Recently in Public Discourse I argued that it is unethical to use fetal tissue from aborted children to develop vaccines against COVID-19. The ultimate reason is predicated upon the wrongness of abortion, which unjustly deprives an unborn human person of his or her life. Successful use of the remains of such a person for the important social end of a vaccine in the midst of a pandemic would color the abortion industry, and individual abortions, with an undeserved glow of altruism. And willingness to develop such vaccines from the remains of aborted children would create unjust incentives to kill members of one class of human persons, the unborn.

This judgment raises questions about two related issues. The first issue concerns research using cell lines derived many years ago from post-abortion fetal tissue, such as HEK-293 cells. HEK cells, and similar cell lines such as MRC-5 and WR-38, were generated from the tissue of aborted individuals in the 1960s and 1970s. These cell lines, widely used in research labs today, contain no actual cells from the aborted child’s tissue, and are often used with little awareness of their origins. They will be referred to here as cell lines of illicit origin; by my earlier PD argument, they ought not to have been brought into existence. Nevertheless, it must be asked whether upright scientific researchers may use them now, many years after the wrongful act was performed.

The second issue concerns the choices that might need to be made by pro-life citizens, including pro-life parents, were a vaccine to be developed from recently procured fetal tissue. The abortion, procurement, and research using the procured tissue are all impermissible by my argument, and pro-lifers should demand that alternative, ethically upright forms of research be pursued. But again, the question whether vaccines resulting from such research may be used, or whether they must be refused, is a separate issue, and must be additionally addressed.

Some pro-lifers have proposed that the answer to both questions simply extends the judgment I made about the procurement and use of post-abortion fetal tissue as part of the current quest for a vaccine. They assert that use of cell lines of illicit origin is wrong for scientific research; and they assert that it would be wrong for pro-lifers to make use of a vaccine derived from unethically procured fetal tissue. But I argue in this essay that the reasons for refusing to use cell lines such as HEK-293 are weak, and that there can be good reasons for pro-life persons to make use of a COVID-19 vaccine even if it results from unethical tissue procurement practices.

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Cell Lines of Illicit Origin

The most common objection to the use of cell lines of illicit origin relies on the moral category of cooperation. Cooperation takes place when an agent does something that will in some way be of aid to some other party who is already committed to, or performing, evil acts. Such cooperation can be formal, when the cooperator shares some or all of the intention of the evildoer, or material, when the cooperator’s intention does not at all overlap with the evildoer’s intention.

Formal cooperation is always wrong, but material cooperation can be permissible when the reasons for acting are proportionate to the reasons against so acting. This requires consideration of the goods and ills that will result from the cooperating act. For example, one of the possible effects of material cooperation is on the character of the cooperator, who can become habituated to the action in question, finding it easier and easier. A material cooperator might eventually come to endorse the wrongdoing and thereby become a formal cooperator. Another possible effect involves how the cooperator is subsequently understood by the wrongdoer, or by other third parties.

In 2005 the Pontifical Academy for Life discussed the WI-38 and MRC-5 cell lines, derived from abortions performed in 1964 and 1970. The Academy’s approach was primarily framed in terms of cooperation; they argued that developers of vaccines using these cells were engaged in a form of cooperation that, even if material, was “as a matter of principle, morally illicit.” Thus researchers have an obligation not to use such cell lines, and a further obligation to make clear their moral objections to the original immoral act.

The Academy argued as well that even physicians and parents who make use of such vaccines are engaged in “very remote mediate material cooperation.” The Academy nevertheless held that there could be a proportionate reason for parents to make use of such vaccines in certain circumstances.

But the Academy was mistaken in framing its discussion in terms of the category of cooperation. There is neither material nor formal cooperation with the 1970s abortion in the use of HEK cells, for there is no cooperation with that abortion at all. The wrongful act at issue was performed decades ago, and is not part of a recurring pattern or project. The actions of the wrongdoers are beyond our reach, and so there is no possibility of cooperation of any sort.

Accordingly, there is no material cooperation here by those who use HEK cells in their research, nor is there “very remote mediate material cooperation” by those who use vaccines derived from any of these cell lines.

