Vaccine Mandates and Personal Decisions
My friend Bryan Hart, from One Harbor Church, Morehead City, North Carolina, has written a terrific paper for members of his congregation asking questions about possible religious exemptions to vaccine mandates. The post that follows is a lightly edited version of that paper. (NB Where “I” is used, it is me speaking, rather than Bryan.)
The Ethics of the Vaccine and Mandates
Vaccine mandates have created a number of ethical questions, which can be categorized into three areas. First, there are the pragmatic questions: do mandates effectively increase the number of people who get vaccinated and do the vaccines themselves work? Second, there is the civil question: are mandates constitutional? Thirdly, there is the religious question: do mandates conflict with Christian doctrine, belief and obedience?
Christians and non-Christians alike will answer these questions differently. It is not our aim to take a position on the first two areas in this post (whether the mandate makes practical sense and whether it is constitutional). What we want to do is explore the religious question.
There are two significant areas of concern. The first is over the religious ethics of vaccines in general, and the second is in regard to the use of abortive cell lines in the development, testing and production of the COVID vaccine.
1. Religious objections to vaccines in general.
Here, we also need to distinguish between two kinds of objections.
First, there may be some who have a religious conviction that all vaccines are wrongful and opposed to Christian teaching. We do not support or share this conviction: I am very grateful that I and my children have suffered far fewer illnesses than we most likely would have without vaccines. Vaccines are one of the great blessings of our era. However, for the person who sincerely believes vaccines are morally wrong, we can consider them the weaker brother of Romans 14-15, and thus we should “bear with the failings of the weak” (Romans 15:1). Though I would disagree with their conviction, it is possible that their opposition to the COVID-19 mandate is made in good faith and according to their conscience, and so we wouldn’t object to their religious objection to the mandate. It is worth saying that people in this category are very few in number.
Second, there are those who have historically received all kinds of vaccines, but are particularly opposed to either the COVID vaccine, vaccine mandates, or both. The problem here is the lack of a consistently-applied religious principle. Though a Christian may have a firm belief that this particular vaccine is bad, if belief is not tied to a scriptural or theological principle, then it does not qualify for a religious exemption.
It is not the responsibility of pastors to tell people what they should or shouldn’t do regarding the vaccine (although my personal position is that adults should get vaxxed). However, we discourage people from inconsistently applying religious principles, and so turn Christianity and the gospel into a tool for personal ends. Religion is not the only basis on which to mount an objection to a law or mandate, either. Christians have the right to protest and engage their government as any citizen does. But they must not selectively apply Christian principles.
2. Religious objection to the use of abortive tissue in the development, testing and production of the COVID-19 vaccines.
Before wading into the ethical questions themselves, the situation can be summarized as follows, which is largely taken from the “Statement from Pro-Life Catholic Scholars on the Moral Acceptability of Receiving COVID-19 Vaccines” published by The Ethics & Public Policy Center on March 5, 2021. (It has to be said that Roman Catholic theologians have often had a far more consistent approach to ethical issues than do we Protestants.)
● The four major vaccines (Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson, and AstraZeneca) have used, in varying degrees, “immortalized” human cell lines, meaning they have used cells that have been developed from a single source. HEK293 and PER.C6 are the two lines that have been used in COVID-19 vaccine research. The former source was derived from the remains of an unborn child in 1973, and the latter from an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985.
● The 1973 case is a bit of a mystery, and many people think the child likely died in miscarriage. On the Gospel Coalition website Joe Carter has stated that, “HEK293T is a widely used immortalized cell line that was made from fetal tissue acquired in the Netherlands in the 1970s. The records pertaining to the origins of HEK293T were lost, so it is not known where the fetal tissue originated. However there are strong reasons to believe the tissue came from a miscarriage, and no compelling reason to believe it came from an elective abortion.”
● Even if the 1973 case was an abortion, neither abortion was performed for the purposes of scientific research, and the scientists involved in developing the cell lines were not directly involved in the abortion.
● “Fetal Tissue Cells” and “cells derived from a fetal tissue line” are not the same. HEK293 cells are no longer fetal tissue cells.
● All HEK293 cells were derived from the same source, and there is no ongoing use of aborted tissue to create more cells.
● HEK293 cells are used in a wide range of applications, to include processed foods (prepared by companies such as Kraft, Nestle, Cadbury and others), cosmetics and medicines. “Thus it seems fair to say that in addition to the use of HEK293 cells by the scientific community, nearly every person in the modern world has consumed food products, taken medications or used cosmetics/personal care products that were developed through the use of HEK293 cells in the food, biomedical and cosmetic industries.”
