On the Moral Implications of Vaccination

by Stephanie Hauer

I’m sure I don’t have to remind you of all the ways that COVID-19 has impacted us. Across the globe, around 2.68 million people have died. Millions more have been infected, some of whom are now navigating the long-term symptoms that may become chronic health issues. Even those who haven’t been infected aren’t entirely unscathed. With so many deaths, most of us know someone or know someone who knows someone who lost their life to COVID-19.

Widespread distribution of effective vaccines is our best hope for controlling this virus. Countries all over the world are working hard to get the vaccines into people’s bodies — with varying degrees of success. As time passes, more and more groups of people become eligible for vaccine appointments, which makes the question ever more urgent: should you get the vaccination?

This question has inspired a lot of discourse, both online and in-person. A main point of debate is whether the COVID-19 vaccines (and by extension, many other vaccines) were developed ethically, specifically regarding the use of fetal cells in their testing and production. It’s a complicated issue for a pro-life person to navigate.

The benefit of the vaccine is two-fold. It protects you, the recipient, from getting dangerously sick. And when you don’t get infected, you aren’t spreading the virus to other people, which helps to protect your community. This contributes to something known as “herd immunity.” If lots of people in a group are immune to a specific disease, then that disease has trouble spreading through that community. This protects everyone, whether they themselves are immune or not. So if everyone who is able to receive a vaccine against a specific disease gets that vaccine, then people who can’t receive the vaccines (due to allergies, health conditions, etc.) are better protected because their community is less likely to spread that disease to them.

When we consider getting vaccinated, we have to remember that we’re not just deciding for ourselves. The choice to vaccinate makes things safer for our entire community, especially the more vulnerable among us. And that’s a very pro-life goal.

But herd immunity and personal safety aren’t the only factors that matter here. If we’re going to support vaccines, it’s important to know exactly what we’re supporting. Most modern vaccines use fetal cell lines. These lines originated with cells that were taken from a tissue sample procured from an aborted fetus. Those original cells were then replicated extensively in a lab, and these replicated cells are used in various industries, such as the food, cosmetics, and medical industries.

The three COVID-19 vaccines that are currently available in the United States are from Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson. All three used fetal cell lines to create their vaccines. Pfizer and Moderna only used the cell lines for early testing. Johnson & Johnson used the cell lines both in testing and also to produce vaccine doses. Other modern vaccines that are created using fetal cell lines include the vaccines for hepatitis A, rubella, and rabies.

The particular cell lines used for the COVID-19 vaccines were HEK-293 and PER.C6. The cells used for HEK-93 were obtained from the kidney of a female fetus who died in 1973; it is unclear whether the baby died of natural causes or as part of an abortion procedure. The cells for PER.C6 were gathered from an embryo who was aborted in 1985. Even though it was a long time ago, the lives of these babies still matter.

Many proponents of fetal cell line use will emphasize that one abortion from many years ago can provide the material needed for infinite tests, products, and medicines because the cell lines can be replicated indefinitely. That’s how we’re still able to use cells from a sample that was collected forty-eight years ago. But this idea of an “immortal” cell line is only mostly true. While the cell lines can be replicated quite extensively, they degrade over time. It is rare, but fresh material does need to be collected periodically. Fetal cell research is not as self-sustaining as it is often painted to be.

That’s why it’s so important for us pro-lifers to advocate for more ethical research practices. We must move away from fetal cell line usage and replace it with ethical and effective alternatives. We must speak up and demand change. If you’re looking for actionable ways to start advocating now, Children of God for Life offers some great resources.

But until that day comes, we are left with a choice. Many of the vaccines available to us now, including the COVID-19 vaccines, are morally compromised because they’re not produced with entirely ethical methods. So what should we do? Do we skip the shot entirely, or do we grit our teeth and get it?

