I’ve seen a range of reasons given over the past few months for refusing the COVID-19 vaccine when it becomes available. Some of them are understandable including concerns about whether we know about all potential side effects yet. Some people see it as a freedom issue, although as things stand, the vaccine won’t be compulsory, at least here in the UK. At the wilder end of things are claims that the vaccine will alter you DNA and that it is how the Mark of the Beast will be introduced. I must admit that I find the last suggestion a little confusing – why this vaccine and why not the flu or small-pox. I suspect it has something to do with the suggestion of giving those inoculated a COVID passport stamp allowing them access to travel and to shops. However, the theology that expects a literal, physical mark tends to be Pre-millenialist/Dispensationalist meaning that strictly speaking if The Beast has turned up with its mark, then the church should have been raptured a long time back. So, if a lot of people disappear, planes start crashing and a bloke call Nicolae turns up to run the UN before Pfizer complete manufacture then it is time to worry!
However, the more serious ethical concern and the one worthy of attention is the concern that the vaccines use aborted foetal cells. This concern is worth thinking through because it happens to be based on fact unlike some of the wilder claims and it does raise a genuine ethical dilemma.
The facts are that yes, vaccines, generally (and not just the COVID ones) have made use of cells from aborted babies. The reason for this is that vaccines use dead viruses and these have to be cultivated in cells at the laboratory. Sometimes cells developed from human embryo cells are used. In fact, the cells are primarily developed from two specific abortions.
“The most widely used foetal cells are WI-38 and MRC-5. The WI-38 cells were derived by Leonard Hayflick in 1962 from the lung of a 3-month female foetus .The initials WI refer to the Wistar Institute, a body of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and number 38 to the foetus from which the cells were obtained. The MRC-5 cells were obtained in 1966 from the lungs of a 14-week male foetus .The initials MRC indicate Medical Research Council, a body from London. Other cells derived from surgically-aborted foetuses are: WI-1, WI-3, WI-11, WI-16, WI-18, WI-19, WI-23, WI-24, WI-25, WI-26, WI-27, WI-44, MRC-9, IMR-90, and R-17 (obtained from lung); WI-2, WI-12 and WI-20, (skin and muscle); WI-5 (muscle); WI-8 and WI-14, and WS1 (skin); WI-4, WI-9, WI-10, WI-13 and WI-15 (kidney); WI-6, WI-21 and WI-22 (heart); WI-7 (thymus and thyroids), WI-17 (liver); FHs74Int (small intestine); and PER.C6”
So, how do we respond to this? Well first of all, it is best to ensure that people can know and act on the facts and make a free choice. This means that I don’t think the vaccine should be compulsory against conscience. This also means that we should not use the argument that “Well we have all had vaccines before so what difference does this make?” You see, what happened in ignorance is completely different to what happens now we have the information. On this basis, some will decide that they should not take the vaccine.
The next decision therefore is to prayerfully consider the ethical implications of what we now know. The reason why some people will feel unable to take the vaccine is because they will see this as endorsing abortion. However, as we consider that option, it is worth thinking through a couple of things.
First of all, as I understand things, the process is using a couple of foetuses from the 1960s. What is not happening is the production of foetuses in order to harvest cells. In that respect the concerns here are a little different from some of the activity around stem-cell research. This is important because, our complex, joined up world means that we are often in some way benefitting from knowledge and resources made available in situations where there are questionable ethics. Consider for example how much of our technology benefits from research carried out to extend our military capabilities far beyond what is needed.
Secondly, I think we can distinguish a wrongful act from future positive side benefits. Now, I currently have cornea grafts in each of my eyes. You may also have some form of transplant as these become increasingly common, a kidney, a heart etc. Supposing those urban legends were true and kidneys were harvested from kidnapped people left to die in baths of ice. I think we would have an issue with that. Of course, some transplants come from people who are able to continue living (you can survive with one kidney) but not always. Heart, lung and cornea transplants require a death.
Now, supposing my cornea graft came from someone who had been murdered. Would I have been wrong to accept it? I suspect most of us would say “no, of course not.” The murder itself was wrong but the decision to donate organs for medical purposes after death was not. Well, I would tend to see our situation with vaccines in the same light. Was it wrong for a surgeon to abort the baby? Yes. Is it wrong for scientists today to work to bring good from bad, life from death? No.
So going forward. I hope that we will use the knowledge we have now to campaign further against abortion and to encourage alternative methods in vaccine development too. I hope that this will give us an insight and understanding into why people will make different choices about vaccines (though please make sure you follow through consistently on all vaccines). And whether or not we take the vaccine, here is a timely reminder in the middle of a pandemic and in the middle of Advent that life follows death in God’s plan, that death does not have the last word on the matter and that our trust is in the one who willingly came to die so that we might have life.