A Timeline Those Now Critiquing My HEK293 Post Miss

A Timeline Those Now Critiquing My HEK293 Post Miss October 5, 2021

I think a little timeline is helpful to understand how my post on how almost every medicine was tested on HEK-293 changed the argument. You can’t argue that based on your standard now, the standard I applied in January 2020 is inaccurate. I was applying the standard Catholics who are against getting COVID vaccines were using at that moment. After this article, those Catholics objecting based on this principle changed their argument from any link to a very circumscribed link that seems to be specially made for this specific argument.

We need to look at before, the article, and after.

Before my Article

Any Connection

Clock and calendar for a meeting (CC0 pixabay)
Clock and calendar for a meeting (CC0 pixabay)

In late 2020, we had statements by Bishop Strickland, Bishop Schneider & others that we should reject any vaccine linked in any way to abortion. I will focus on the two bishops here.

Bishop Schneider said on December 11:

The crime of abortion is so monstrous that any kind of concatenation with this crime, even a very remote one, is immoral and cannot be accepted under any circumstances by a Catholic once he has become fully aware of it. One who uses these vaccines must realize that his body is benefitting from the “fruits” (although steps removed through a series of chemical processes) of one of mankind’s greatest crimes.

Any link to the abortion process, even the most remote and implicit, will cast a shadow over the Church’s duty to bear unwavering witness to the truth that abortion must be utterly rejected. The ends cannot justify the means.

You will note that he refers to, “Any link to the abortion process” and “Any kind of concatenation with this crime, even a very remote one.” This is not an argument about nuance in what kind of link might be acceptable and what might not. This is a prepared statement designed to present his moral theology position, so it would be hard to interpret “any” as rhetorical flair.

There are significant pastoral and theological issues with this statement but I simply refer you to Jeff Mirus’s excellent piece on it. Also, Schneider is presenting a theological opinion opposed to the ordinary magisterium which Donum Veritatis asks him to identify as such, not present his theological opinion as inevitable or as Church teaching.

On December 21, Bishop Strickland spoke with Crux:

“My basic recommendation to the flock here was to be very cautious about any vaccine that has connection to abortion, whatever that connection is and really to wait for ethically produced vaccines,” Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler told Crux.

“I didn’t receive the vaccine. But it’s not my role to substitute my conscience for every Catholic. I’m just guiding them to be cautious and look at ethical questions of vaccines produced with a connection to aborted children and really call on these companies, these scientific research entities, to make efforts to at least provide alternatives.”

Again, “Any vaccine that has connection to abortion, whatever that connection is,” and “vaccines produced with a connection to aborted children.” No nuance.

Strickland also gave other interviews, but his explanation was similar. Strickland may have meant “any” in a more rhetorical than absolute manner, but I do not remember any clarification on his part.

Stacy Trasancos on COG for Life argued that connections to abortion were equal. She concluded, “I propose that the pro-life community get back zero-tolerance of the evil of abortion. Stop arguing about whether testing is better than production and specifically demand that all testing and production be ethically performed.” She seems possibly a little more nuanced as this statement could be read as either rejecting “any connection whatever” or hinting at the argument adopted later of specifying what type of testing or connection. (Along with being chief research officer of Children of God for Life, Trasancos is executive director of St. Philip Institutefunded by Bishop Strickland as a ministry of his diocese so the two are close. Given that connection, it would be reasonable to read their statements at the time as in accord and following what Stickland said above.)

This was the kind of argument used by the leaders of this camp before I posted the article listing all the medication tested on HEK-293.

12 Things Less-Remote Cooperation in Evil Than COVID Vaccines

To me, the disproportion between the much greater cooperation in evil all of us accept in our everyday lives and the astronomically remote connection with abortion testing on HEK-293, lead me to write my first big piece on COVID vaccines: 12 Things Less-Remote Cooperation in Evil Than COVID Vaccines. The point of this was to show how remote this was and how we all accept some super-remote cooperation, so we can also accept this. These are good things to try to avoid, but Catholics can do all 12 for the smallest of reasons. I conclude by making this explicit:

I could go on as there are so many other things that involve very remote material cooperation in evil in our lives. However, I think those 12 is a good sample of how prevalent this is. It is basically impossible to completely avoid. This 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.