It’s an incredibly nuanced decision, and there are a lot of factors to consider. Only you and your medical care providers can make that choice, based on your specific needs and priorities. Though it is certainly complicated, I believe that getting the vaccine is the best thing those of us who want to build a culture of life can do at this time to achieve our goal. Because we recognize the inherent and unwavering dignity of each and every person, I feel that it is our goal and our duty to reduce needless deaths. We work against acts of aggressive violence, yes, but we also strive to eliminate deaths derived from carelessness, or those that could have been prevented through reasonable intervention and action. Vaccination is a reasonable course of action that can literally save lives.

We can’t go back in time and rescue the little babies whose cells came to be known and used as HEK-293 or PER.C6. But we can make choices here and now to contribute to a better present and create a better future. We can advocate against fetal cell line usage and also receive the vaccine to protect ourselves and others from this immediate threat that is COVID-19.

This is an example of remote material cooperation. In ethics, there is a whole set of language used to describe how one participates in an act of evil. The agent is the person who carries out the evil action. A cooperator is someone who, in some way, participates or assists in the evil act. That assistance can be formal, whereby the cooperator intends for the evil action to occur. Or that assistance be material, which means that they provided some type of resource or support for the evil action without intending for it to occur. It’s important to consider the necessity of the material cooperation. If the material provided is necessary for the evil action to occur, and the cooperator provides it, that’s a different moral circumstance than if the material provided is not necessary for the evil action to occur. Similarly, if the cooperator contributes to the evil action in a way that commissions or initiates it, that’s a very different moral circumstance than if the cooperator contributes without commissioning the evil action.

How do all these ethics terms apply to the COVID-19 vaccine? Getting vaccinated is an example of remote material cooperation. Here, the evil action is the unethical use of cells derived from aborted fetuses. By receiving a dose of the vaccine, you are technically contributing to that evil action by creating a viable market for it. But even if you refuse the vaccine, the fetal cells were already used, so your contribution to the evil action is not required for it to occur. Your dosage of the vaccine did not commission the evil action. The vaccine was not made for you personally. It was made for millions and millions of people, so whether you get the shots or not, the evil action was already initiated. In this instance, your participation in the evil action is so tertiary, it’s considered remote material cooperation, which can be justifiable with a proportionate reason. The prevention of COVID-19 for yourself and your community is certainly a justifiable reason for remote material cooperation.

While remote material cooperation in evil is obviously undesirable, it’s also kind of unavoidable right now. In our modern society, pretty much everything we do or touch or purchase carries with it some amount of remote material cooperation. As an example, let’s focus on just one item — say, the shirt that you’re wearing right now. In order to produce that shirt, someone had to gather the raw materials, weave them into fabric and thread, construct the garment, and then ship it to the vendor from which you bought it. Each and every step of the way, there were any number of opportunities for evil to creep in. Was the raw material harvested or produced under ethical and environmentally-friendly conditions? Was the shirt constructed in an ethical factory? Was it shipped to you in a way that doesn’t harm the environment? What about the vendor you bought it from? Are they an ethical corporation, from their entry-level employees all the way up to their CEO, and all the policies connecting them?

It’s usually impossible to verify the morality of each and every step taken to create even just that one shirt. Now think about how many objects you use and services you access on a daily basis. Think about how many companies took how many steps to create all of those things. There’s definitely some evil somewhere along the line in at least some of those goods or services, if not in all of them.

In our world today, remote material cooperation in evil is practically unavoidable. If we obsess over that cooperation, we’ll be paralyzed completely. Instead, we just have to do our best. Make the most ethical choice out of the options that are reasonably available to you. When it comes to the COVID-19 vaccines, or any other vaccine, the trade-off for remote cooperation with evil is direct and impactful good on your community. You are saving lives.

That said, regardless of whether or not you receive the vaccine, we can all take steps to reduce the spread of this deadly virus and protect our own lives and the lives of others. Please follow safety precautions, do your part to reduce the spread, and stay safe!

Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.