COVID Vaccines and Fetal Cells: What’s Ethical and What Isn’t?

COVID Vaccines and Fetal Cells: What’s Ethical and What Isn’t? January 14, 2021

In this blog, our goal is to provide biblically relevant information and resources to examine related to the COVID-19 vaccines.

Because of the long history of fetal tissue research that I believe is entirely unethical, I approach this subject with great seriousness. Earlier in the fall some prolife groups warned that the then upcoming COVID vaccines, at least some of them, would use tissue derived from at least one aborted child. However, some of these reports also claimed that the first vaccines to be approved, which would likely be used by the most people, would be among those utilizing aborted fetal tissue. Believing outdated and/or false information, some are embracing or spreading confusion.

I and others at EPM have spent many hours reading many articles and studies and listening to podcasts and videos on this issue. Some aren’t based on solid information, while others involve qualified scientists and credible sources quoting them. Some of these scientists, believers and unbelievers alike who are on the forefront of vaccine production, say that two vaccines, now available and being taken by a limited number of people, are not derived from aborted children. (As I’ll note later, there is one source that has doubts about one of those vaccines, but not the other.)

More on that below but let me make clear that even if—as I’m convinced—some COVID vaccines are ethically acceptable to prolifers, that does not mean everyone should take them. People should make their decisions based upon their own consciences and beliefs about these vaccines. Paul says in a vitally important passage that applies to far more to one’s chosen day of worship, “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind” (Romans 14:5, NIV).

Some could believe a vaccine may be a wise choice for at risk adults, but not children. That’s for their parents to decide, not the rest of us. There are also adults with certain conditions or personal reservations who may legitimately choose not to take the vaccine. Again, my focus in this blog is on the ethics of the vaccines, not to suggest everyone should take them.

Pastors and ministries like ours naturally condemn the use of fetal tissue research. But we are not medically qualified to advise people in the more subjective questions about the safety of vaccines. I appreciate the position of Jeff Schultz, pastor of preaching and community at Faith Church in Indianapolis:

Our church has been praying for vaccine research and development, but taking a vaccine is not something we would direct people on.

Our congregation has a number of doctors, nurses, medical researchers, and people in pharmaceutical development. We believe that God works through miraculous intervention, but more commonly through our work, gifts, and wisdom applied in service to others. We’ve encouraged people to wear masks and practice social distancing. We have members who won’t return to in-person worship until a vaccine is available. But I don’t think we would say anything formally about taking a vaccine (except to give thanks for their existence).

At an individual level, I will encourage people to consult with their physician on making that decision. I see masks and social distancing as extremely low-risk interventions that help us love our neighbors. A COVID-19 vaccine is another important way to stop the spread of a deadly disease, but I don’t believe that as a pastor I have the medical qualifications to direct people on medical treatments that may have side effects or long-term health impact. I want to help people see the good of a vaccine while asking us all to respect others’ decisions.

Godly people may come to different conclusions related to the vaccines. As I share in my blog (and the accompanying message) When Christians Disagree about Beliefs and Actions, true love and unity are never achieved at the expense of primary biblical truths. But they are achieved at the expense of personal pride and preferences on second and third level issues. We need to recognize legitimate Christian freedom.

Though there are believers and Christian leaders who believe treatment of the COVID pandemic justifies the use of aborted fetal cells, I do not. Years ago when I first heard of promising research that could help insulin-dependent diabetics, then discovered they were utilizing tissue from aborted babies, it was a no-brainer. I could not in good conscience benefit from the violent deaths of children. Similarly, Nanci told me that as vulnerable as she is, having had 30% of her lungs removed due to the cancer that spread there from her colon, she certainly would not take any vaccine that contained fetal cells from the unborn. That’s a complete deal breaker for us. In my mind, that’s not what’s morally debatable. We’ll deal with that in a soon upcoming blog.