The case is very different when there is a regular and ongoing pattern of use of tissue from aborted fetuses that requires more or less continual procurement of new tissues. Here, all who participate in research involving products from such tissues at least materially cooperate with the procurement, since the existence of a market is necessary to sustain the practice of harvesting such tissues. This cooperation is unjust for the reasons I outlined in my previous Public Discourse essay.

But one might instead be concerned with what some moral theologians have called the problem of appropriation. At issue in appropriation is not whether the original wrongdoer will be helped by a cooperator, but whether someone will be benefited by the original wrongdoer’s actions. What is at issue morally in such a case concerns the side effects of appropriation, two of which are especially critical.

First, there is the possibility that the will of the appropriator will be conformed to that of the wrongdoer. The appropriator’s will would become disordered were he to begin to approve the original wrongdoing, or be glad it had occurred. The second side effect is the risk that the appropriation could lead to further wrongdoing. Perhaps, for example, it could induce others to have abortions, or to procure fetal tissue for research, or even to approve of abortion generally. How likely are these in the case at issue?

These do not seem very likely. There is no necessary connection between continued use of the HEK-293 line and the use of fetal tissue from contemporary and continuing abortion. Indeed, closing down research using HEK-293 could be the kind of overreaction that could cast doubt on the sounder and more pressing objections to the use of fetal tissue, and might lead researchers to seek out tissue from newly aborted fetuses to replace it.

Of course, it remains vocationally important to pro-lifers that they not be perceived to be uncaring on matters of human life. Witness to the value of human life matters. But in the case of cell lines of illicit origin, it is an adequate fulfillment of that vocational responsibility for pro-life researchers, universities, and the like, to decry both the existence of abortion on demand and the past abortion procedures that resulted in the cell lines, without forgoing the use of the lines in question. As with all vocational questions, this must ultimately be left to the conscience of the agents involved. But the use of these cells cannot be ruled out as unethical “as a matter of principle” on the basis even of this kind of consideration, and pro-lifers ought not to condemn unequivocally the use of HEK cell lines in the current crisis.

Because researchers may ethically use the HEK cell lines to develop vaccines, people can of course ethically use a vaccine should it be developed from the HEK cell lines.

Fetal Tissue and Vaccines, Again

But what happens if a possible future vaccine for COVID-19 is developed unethically, by using contemporary tissue from aborted children? Could pro-life citizens morally use such a vaccine? This will strike many pro-lifers as absurd; is it not complicity in abortion?

No. Again, it is not cooperation strictly speaking; the abortions have already been performed. Nor does any individual pro-lifer’s decision to vaccinate contribute in any meaningful way either to any particular future abortion, or to the work of researchers who insist on using fetal tissue. Nor again is there a likelihood that coordinated refusal of such vaccines—as opposed to coordinated opposition to their development—would have a meaningful future effect. Rather, such refusal would probably seem to many like a refusal to fulfill one’s responsibility in building herd immunity—and that is a genuine responsibility in the event that a vaccine is developed. Refusal to vaccinate oneself and one’s children will not only put oneself and one’s family at risk; it will put others, especially the vulnerable elderly and those suffering from certain chronic illnesses, at significant risk as well.

But is it not an intolerable acceptance of a benefit derived from evil? Perhaps; but the threshold of intolerability for those with responsibility for the lives and health of others is high. Consider peace between two countries that has been brought about by past unjust means (such as the targeting of civilians or the use of illicit weapons). Must the peace and its benefits be rejected by current leaders whose responsibilities would be threatened by their loss?

Of course, such leaders would have a responsibility to work for a more just peace, one that rectifies past wrongdoing. Likewise, pro-lifers should never abandon their responsibility to work for a more just environment of scientific research (and indeed, a more just world for pregnant women). But accepting the way in which the unjust peace, or the unjustly made vaccine, made possible the fulfillment of important and unavoidable responsibilities would not be the same as doing evil that good may come of it. If cooperation is not the appropriate framework within which to consider the question of vaccination, then we have moved away from the rightly stark norm that evil may never be done for any good, to the rightly nuanced norm that serious responsibilities may not be abandoned save for proportionate reasons.

Both scientific researchers in a race for a vaccine for COVID-19 and pro-life citizens (including parents) have such responsibilities. In both cases, I have argued, pro-life researchers and citizens may acceptably judge that such proportionate reasons do not hold without compromise to their pro-life principles and witness.