A Fresh Approach to Vaccine Ethics: from Consumers to Activists
Updated: Dec 17, 2020
Some of us have been looking at this whole ethical question as consumers, perhaps in an overly individualistic way, wondering how much moral taint our personal sensitivities can bear from something we consider to be an isolated moment in the past rather than something that is part of a wider culture still here today, in which we all participate by default and towards which have moral obligations. We are taking cooperation with past evil as inevitable and asking how remote or proximate it has to be for us to be able to put up with it. But what if we approach all this rather differently?
What if we see ourselves as, instead of end-of-the-line consumers: prophets, evangelists, activists, reformers? What if we engage the question of how to end today’s greatest injustice? What if we start from there?
We have seen how the exact same injustice that killed that Dutch baby girl and exploited her organs persists today. It ought to be a top priority of Christians in our generation to see an end to this injustice, just as the abolition of the slave trade was for those at the end of the 18th century. We should be on the lookout for opportunities to take a stand, expose the horrors, and make life more difficult for the abortion industry. We should be eager to apply pressure, we should be willing to be persecuted and suffer. We should be praying for tools with which to communicate that we find this injustice intolerable.
If this is our starting-point, if this is our attitude, the decision of whether or not to volunteer ourselves for a brand new, global vaccine produced with the use of a cell line derived from a wrongly killed Dutch baby girl’s kidney presents us with a unique, possibly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The eyes of the world are on this vaccine and what people will do with it.
If we refuse this vaccine expressly because of its relationship with the wrongful killing of babies, what a powerful message that will communicate to the watching world. In doing so we would be putting our money where our mouth is, accepting persecution and perhaps some level of personal risk, and declaring that we care more about ending this injustice than all the values that the culture around us would press us to adopt.
Conversely if we volunteer ourselves to take this vaccine, what will we communicate? We are happy to “benefit” from the fruit of an injustice that is carrying on this very day in our very own nation and around the world. We are happy to narrow our scope and claim that what happened in the ‘70s has no bearing on what is happening now. We are happy to allow the ongoing mass slaughter of babies so long as we don’t consider ourselves to be “proximate” to it, directly involved. I say "happy", because most of us do and say nothing about it, or at least nothing costly.
Here is an opportunity to do something costly, and social reform was never achieved without cost.
I understand that some want to accept the vaccine but continue to express a preference for vaccines that do not use fetal cell lines (these do exist but are not currently being considered for us by the UK Government). I would have to question how strong a message they think that really puts across. Will the Government feel any great urgency to source ethically uncontroversial vaccines when they observe that even those who express opposition to fetal cell lines are prepared to accept these ones? I don’t think that would get through my priority filters if I were in Government. They are happy enough, I would say to myself.
Boycott the Vaccine
One of these days an opportunity will come along for us to pay the price and make a stand and drive towards the end of abortion. What if this is it?
Some will contend that acting against the Government’s and society’s strong encouragement inhibits our witness and makes us out to be trouble-makers. We need to ask ourselves quite simply: whom are we seeking to please? Since when did we think Christians were meant to be popular all the time, or never violate the values of the surrounding culture?
As for social reform specifically, can we find any example of success in overturning an accepted injustice without disruption, inconveniencing others, being misinterpreted and demonised as making things worse for everyone? There needs to be pressure, it needs to be made uncomfortable for those perpetrating or enabling the injustice to carry on. Whilst we think about protecting the NHS, does it ever occur to us that this is the same organisation that is commissioning the baby genocide? Did we ever think about applying pressure to the NHS, rather than seeking to relieve pressure from the NHS, in order to see an end to this injustice? When we insist that we should trust and obey a Government that is just trying to do its best and is acting in good faith, are we forgetting that this is the Government that thinks it’s ok to kill thousands of healthy babies every week?
I fear that our perspective and affections have been fed to us by the culture around us: we are dancing to their tune.
We need to be clear that it is never “the right time” for a disruptive, costly boycott. We can be sure that not all those who put food on the table by the sale of sugar thanked their neighbours who participated in the Sugar Boycott of 1791 or felt loved by them. But there was a bigger picture to consider: the slave trade had to be stopped, and the boycott sent a powerful message.
Some grocers reported sugar sales dropping by over a third, over just a few months. Meanwhile the sale of sugar from India increased ten-fold over a two-year period. One James Wright, a merchant of Haverhill, Suffolk, announced to his customers on March 6th, 1792:
Being Impressed with a sense of the unparalleled suffering of our fellow creatures, the African slaves in the West India Islands...with an apprehension, that while I am dealer in that article, which appears to be principal support of the slave trade, I am encouraging slavery, I take this method of informing my customer that I mean to discontinue selling the article of sugar when I have disposed of the stock I have on hand, till I can procure it through channels less contaminated, more unconnected with slavery, less polluted with human blood...
Had his message been more akin to what we are hearing today – that the source wasn't ideal and he would prefer a more ethical one but was happy to carry on unless one presented itself – there would of course have been no pressure, and there would have been no change. He was prepared to pay a personal price in protest against the injustice of his day.
In more recent history, activists cared enough about animal welfare to boycott The Body Shop until it brought about change in 2017. Consumers speak with their actions much more than with their words. They vote with their wallets.
Someone will retort that the pressing obligation of this hour is to try to protect people from the virus.
Certainly, we should always be looking to do what we can to protect as much life as possible (though note: even the Pfizer CEO does not claim that their vaccine prevents transmission). But allow me to close with this question:
Have we been persuaded to care more about ending the virus than we care about ending the baby genocide? Honestly, which do we care about more?
Not that the vaccine or the boycott guarantees their ends respectively, but in our hearts, which is top?
If we actually care more about ending the virus (c. 1.6 million "natural" deaths so far) than we do about ending the baby genocide (c. 45 million voilent deaths every year), what’s gotten into us?
This is Part 3 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 2 Why the Mainstream Christian Approach to Covid-19 Vaccine Ethics is Mistaken
Read Part 4 Vaccine Ethics: Black and White, or a Conscience Issue? What does the Bible say?