We want to point readers to some of the resources we’ve read and watched, and let them decide before God what’s right for them. I will focus on what to me is the central issue—what vaccines do and do not utilize cells from aborted babies.

Some Helpful Videos

Here’s a three-minute television news report which asks, “Are Fetal Cell Lines Used in the COVID-19 Vaccine?” The expert who answers is Dr. Meredith Wadman, the author of The Vaccine Race and a reporter with Science MagazineIt’s definitely worth watching, but the bottom line is, some vaccinations being developed do use fetal cell lines, and others do not. Those that do not include Pfizer and Moderna, the two that were the first to be approved and are now being administered.

This six-minute video interviews two knowledgeable Catholic physicians related to the vaccines, and states their view of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. It also encourages our concern related to fetal tissue research.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Daniel Hinthorn and pediatric disease specialist Dr. Scott James were featured on a thirty-minute interview with Focus on the Family. They helpfully address a number of issues related to vaccinations. It’s all worth listening to, but I will focus on the issue of fetal tissue.

Around the 16:40 mark, Dr. Hinthorn states,

I think people should be aware of the fact that the messenger RNA vaccines, neither one of them, are made in cells from aborted fetuses. They are not even made in cells. They are made in vats, these are chemicals that are brought together…they are not created from fetal cell lines.

He clarifies, “However, often these kinds of cells are checked in fetal cell lines, that’s just to see if they work, but that’s not making them that way.”

Dr. Hinthorn goes on to say, “So if you ever get the either the Pfizer vaccine or the Moderna vaccine, neither one of these is made in fetal cell line so we don’t have to worry about that.” He goes on to clarify that there are other vaccines, a half dozen or so, that are indeed being made from fetal cell lines, and many prolife people would naturally want to avoid them.

Dr. James follows by affirming the same, that neither the Pfizer nor Moderna vaccinations contain fetal cells. He also says there is a high degree of transparency about the origins of all the different vaccines, so there really shouldn’t be any confusion.

Francis Collins is the director of the National Institutes of Health, and winner of the National Medal of Science, and is best known for his groundbreaking role in the Human Genome Project. Though I have disagreements with Collins in certain theological areas, he is a believer who converted from atheism to Christianity in his twenties after seeing the faith of his Christian patients in the face of suffering, and after reading C.S. Lewis. Certainly his scientific credentials are impeccable. In this video Dr. Collins is interviewed by Russell Moore about the COVID vaccines. As do others, he states that the two initial vaccines, from Pfizer and Moderna, are not derived from fetal cells.

(The Collins interview is also worth listening to, but many won’t appreciate his view of the extreme effectiveness of masks and advice that churches only meet online. However, I suggest that with this and other issues we practice selective criticism with those we disagree with. Above all, let’s not throw out what they have to say in their areas of expertise.)

Some Helpful Articles

The Catholic prolife Charlotte Lozier Institute has great info on the vaccines, which was updated January 4. Note that on the table on that page comparing the vaccines, under the production column some say human cells; some use cells from monkeys, hamsters, or insects;  and others say either PER.C6 cells or HEK293 cells, both of which originated from an aborted child. Notice that both Pfizer and Moderna specifically say “No cells” used.

Their excellent article “What you need to know about the COVID-19 vaccines,” features an easy-to-read color-coded chart:

Vaccine Chart from Charlotte Lozier

Note the color-coded markings for these four different categories: “DOES USE abortion-derived cell line” “Does not use abortion-derived cell line,” “Some tests DO NOT use abortion-derived cells, SOME DO,” and “Currently undetermined.”

I appreciate the tone of this article from Michigan Right to Life. They say:

For decades, prolife people have opposed developing new cell lines or using the tissue of aborted babies. Many people will try to justify abortion and the further trafficking of fetal tissue with the “promise” of saved lives. However, whether it is with stem cells or vaccines, there is always an ethical alternative or the ability to create one. There is no need to take the life of one person to save the life of another.

