Updated: Feb 9, 2021
If there is such a thing as the mainstream Christian approach to the ethics of vaccines that use aborted fetal cell lines, it appears to be this: one has to consider how “remote from” or “proximate to” the original injustice in question one is. There are degrees of separation. In the case of the HEK-293 cell line (used in the development and testing phases of the Oxford vaccine, and in the testing phase of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines), it goes something like this:
The one who killed the Dutch baby girl in the 1970s did wrong. The one who harvested tissue from her must have cooperated closely with that original wrong (the killing) and in the eyes of some committed an additional wrong by taking her organs without consent. Then as the cell line was sold from company to company down through the decades, a chain of diminishing proximity to the original evil was established: the company that makes use of the cell line today is somewhat removed from the original evil, and the one who receives their vaccine even more so.
The mainstream approach concludes that when it comes to receiving vaccines such as Pfizer, one is sufficiently remote from the original injustice for it to be permissible. A Christian Medical Fellowship spokesperson at the recent Evangelical Alliance webinar said that CMF’s position was that moral concerns with these vaccines were “negligible”; another speaker confirmed that he himself would take the vaccine, even the Oxford vaccine if others didn’t become available quickly enough. None of the speakers expressed a personal objection to taking the vaccine or indicated that they wouldn’t take it.
What clinches it for them appears to be this: because the HEK-293 cell line is “immortal”, using it does not create demand for fresh aborted tissue, so we are not encouraging further acts of evil, only drawing good out of a past act of evil.
I want to argue that what HEK-293 represents is anything but a past act of evil. The very same injustice rages on today.
The mainstream line of thinking is dangerously flawed in two ways:
First: our scope is far too narrow. It may be true that the global scientific community will never feel the need for a fresh source of something like HEK-293 specifically, but it is not in any way true that we have left behind us the practice of exploiting the bodies of wrongfully killed unborn children for medical advancement. It still happens today.
In America, Planned Parenthood the main abortion provider is known to sell organs of babies for medical research. They alter the way in which they kill the babies so as to preserve the organs that are being requested. How is it, exactly, that we are speaking of harvesting tissue from a wrongly killed baby as if it’s a one-off, past injustice that won’t be repeated again? Something we can safely benefit from because it only happened 50 years ago?
Here in the UK we practise embryo research. We also, in IVF, kill humans deemed to be less genetically desirable and favour those deemed to be genetically superior: a brutal form of eugenics. This is different in form from tissue-harvesting but the principles are the same: we treat unborn children as matter to be exploited for medical advancement, rather than as people with rights and dignity.
Mass-scale, international uptake of vaccines that use this kind of tissue communicates tolerance or approval of the ongoing culture of treating unborn children this way.
It is totally flawed to see HEK-293 as representing only a single instance of past injustice, akin to benefiting from, say, information gleaned from Holocaust experiments. It is the fruit of the very same culture that persists today, the injustice continues, unlike the Holocaust and its experiments which stopped long ago. We all with one voice condemn the Holocaust and its experiments now, meaning that there is no danger that making use of information that came out of that egregious evil would encourage it to continue – because it has already stopped. But the killing and exploiting of unborn children is still going on, and it still enjoys the approval of global mainstream consensus, meaning that by default we lend our assent to it, our support through taxes, and all the more if we volunteer ourselves for vaccines produced on the very same assumptions and with the same materials. Our culture has not yet turned from this kind of behaviour.
In choosing to see HEK-293 as having nothing to do with this wider, ongoing culture, we are in danger of being like the Pharisees who strained out a gnat but swallowed a camel (Matthew 23:23-24). They tithed their spices with their atomistic approach to individualistic righteousness, but missed the bigger picture, what mattered most to God: justice, mercy, faithfulness.
If the Holocaust were carrying on today, would we really say that moral concerns to do with a cell line from a victim a few decades ago were “negligible”, simply because that specific experiment wouldn’t be performed again? Wouldn’t it embolden the perpetrators to carry on, knowing that we are quite happy to tolerate what they are doing, so long as they aren’t carrying out the exact same experiment they did decades ago? Wouldn't that be pedantic, arbitrary, negligent?
Missing the Point
Second: the other major flaw in this approach is that it just misses the most important point.
Biblically, there is a case to be made that God cares about how human bodies are treated after death, but there is no doubt at all that he cares deeply about the shedding of innocent blood. The chief injustice in the case of harvesting of tissue from killed babies is the fact that babies are being killed in the first place, regardless of what happens next.
Let’s be clear: even if our use of HEK-293 did one day produce demand for a fresh cell line of a similar kind, it would not directly bring about the death of one single baby. Why? Because tens of thousands of healthy babies are already being killed worldwide every single day. There is no shortage of freshly killed babies. If a doctor wants a freshly killed baby, they know where to find them.
The Dutch baby girl killed in the ‘70s wasn’t, so far as we know, killed for the purpose of research; neither are those whose body parts Planned Parenthood are selling today. The reason for her abortion back then is the same as the reason for most abortions around the world today, including those who yield tissue for medical advancement: unknown, any, none. So not only is our tissue-harvesting culture from killed babies the same as it was back then: more importantly, our culture of killing babies is the same as it was back then, only more prolific.
The injustice rages on now with precisely the same conditions as back then in most Western countries: legalised, industrial-scale, medically executed killing of babies, for any or no reason.
The fact that we consider ourselves morally untainted by all this so long as we’re not “cooperating proximately” with it (which we define narrowly as directly encouraging the procurement of fresh fetal cell lines) tells us a lot about our perspective when it comes to injustice all around us and our obligations in the face of it. We think somehow that the ongoing industrial-scale killing of babies in our own nation doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with us.
What would Jesus say?
I think he would say that we are proximate to this ongoing injustice, and we do have obligations, because these babies are our neighbours.
This is Part 2 of a series of blogs responding to the recent Evangelical Alliance webinar on the ethics of the Covid-19 vaccines. I'm grateful to the EA for hosting this timely and stimulating online event.
A recording of the event, together with a written introduction from the EA and accompanying papers, is available here, so I won’t spend virtual ink summarising who said what.
Instead, in this series of blogs, I want to pick up on a few specific points, offer some personal reflections/analysis, and then suggest how we might helpfully advance the debate in a new and different direction.
Read Part 1 on the Consequences of Assumptions
Read Part 3 A Fresh Approach: from Consumers to Activists
Read Part 4 Vaccine Ethics: Black and White, or a Conscience Issue? What does the Bible say?