When President Trump became sick with COVID-19 in October, reporters from CBS News, the New York Times, and other media outlets were quick to point out that, despite the administration’s opposition to research using fetal tissue from abortions, the president himself took a drug made by Regeneron that relied on cell lines from an abortion for his treatment. In response, two strategies seemed to emerge to address this apparent contradiction, neither of which adequately dealt with the situation on the ground.
First, an administration official argued that, because the drug relied on a fetal cell line developed prior to June 5, 2019 (the date of the administration’s ban on funding fetal tissue research), the president’s use of the drug “would not implicate the administration’s policy.” But this procedural hedge didn’t begin to engage the broader concern about whether there was a contradiction for the president to receive a drug that relies on aborted fetal cell lines.
Second, some groups emphasized that the actual manufacture of the drug did not involve fetal cells. One pro-life group, for example, noted that “no human embryonic stem cells or human fetal tissue were used to produce the treatments President Trump received—period.” This categorical assurance, however, involved a verbal pirouette, because even if the production of the medicine that Trump took does not rely on materials from the destruction of human life, its initial development and testing clearly did rely on such materials.
It Is Impermissible to Develop Pharmaceuticals from Aborted Children’s Tissues, but It Can Be Permissible for a Person to Take Such Pharmaceuticals
President Trump received a cocktail of two monoclonal antibodies that were part of an experimental drug called REGN-COV-2. The drug is manufactured in hamster cells, not in cells derived from human abortions. As REGN-COV-2 was originally being developed and tested, however, the company used a biological assessment tool that relies on a cell line called HEK-293 that came from an abortion that happened in 1972. That biological assessment tool helped Regeneron figure out which of their monoclonal antibodies would be most effective against COVID-19.
It is unfortunate that these testing tools, which are widely used by researchers in industry and academia, rely on fetal cell lines from abortions. This fact reminds us how the disturbing effects of abortion have infiltrated most sectors of our society, including pharmaceutical research and development.
Even if the cocktail of antibodies received by the president had been manufactured, not in hamster cells, but in cells derived from an abortion that happened decades earlier, it still would be ethically permissible for the president to receive that drug. He would not commit a sin by receiving the medical treatment; the sin was rather committed by those who originally raided the corpse of the aborted child or established corporate policies to use abortion-derived cells, rather than alternatives. Individual end users have no direct causal connection to those wrongful decisions made previously by others.
The Catholic Church, for her part, has been clear that end users may receive such drugs when there is a proportionately serious reason for doing so, given that they had no involvement in any of the decisions that led to the use of the cells.
It remains the case, nevertheless, that end users still have a duty to protest the disturbing fact that aborted materials are being used in many sectors of biomedical research, and to push vigorously for the development of alternatives.
The Trump administration has been very proactive on precisely this front. The administration established a new fetal tissue ethics advisory board to assist the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in their review of grant requests from researchers that involve the use of cell lines from abortions. I have served as a member of that advisory board during 2020, and have been impressed to see the solid advice offered by members of that board and their almost unanimous recommendations to decline funding for research proposals that relied on cell lines derived from abortions. As far as I am aware, no prior administration has ever taken such intentional steps to restrict the use of fetal cells derived from direct abortions in research. These important efforts to eliminate their use in research need to continue.
To Take an Abortion-Derived Pharmaceutical Is One Thing; but to Actively Promote the Development of Such Pharmaceuticals with Public Funds Is Another
If the president and his administration are to be credibly accused of inconsistency with respect to their stance on using fetal cell lines from abortions, it would not be because the president personally received a dose of Regeneron’s drug, but rather because of a very different ethical failure.
In recent months, through HHS-BARDA, the Trump administration has been channeling hundreds of millions of dollars of taxpayer funds directly into the development of COVID-19 vaccines that use abortion-derived cells for their production. Two prominent examples that come to mind are those of Janssen Research & Development, Inc., a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, and the collaborative efforts of Astrazeneca and the University of Oxford. It remains a vexing contradiction that this administration failed to employ its own ethics advisory board to vet and ethically winnow the many COVID-19 vaccine candidates it considered for government funding.
The granting of funding, especially federal funding, is one of the highest forms of approbation and blessing scientists and institutions can obtain in terms of their particular line of work. Disbursement of research funding needs to be tightly linked to our vision of good, ethical science. The decision to vigorously fund initiatives that use cell lines from direct abortions not only implies moral approval for the initiative, but is strongly causally linked to the continued reliance on such cells throughout industry and research, in contradistinction to the decision by single end users who provisionally receive such drugs and methodically convey their strong objections to the coercion implied by the continued development and use of these pharmaceuticals.
None of us should have to take drugs that have any connection, even a very remote one, to abortion; but because our society made the dire mistake of legalizing fetal homicide in 1973, we must now contend with the infiltration of abortion-derived materials into numerous areas of biomedical research and development. The COVID-19 pandemic offers us a unique opportunity to confront these problems, and to take decisive steps toward real change.