However, the fact remains that some vaccines exist that use fetal cell lines and have no current ethical alternatives. Is it ethical to use those vaccines? Prolife people disagree. The cell lines were derived decades ago, and though their source is unethical, we can’t unkill those children. On the other hand, taking advantage of unethical methods promotes further abuses, in this case with the development of new cell lines. There’s a meaningful difference between a vaccine requiring use of fetal cells and one that only uses them for testing, but how meaningful is that difference? The risks are another ethical consideration, balancing the risk of the disease vs. the vaccine, and ways you fit into that balance.

…If informed consent is supposed to be a cornerstone of the practice of medicine, then it is past time for the entire healthcare industry to only use tissue donated with the informed consent of every person involved.

As they point out, it is impossible to unkill aborted babies. And then the question becomes if it was from cloning of tissue from a baby aborted 50 years ago, where does that leave us? What is being used is not fetal tissue harvested from aborted babies but something derived from a tragically aborted child five decades ago. A huge question is does it or does it not serve as a basis of argumentation for further uses of aborted babies, and end up justifying abortions in people’s minds, since they are appearing to do good in the form of a vaccine?

The National Review is historically Catholic and pro-life. Here is their evaluation of the existing and in-process COVID vaccinations in relation to the use of aborted fetal tissue in their development. Here’s one pertinent quote from it:

There are no HEK 293 kidney cells [originating in a 1973 abortion] in either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. Dr. Lee told National Review that HEK 293s were involved only in the “post-production” process of the “final vaccine product”: that is, they are not part of the vaccine but rather were test subjects used to help determine how effective it was. This is not the case for all the vaccine candidates. Some of the higher-profile products under development — by Janssen Research and Johnson & Johnson, as well as AstraZeneca and Oxford University, for example — are using fetal cells in the production process. In these vaccines, there is a “direct line” between the vaccine and abortion; that line does not exist in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

The Christian Medical and Dental Association offers their similar assessment here. They say:

It is important to note that fetal cell lines can be used in three different stages of vaccine development: design, confirmation and ongoing production. Many ethicists, including those at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, believe that using a fetal cell line for ongoing vaccine production is more ethically problematic than using a fetal cell line for design or confirmation. The design and confirmation steps use a limited number of fetal cells while the production stage is continuous.

What the scientists say in these interviews and what the Lozier Institute and a number of other I’ve read says appears to be disputed by Dr. Stacy Trasancos’s article Measuring Moderna’s COVID-19 Vaccine: Now’s the Time to Press Hard for Ethical Options:

The claim that Moderna’s vaccine is “ethically uncontroversial” because it has no connection to unethically derived materials does not seem to be supported as both the development of the spike protein sequence, the mRNA expression in testing, and the lipid nanoparticle delivery system are described as using the HEK293 cell line derived from an aborted fetus.

Dr. Trasancos is part of the Roman Catholic prolife group Children of God for Life. They have put together a chart comparing the different vaccines, noting which ones used fetal cells for production and testing. In keeping with Dr. Trasanco’s statement above they list the Moderna vaccine under “Was Originally Produced with or Contains Aborted Fetal Cells.” This is confusing to me, in that it contradicts numerous credible sources which explicitly state that Moderna, like Pfizer, is not made from fetal cells, nor any cells at all. (I did consult the sources she cited, but the dense medical language didn’t clear up my confusion—but perhaps it will for medical professionals who may read this.)

If you wish to get a vaccine, and this source is enough to make you doubt the Moderna one, you might want to choose to get the Pfizer vaccine instead. (If you type into a search engine your city, or the nearest, along with key words such as COVID vaccine Pfizer, you will likely find out what’s available, where and when.)