One could even debate if this latter option is an option for a Catholic. In 1690, the Holy Office condemned various errors of the Jansenists. “It is not licit to follow the [probable] opinion, even the most probable among the probable ones” (DH 2302) was one of the condemned propositions. This was condemning the belief that one had to be 100% certain of the right moral act in circumstances where any doubt arose. It may apply to the rigorist interpretation allowing no cooperation in evil, even very remote cooperation.

This article was relatively well-received. But some were convinced by Bishop Schneider’s argument: “abortion [is] an evil which is in a horrendous class all its own, a class that excludes the normal rules of moral reasoning.” This is poor moral theology but does pull on the heartstrings. This leads me to the article in question as a follow up to this article:

If Any Drug Tested on HEK-293 Is Immoral, Goodbye Modern Medicine

Annual Calendar
Calendar (CC0 pixabay)

Around this time, I became more aware of how widely HEK293 was used in things like producing flavorings that Pepsi & Campbell’s have used. As drug testing is more publicly documented, however, I focused on how almost every drug was tested on HEK-293.

Most people have focused on the list in this article, but I am very clear in the text around it. I begin:

For years, the Church has generally encouraged vaccines while noting issues with certain ones grown on fetal cell lines. She allowed people to give prophetic witness against abortion by not taking such vaccines (I have defended the right to a prophetic stance in this case). Vaccines help both one’s own health and the health of those around you. However, in the discussion of COVID vaccines, some have taken this further. They have rejected every vaccine tested (not grown on) on fetal cell lines like HEK-293. However, if we reject a medication merely for being tested on a fetal cell line, most of a standard pharmacy would be immoral.

This testing all matches the criteria given by Stickland and Schneider above. It shows places where we all accept some remote connection to abortion. It also answers the objection of those following Schnieder who want to argue abortion is some kind of special evil so cooperating with other evils is not the same.

Not all of this testing is of the same type, and further down I admit so at the time. However, I am basing myself on the criteria given by Schnieder, Strickland, and others in less official statements. I think they are exercising bad moral theology, but I take their criteria at their word. I can’t use some magical hermeneutic to guess what they really meant: I have to go by what they say. They said what they said and I assume the ordinary English or ordinary moral theology meaning of every word they said.

After the list, I make multiple references to the previous piece, 12 Things Less-Remote Cooperation in Evil Than COVID Vaccines, as I consciously saw this as a follow-up. I even repeat points like: “If we were to disallow all remote cooperation, we would need to reject all of modern society more than contemplative nuns. Only hermitic subsistence farmers or hunter-gathers making their own clothes and tools could be completely free from very remote cooperation in evil.”

I also note how close what is being asked gets to a moral impossibility if applied evenly, not just in a special case for this specific vaccine:

God never demands the impossible and this degree of vigilance required to avoid all even very remote cooperation in abortion is beyond what most people are even capable of doing. I do not know anyone who could survive in the USA while doing what was presented in the above paragraph, as you would need to build everything needed for survival directly from natural materials. The Catholic Church does not require or even recommend this. In fact, plenty of stuff in churches involves such remote cooperation in abortion as some stuff we buy is made in China, to take one example.

We theologians should not lead people into scrupulosity as I have often seen from those arguing we should not use vaccines tested on fetal cell lines. […]

A constant worry about cooperation in evil that is so remote will likely over-occupy us and actually cause moral issues where we haven’t the energy to actually seek good, not just avoid remote cooperation in evil. Morality is about both avoiding evil and doing good. Avoiding evil is to prevent obstacles to our final end, but doing good actually seeks that end of beatitude. Doing good, not avoiding evil, is the height of Christian morality.

Evil must be fully avoided in the object and the end, but circumstances are rarely going to be perfectly good. When I go to buy food, all nearby grocery stores carry products from companies that directly fund Planned Parenthood, so the circumstances are imperfect. But, that is not a reason to avoid all nearby grocery stores. (In the suburbs, unless I want to eat out every meal, I’m kind of stuck with grocery stores.) Worries about remote cooperation in evil that is several steps removed can occupy our practical reason (where we make decisions) to the point we no longer are able to focus on doing good. This would be detrimental to the Christian moral life.

After This Article on HEK-293 Testing

Not Just Any Connection

After this article, many people have changed. I’ve not seen anyone who’s read and understood this prior article still arguing against any connection whatsoever like before. People have changed their tune. This does not make this list wrong in any way as that was not the standard given I was responding to.

