Does that mean that research on vaccines encourages abortions? Can a direct line from abortion be drawn to patients who use them?
Although recent limitations have been enacted, in public research there is certainly a market for the tissue of the unborn. The Federal Government recognized that this market may create unethical incentives and has set up certain restrictions that Institutional Review Boards (IRBs) monitor for compliance so that human subjects are protected in research. That federal statute states:
§45 CFR 46.204 Research involving pregnant women or fetuses.
This statute intends to prevent research from increasing the number of abortions to achieve certain research ends. While there may be a desire to use aborted tissue, the researcher is put at a distance to prevent influencing one to abort. If the statute is followed, no direct line exists between researcher and abortion. The desire for tissue is separated from the actual cause of death. Therefore, a direct line from vaccine user to abortion does not exist.28
Tissue from organ donors is recovered after death in the United States for medical use and clinical research. Medical uses include a myriad of transplantation and graft procedures. Research uses are even broader and include donations for education. In medicine, the goal of these donations is to benefit a particular patient. In research, the goal is to advance general or applied knowledge on a topic.
There are several ethical risks that often surround organ donations or anatomical gifts. One is that medical staff will end the life of a person prematurely simply to recover their organs for some benefactor. State laws address and mitigate these issues head on by limiting incentives for providers in recovering organs. Hospital administrators will notify recovery organizations, but then largely step out of the way as separate staff recover vital organs. In the state of Florida, for example, an attending physician who certifies the death may not be paid or reimbursed for participation in organ recovery or be employed by a procurement organization.29 In medical practice, those who care for those near the end of life (like attending physicians, hospitalists, or hospice providers) are different from those who recover the organs (the recovery organization).
One might wonder how organ recovery relates to the use of cell lines that originated from aborted fetal tissue. Where these two cases differ is in how one dies. In organ recovery cases, doctors attempted to preserve the life of the donor, and healing and comfort are offered up until death. In abortion, however, the unborn life is not offered this same courtesy.
What then is the similarity between organ recovery and tissue recovery following abortion? The parallel is that in both instances tissue is recovered following death.30 Neither the need for organs nor the desire to advance research are the means by which death occurs or the impetus for it. Both merely involve how tissues are used after death has occurred.31 There are two distinct moral acts under consideration. One act is abortion, which is biblically wrong. Another act is the use of tissue after death which, in the case of vaccine research, has nothing to do with the mother’s decision to sinfully abort the child in the first place.
In summary, man should continue to stand against the evils of abortion. Further, viable embryos should be protected and not destroyed in the name of research or medical practice. Concerning the conscientious use of vaccines, there is no direct causal line between abortion and vaccine use. Given that the moral question of how one dies is materially different from what one does with the body after death, one can in good conscience consent to a vaccine without necessarily consenting to abortion.
1 Owen Dyer (2015), “Planned Parenthood Accuses Anti-Abortion Group of ‘Corporate Espionage’ for Promoting Misleading Video,” theBMJ, 351:h3996, July.
2 Raegan McDonald-Mosley (2015), “Tearing Down the Fetal Tissue Smokescreen,” The New England Journal of Medicine, 373:24, December 10.
3 HHS Press Office (2019), “Statements from the Department of Health and Human Services,” https://www.hhs.gov/about/news/2019/06/05/statement-from-the-department-of-health-and-human-services.html.
4 HHS Press Office.
5 Meridith Wadman (2020), “Abortion Opponents Protest COVID-19 Vaccines’ Use of Fetal Cells,” Science Magazine, June 5, https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/06/abortion-opponents-protest-covid-19-vaccines-use-fetal-cells.
6 Angus Dawson (2007), “Vaccination Ethics,” Healthcare Ethics, ed. Richard Ashcroft, Angus Dawson, Heater Draper and John McMillan (Wet Sussex, England: John Wiley & Sons), Second Edition, p. 617.
7 The focus of this article is not on the benefits versus risks analysis that would be considered in making the medical or clinical decision to consent to vaccines. Further, the focus here is not should one use vaccines nor must one use vaccines. Instead, the focus is on whether, given the history of their origin in research and development, the Bible would excuse the conscience in exercising liberty to use vaccines (cf. Romans 2:15).
8 Generally, the designation “embryo” refers to development up to the end of the eighth week of gestational development. “Fetus” is the designation from week nine up until birth. Although these words are inconsistently used in scientific literature and dictionaries, life has value from the beginning regardless of how people describe it.
9 Shari Gelber, Laurence McCullough, and Frank Chervenak (2015), “Fetal Tissue Research: An Ongoing Story of Professionally Responsible Success,” American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 213:819, October 23.
10 Meredith Wadman (2015), “The Truth About Fetal Tissue Research,” Nature, 528:179, December 10.
11 Gelber, McCullough, and Chervenak, p. 819.
12 Wadman, “The Truth…,” p. 179.
14 Wadman, “Abortion Opponents….”
15 Gelber, McCullough, and Chervenak, p. 819.
16 Alvin Wong (2006), “The Ethics of HEK 293,” National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, 6:474, Autumn.
17 Wadman, “Abortion Opponents….”
18 Wong, pp. 475-476.
19 Daniel Maher (2002), “Vaccines, Abortion, and Moral Coherence,” National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly, 2:55, Spring.
20 Maher, p. 55.
21 Andrew Moscrop (2013), “‘Miscarriage or Abortion?’ Understanding the Medical Language of Pregnancy Loss in Britain; A Historical Perspective,” Medical Humanities, 39:98-104, December.
22 B.L. Hoffman, J.O. Schorge, J.I. Schaffer, L.M. Halvorson, K.O. Bradshaw, F.G. Cunningham, L.E. Calver (2012), “Chapter 6. First-Trimester Abortion,” in Williams Gynecology, ed. B.I. Hoffman, J.O. Schorge, J.I. Schaffer, L.M. Halvorson, K.O. Bradshaw, F.G. Cunningham, and L.E. Calver, 2e, http://www.accessmedicine.com/content.aspx?aID=56695971.
24 Norman Geisler (2010), Christian Ethics: Contemporary Issues and Options (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic), second edition, p. 187.
25 Dave Miller (2003), “Abortion and the Bible,” https://apologeticspress.org/apcontent.aspx? category=7&article=445.
26 Another passage on being morally complicit occurs in the Old Testament when the prophet Jehu says to King Jehoshaphat, “Should you help the wicked and love those who hate the Lord? Therefore the wrath of the Lord is upon you” (2 Chronicles 19:2).
28 In law, in the study of damages (torts), proximate cause is defined as the primary cause or direct cause of damage or injury. A user of a vaccine is not a direct (or proximate) cause of a decades-old abortion. See “proximate cause” in Black’s Law Dictionary, second edition, https://thelawdictionary.org/proximate-cause/.
29 F.S. 765.517.
30 Please note that these two cases do not take up the possibility of a viable embryo being collected during abortion.
31 While mourning for loss is appropriate (Matthew 5:4, John 11:35), duties toward the living terminate upon death (cf. Romans 7:1-3). Sanctity (treating with holiness) and dignity (treating with respect) are duties that are owed to living human beings while they abide in the flesh (Exodus 4:11; Psalm 8:4; Genesis 1:26-28; Acts 17:29). Upon death, the mortal body perishes and so diminishes the sanctity and dignity (1 Corinthians 15:53-55). In death, the flesh returns to dust and the spirit to God Who gave it (Genesis 3:19; Ecclesiastes 3:20; 12:7; James 2:26).