I asked two prolife advocates, a married couple, to view the documents and videos recommended and this was their response:

My husband and I read through and discussed these documents. At first we were very reticent to come even close to a vaccination that was remotely associated with abortion. But after thinking it through from the sources of information we read, we do feel like we could in good conscience support the vaccine for those who wish to take it. We may be vaccinated ourselves, though haven’t made that final decision yet. The reason we believe we can is because of the following:

  1. No new aborted fetal tissue is needed or used to continue to reproduce the vaccine, so this doesn’t add to the abortion industry’s incentives.
  2. Neither Pfizer nor Moderna use any aborted fetal tissue in the manufacturing or sustaining of the vaccine. [Again, though many sources state no fetal cells are used to produce Moderna, at least one researcher cited above believes otherwise.]
  3. The culture used only for testing of the vaccine (not producing it) has none of the original material obtained from the fetus (just like yeast, it grows and develops on its own and over time is a completely different culture from the original).

Whatever our conclusions, we should give people the freedom to follow their conscience and respect that there may be many other matters of conscience in play, so we are not to judge others.

Vaccines with No Connection to Fetal Cells

There are some COVID vaccines in development that not only don’t come from fetal cells but also have not been tested by them. See these excellent resources:

  • Some groups are working to avoid fetal cells not only in vaccine development but in testing.
  • The use of umbilical cords and stem cells sounds promising. Hopefully many people who have babies would be willing to donate the umbilical cords if it could be used to save lives!
  • Live Action reports, “Maryland-based drugmaker Novavax is ‘using an ethically-derived invertebrate cell line Sf9’ in testing its vaccine, which is currently in Phase 3 clinical trials. Companies like Novavax and Sanofi are clearly demonstrating that safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines can be developed without reliance on abortion-derived cell lines. Novavax is among a handful of vaccines that may be available in the United States as soon as spring 2021.”

    [If it does come this soon, and is also safe and effective, some will want to consider waiting.]

  • The John Paul II Medical Research Institute (JP2MRI) seeks to find cures and therapies exclusively using a variety of adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells. The Institute does not engage in embryonic stem cell research of any kind. JP2MRI develops preclinical research technologies that will broadly advance drug discovery and regenerative medicine for many diseases. In addition, the Institute will engage in educational outreach to increase the number of scientists and future medical practitioners who will work with adult stem cells, always with an emphasis on medical bioethics that is consistent with the dignity of human life.”

Dr. Trasancos writes, “The good news is that there are ethical COVID-19 vaccines in production, lots of them. We must support those and keep our eyes on the long-term goal. We have a chance in this moment in history to demand ethical vaccines as the norm not the alternative if we stay vigilant.”

A Difference Between Production and Testing?

Is there a significant difference between using a vaccine produced with aborted fetal cells, and using an ethically produced vaccine (with no fetal cells) that at one point was tested by aborted fetal cells? I think there is. I certainly wish that kind of testing would never be done. But as this article points out, it’s true that “In total only two fetuses, both obtained from abortions, have given rise to all the human cell strains used in vaccine development. Neither abortion was performed for the purpose of vaccine development.”

From a statement by the Catholic church: “The cell lines under consideration [regarding their use in vaccines] were begun using cells taken from one or more fetuses aborted almost 40 years ago. Since that time the cell lines have grown independently. It is important to note that descendant cells are not the cells of the aborted child. They never, themselves, formed a part of the victim’s body.”

Neither of those two abortions that has resulted in the ongoing production of millions of fetal cells was motivated by wanting to use cells produced from them to test the effectiveness of vaccines. Presumably the same vaccines would still have been produced and administered without the use of fetal cells in the testing. Had the Pfizer vaccine, for instance, never been tested by fetal cells, it would have been exactly what it is, devoid of fetal cells with an existence totally independent of abortion.

The tests were not part of the production. That doesn’t make the testing right, of course. Neither does the fact that the lines of testing came from two aborted babies five decades ago, and are self-sustaining or “immortal,” so no more aborted babies have been involved.

Other Resources to Consider

If you are a researcher and want to know what’s out there before you make your decision about the COVID vaccines, here are some final links to help you thoughtfully and prayerfully evaluate the ethical issues:

Photo by Hakan Nural on Unsplash

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