Wiki­media Commons

As the COVID-19 vaccine becomes more widely available to the general public, it brings a question that often accom­panies new vac­cines: Was this made using cells from an aborted fetus?

The short answer is often yes, because almost all modern med­icine is at least remotely con­nected with certain immortal cell lines that may have orig­i­nated from the bodies of elec­tively aborted fetuses. This puts people with pro-life beliefs in a dilemma, depending on how involved these morally com­pro­mised cell lines are with the treat­ments they may need, and coro­n­avirus is no different.

First, there were no fetal cells used in the pro­duction of any of the vac­cines cur­rently available. However, the two vac­cines approved for use in the United States — Moderna and Pfizer — were par­tially tested on a fetal cell line to confirm antibody responses, according to research from the pro-life Char­lotte Lozier Institute. The AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vac­cines cur­rently in phase three trials involve fetal cells in both pro­duction and testing.

Immortal cell lines, like the one the COVID-19 vac­cines were tested on, are groups of cells taken from humans or animals which mul­tiply con­tin­u­ously due to a mutation causing sus­tained repro­duction. The spe­cific cell line HEK-293 was used in some of the testing for the Moderna and Pfizer vac­cines, and orig­i­nated in a mis­carried or aborted fetus in 1973.  The vaccine was only tested on these pos­sibly-abortion-derived cells to confirm that it worked, and the cells are not incor­po­rated into the serum injected into people. 

If these cells did come from an elective abortion, it was not per­formed for the sake of these cells — making them a product but not the cause of what many con­sider a grave evil. Though those with pro-life beliefs may object to this method of testing, several pro-life moral author­ities have deter­mined that the con­nection is suf­fi­ciently remote and the sit­u­ation suf­fi­ciently serious to allow people to receive the vaccine in good conscience.

The United States Con­ference of Catholic Bishops said in their statement on the issue that “while neither vaccine is com­pletely free from any con­nection to morally com­pro­mised cell lines, in this case the con­nection is very remote from the initial evil of the abortion” and that the current sit­u­ation is “suf­fi­ciently serious to justify their use.”

A statement from the Ethics and Reli­gious Liberty Com­mission of the Con­vention of Southern Bap­tists con­cluded sim­i­larly: “Chris­tians are not morally cul­pable if they use treat­ments and vac­cines that were developed using such cells, even if the cells orig­i­nated in aborted fetal tissue.”

While it’s preferable that abortion not be involved at all in vaccine devel­opment, refusing the COVID-19 vaccine because of this con­nection would also mean saying no to the MMR vaccine that pre­vents measles, mumps, and rubella, as well the chicken pox, hepatitis, and rabies vac­cines. As far as the link to abortion goes, the coro­n­avirus vaccine is more remote than most. 

If any drug tested on or developed using HEK-293 is immoral, then “we can say goodbye to modern med­icine” wrote Rev. Matthew Schnieder, a Catholic priest who writes on bioethics. “If we reject a med­ication merely for being tested on a fetal cell line, most of standard pharmacy would be immoral,” he said.

In another article, Schnieder put forth 12 things in more direct coop­er­ation with evil than the coro­n­avirus vaccine. Among them were “buying Ener­gizer Bat­teries, Heinz Ketchup, Doritos, Lays, or some­thing similar,” which all finan­cially support Planned Par­enthood; “eating bananas” and “drinking coffee,” which are indus­tries rife with forced labor; or “watching the live-action ‘Mulan,’” which worked with the Chinese gov­ern­mental orga­ni­zation car­rying out the ongoing Uyghur genocide.

So what are pro-life people to do? The USCCB and Catholic bioethi­cists say that when receiving morally com­pro­mised vac­cines, pro-life recip­ients should be absolutely clear that they do not condone the method of production. 

“While having our­selves and our fam­ilies immu­nized against COVID-19 with the new vac­cines is morally per­mis­sible and can be an act of self-love and charity toward others, we must not allow the gravely immoral nature of abortion to be obscured,” the statement said

In an article for “Public Dis­course,” bioethicist and sci­entist Rev. Nicanor Aus­triaco wrote, “The appro­pri­ation of an evil act would not be jus­ti­fiable if it con­tributed to future evil acts because of scandal or coop­er­ation. Therefore, a citizen of con­science who is opposed to abortion could avail herself of any vaccine developed using fetal cells from an elective abortion only if she avoided scandal by making her oppo­sition to abortion absolutely clear.” 

In the end, the decision to receive the vaccine is a per­sonal one that depends on health risks, prox­imity to vul­nerable demo­graphics, and overall com­fort­a­bility with the pro­duction method. Getting the vac­cines that are cur­rently available won’t result in more abor­tions, but it’s also important to let vaccine devel­opers know that you would prefer one without any con­nection to abortion.