This month, Jose Trasancos on COG for Life even provided a helpful sub-list of the above medicines developed before HEK-293. Thus if used according to the uses approved then, there is less connection to abortion. However, this would not always apply to each of these medicines. I can think of cases where your use depends on these HEK-293 tests in a way almost identical to later drugs that were tested on HEK-293 before first approval. First, many drugs have uses added later on. As drugs are approved for a specific use, each new case relies on new testing. This is particularly important when talking about older drugs repurposed for COVID many were tested for COVID on HEK-293 (hydroxychloroquine) or a test on HEK-293 pointed to some specific reaction that led to them being used for COVID (ivermectin). Second, as drug testing has gone on, more tests have been asked. Many drugs had to be tested for interactions with other drugs to ensure they were safe to take together. Much of this testing is done in vitro on HEK-293 or other cell lines as they have a more consistent reaction than humans and are less risky. If you use 2 drugs together and the recommendation your doctor or pharmacist sees that they are safe to use together relies on HEK-293 testing, that is essentially the same as a new approval at least for your use.

I’ve already covered several other articles along this line. (I think Jose Trasancos explains things better than others and I have less of an issue as he is heading a group dedicated to fighting this small injustice and fighting injustices is a good thing, even if they are small. The scruples or poorer theology of others has made me wonder if they are actually helping people.)

Three Further Points

Although I have not changed my position since my first piece on COVID vaccines came out, I have been able to refine it and clarify it further. Three points are useful here to demonstrate how contrary these arguments against vaccination are to ordinary Catholic ethical discourse.

Nested Special Cases

First, we need to address how this vaccine rejection is such an odd set of nested special cases. I noted:

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.

This applies especially to when a voluntary vaccine refusal might have significant consequences. On the NCBC podcast, they mentioned that some University of Mary (ND) nursing students might not graduate over COVID vaccine refusal. The University of Mary requires all students to get an MMR and chickenpox vaccine (page 49) which are more connected to abortion and less deadly (but still clearly ethical), and being fully vaccinated is a regular pre-requisite for nursing jobs. If these students’ refusal is based on this remote connection, I would ask them to think about how they or their parents rightly found those other vaccines moral in the past.

Quantifying Cooperation

Second, I try to quantify how remote this is. To explain this I quantified the different connections to abortion. I summarize (click the link for math):

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 or $507 on Energizer. 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 or 4931 people vaccinated to provide the same cooperation as 1 cent spent on Energizer. (The extremeness of the remoteness here is hard to fathom.)

This is where I ask anyone doing this how much they attempt to avoid other remote cooperation. When we are talking about something so remote, one can easily run into an issue of where if one does it as a form of witness, the way one witnesses actually does the opposite in practice of the goal of their witness. A common criticism of Earth Hour (that has lead to its decreasing prevalence) is how multiple people pointed out that replacing normal bulbs with candles likely increases carbon emissions, not decreases them. Avoiding vaccines over such astronomically remote cooperation runs into a similar issue wherein trying to tell others one is against this as a form of witness, the method of telling others like posting to Facebook from an iPhone likely cooperates more in abortion than were one to take the vaccine.


Third, as cooperation is an extension of the principle of double-effect we have to consider the proportionality between goods sought: for a greater good, more cooperation can be accepted. I noted:

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.

This asks people if they really see immunization as a positive good. The Catholic Church – from the 1700s to Pope Francis – has seen this as a significant and positive good. Parishes have often been big helps in getting populations vaccinated. If one were to argue that this was a small good, so not proportional, or not good at all, one would have to find principles outside what the Church has been using since vaccines existed.


The argument from the Pope, the US Bishops, the vast majority of moral theologians and bioethicists, and myself from the beginning has remained essentially unchanged. Immunization is an objectively good act: it serves the common good as an act of justice in some cases and an act of charity in others. The extremely remote cooperation with evil with those vaccines only tested on fetal cell lines is, in our opinion, far from sufficient reason for Catholics to be skipping vaccination.

On the other hand, those who argue Catholics should not take such vaccines changed their tune. In late 2020, they were arguing against any connection whatsoever, but after my article and others’ points, they have changed it to try to circumscribe a very specific connection. They argue, they will accept this much cooperation, but not the tiniest bit more. They never address how they are making embedded special cases, the extremely remote nature of this cooperation or appropriation, or the issue of proportionality.

Many of their arguments against my original article are based on criteria they largely adopted AFTER that article. It’s worth noting that drug X was tested in original development but drug Y after, but that was not the argument WHEN I wrote the article so you can’t blame me for only critiquing their article as it then existed.

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