Missing the Point about Remote Cooperation / Appropriation

Missing the Point about Remote Cooperation / Appropriation September 17, 2021

My piece from January, If Any Drug Tested on HEK-293 Is Immoral, Goodbye Modern Medicine, continues to be widely viewed, averaging over 1000 views a day in the past month. This has lead to several people writing critiques of the piece. However, most of the critiques miss the point. Two recent pieces (that came out while I was in meetings then on retreat earlier this month) repeated arguments I had already dealt with and miss the point. The authors also did not examine other things I’ve written on vaccines (easy to find via tags on here) as I had already responded (so most of this will be quoting stuff I already wrote).

Arrows missing target
Arrows missing the target (CC BY-SA 3.0 Mathieu ROUAUD)

The point they miss is: the remote cooperation we are dealing with for Moderna or Pfizer vaccines is so remote that it is almost completely irrelevant in the choice to vaccinate or not. As I said even earlier, The reality that extremely remote cooperation in evil is almost impossible to avoid leaves us with two options:

  • Realize that some very remote cooperation in evil is inevitable. Try to avoid it when I can but not worry much when I can’t.
  • Go and become a subsistence farmer and hermit. Even contemplative religious communities, however, can’t check the sourcing of every product they use.

The latter is an option, but cannot be a moral obligation.

I think three points are relevant for these pieces: how remote, special cases, and proportionate reason for cooperation.

How Remote Is It

When we deal with remote cooperation, the moral obligation to avoid it depends in large part on how remote it is: being the secretary at a Planned Parenthood obviously needs much more avoidance than paying taxes when you know a small percentage of that can fund abortions. Looking at Moderna or Pfizer vaccines vs. Chinese-made goods, we find the latter is often millions or billions of times more connected to abortion. I noted:

If you buy anything from China, you participate in their abortions. A 2015 estimate said 13 million abortions a year occurred in China Let’s estimate about half of those are coerced or forced abortions based on their one/two-child policy. Its GDP is 14.343 trillion. Let’s assume half of whatever we buy from china is Chinese GDP and half goes to the US-based seller ($1 spent = $0.50 Chinese GDP). Then there is one forced abortion for about every $4,413,230 Americans spend on Chinese-made goods. […]

HEK293 is widely used. Its use is so widespread that nobody could examine every piece of data on it and we need to make some rough estimates about its use. Given the date, we are assuming we are at about half its life cycle, thus, I’m just going to double everything done up to now. Google Scholar with just HEK293 and its most popular (but far from only) derivative line gives us 220,000 articles. But that is far from the only use. HEK293 is also used in artificial flavorings, cosmetic products, cosmetic testing, teaching college biology, etc. which do not end up as published articles in journals. Also, some uses are more ongoing not just a single experiment so would count for multiple experiment-equivalents. Thus, we can Likely triple the number of times it has been used up to now. So, let’s estimate 600,000 experiments or experiment-equivalents when used more continuously up to now. This gives us 1,200,000 individual experiment- equivalents over its lifetime. If we take the math of it contributing 1.8 abortions when its lifetime runs out, each experiment would be 1.5 millionths of an abortion in cooperation.

If we are dealing with a vaccine only tested on a fetal cell line in an unrepeated experiment, that means it’s one of those 1.2 million experiments whether one person gets vaccinated or 1 billion. Thus, as much cause as spending $6.61 on Chinese-made goods… These small economic things are in comparison to vaccinating every single person in the world. Pfizer and Moderna estimate they will provide about a billion doses each, covering 500 million people, and I think each did 2 testing experiments on HEK293. That would mean that 378,000 people need to be vaccinated to provide the same cooperation as 1 cent spent on Chinese-made goods.

Special Cases

Now a way to circumvent such remoteness is by a special case. But the embedded special cases they are making do not match traditional or good moral theology. I noted:

Catholic moral theology has occasional special cases. For example, public admission of guilt generally can’t be a requirement for absolution, except there are a few special cases like if you confess that you falsely accused a priest of sins in the confessional you need to publicly retract that for absolution. […]

To argue that we should not take COVID vaccines only tested on fetal cell lines, a person needs to make several nested special cases. First, they make a special case of this vaccine versus other vaccines as most don’t seem to object to rubella vaccines as strenuously despite rubella vaccines being more connected to abortion. Second, they make a special case of vaccines versus other medicines. Third, they make a special case of medicines versus other uses of the same cell lines testing other things. Fourth, they make a special case of fetal cell lines versus other connections to abortion like funding China’s forced abortions when we buy Chinese goods. Fifth, they make a special case of abortion with regard to remote cooperation (it’s OK to cooperate in slave labor to get the materials for my electronics but not abortion even if many more times remote).

It is possible to make this argument with one or two less nested special cases, but you still have multiple nested special cases when such nesting doesn’t exist elsewhere in Catholic moral theology.

Proportionate Reason

The Church’s teaching on remote cooperation is related to the principle of double effect. As such, the object – in this case, immunization – must be ethical. Also, looking at the effects, you need to look at the good being sought and its proportion to the remote cooperation one may want to avoid. For example, police can use lethal force against a criminal if an innocent person’s life is at risk, but can’t if only property damage or theft is at risk.

These two articles argue that there is some difference between later testing and testing developing a drug. I can see a limited difference and noted so when Jose Trasancos made a similar claim back in May. However, that limited difference is not a completely different type of thing. Three points are worth making here.

  1. First, as explained more fully there, what matters is testing for this use of a drug, not for the drug in general as most drugs are chemical compounds that exist before being developed as drugs and are approved for each specific use. Thus, as almost all the drugs promoting for treating COVID (Regeneron, hydroxychloroquine, ivermectin, etc.) were tested on HEK293 for their use on COVID, they have basically the same relationship to fetal cell testing as vaccines.
  2. Second, we need to look at the medical benefit compared to the degree of cooperation. I might take a Tylenol to get to sleep or to focus (if a headache is preventing either of these). In both cases, the chance that Tylenol saves my life is astronomically small (less than 1 in several million). However, when I get a COVID vaccine that has a much larger chance of saving my life or someone else’s: somewhere between about 1 in 75 and 1 in 500 (depending on how you calculate it) averaged over the whole population. The proportionate good of immunization is much greater so it can accept much more in terms of remote cooperation while still being moral.
  3. This is one point in a larger argument that we cannot avoid all super-remote cooperation or appropriation such as medicine that is tested on a fetal cell line that is descended from an abortion. Those who take this as an argument for rejecting all medicines are missing the point.


Even if these articles are 100% accurate, they fail to justify the argument these people are trying to make that Catholics should avoid this vaccine due to the exceedingly remote cooperation in evil. It is so remote that it is hard to grasp. My original article is part of a larger reductio ad absurdum in that you or I can’t live in our interconnected and fallen world without some cooperation in evil. The degree of remoteness we are dealing with regarding Moderna & Pfizer COVID vaccines is far less than other things that are far less remote and we don’t question the ethics of. I highly doubt any of those critiquing me could actually write what they are writing without similar or greater cooperation in evil in things like raw materials for the device they wrote it on, construction of said device, domain registration service, web hosting service, etc. Let’s stop placing undue burdens on people’s consciences related to vaccines and stop straining out a gnat while swallowing camels.

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