As for the vaccines themselves, another Catholic source describes the extent to which each has made use of fetal cell lines:
1. Pfizer: Pfizer/BioNTech’s coronavirus/COVID vaccine known as “BNT162b2” was developed using genetic sequencing on computers without using fetal cells. The HEK293 abortion-related cell line was used in research related to this vaccine, but not the testing of the vaccine . . . No cell line, fetal or otherwise, is required for the ongoing production of this vaccine. This vaccine is currently in use and requires two doses.
2. Moderna: Moderna’s “mRNA-1273” vaccine does not require aborted fetal cell lines for production, but aborted fetal cell lines were used in both the development and testing of this vaccine. This vaccine is currently in use and is easier to distribute than Pfizer due to cooling requirements. It also requires two doses.
3. Johnson & Johnson: The J&J/Janssen COVID-19 vaccine, “JNJ-78436735” does use the abortion-related PER.c6 cell line for ongoing production. This cell line was also used in the development and testing of the vaccine. PER.c6 is a proprietary cell line owned by Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, developed from retinal cells from an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985. This vaccine is currently in use. This is a single-dose vaccine, unlike other COVID vaccines which require 2 doses.
4. AstraZeneca: The AstraZeneca/University of Oxford vaccine “AZD1222” does use the HEK-293 cell line for production. This cell line was also used in both development and testing of the vaccine. The AstraZeneca vaccine is not approved in the United States.
5. Sanofi/GlaxoSmithKline: The Sanofi/GSK vaccine is not associated with aborted fetal cell lines for production. GSK produces this vaccine using a modified virus cultivated on insect cells. The HEK-293 cell line was used in the confirmatory testing of the vaccine…The Sanofi company is also developing a different COVID vaccine that did use the HEK-293 abortion-related cell line in the research phase.
So is using COVID vaccines immoral, considering their fetal connection? We can consider what type of cooperation exists in this scenario: formal cooperation (when one person cooperates with another person’s immoral action and shares their evil intention) or material cooperation (when one person cooperates with the immoral action of another person without sharing their evil intention). Formal cooperation is always evil, but material cooperation depends on other matters. For instance, using organs from the victim of a murder would not likely be objectionable to most Christians, nor would they object to a Christian owning a car showroom and selling cars despite their knowledge that a tiny fraction of those who buy them may use them for transporting illegal drugs, or even as a weapon. These are both examples of material cooperation.
The use of the vaccine falls into the category of material cooperation. Given the information already stated above, namely that fetal tissue itself is no longer being used, there are two primary questions. First is whether or not using cells from HEK293 or PER.C6 promotes abortion in any way. Many Christian ethicists have argued it does not, since it is both unnecessary and “medically inexpedient” to create new cell lines. It is worth noting that, if biomedical research created a demand for abortions, it would change the moral calculus of using not only COVID-19 vaccines, but all products that depend on HEK293 cell lines. As it stands, however, this is not the case.
The second question is whether using COVID-19 vaccines makes us guilty of cooperating with the killing of two children in 1973 and 1985. “For a number of reasons, many if not most Christian bioethicists would argue that it is not . . . the primary reason being that this situation is morally analogical to the case of the murder victim/organ donor. No one would say the Christian who received the organ was morally responsible in any way for the murder.”
For these reasons, we would argue that Christians are not guilty of sin for using COVID-19 vaccines. (Given that the HEK293 line was likely not from an abortion, as stated above, Christians who are still concerned with a connection to an abortion should consider Moderna or Pfizer as preferable.) However, some Christians may still have a conscientious objection to any of the vaccines. Similar to the above, we would make two distinctions.
1. There may be some who are so committed to avoiding contact with cell lines derived from fetal tissue that they avoid them at all costs in all areas of life. Again, we can say that their opposition to the COVID-19 mandate is made in good faith and according to their conscience, and thus we do not object to their religious objection to vaccine mandates.
2. There are others who do not have a robust objection or concern to the use of fetal cell lines except in the case of the COVID-19 vaccines. If the concern for the use of fetal cell lines is restricted to the COVID-19 vaccine, then we again find a problem with the lack of a consistently-applied religious principle.
Practically, where does this leave us?
Firstly, from all we have argued here, it should be clear that we would want Christians who object to the vaccine to be very clear about their reasons for this objection: is it genuinely on religious grounds, or for some other reason?
Secondly, if the objection to vaccine mandates springs from a concern about civil liberties (a concern with which I would have significant sympathy) then Christians should feel free to protest and engage their governments as citizens.
Finally, our hope would be that in our churches there is the space and generosity for people with different opinions on these matters to continue to love and worship together. The pandemic has created so many divisions: as children of God we need to demonstrate the reality of His ability to bring us together in unity.