Christians today confront a variety of novel and profound challenges to the Church’s moral teachings, and they do so amid a culture increasingly indifferent or hostile to the Church’s metaphysical claims. Within this broader context, the arrival of COVID-19 vaccines with historical links to abortion presents not only a question to answer but also an opportunity for Christians to develop more robust moral imaginations.
All of the COVID-19 vaccines currently authorized for use in the United States or the United Kingdom make or have made some use of so-called “immortalized” cell lines such as HEK293, which was originally produced using “the remains of a deceased unborn child following what appears to be an elective abortion that took place in the Netherlands during the early 1970s.”
That description comes from the Ethics and Public Policy Center’s widely disseminated “Statement from Pro-Life Catholic Scholars on the Moral Acceptability of Receiving COVID-19 Vaccines.” These Catholic scholars rightly conclude that Christians may take COVID-19 vaccines without collaborating with the evil of abortion. Taking a vaccine does not endorse the abortion that enabled the production of immortalized cell lines, nor does it disrespect the remains of aborted babies, nor does it require or directly incentivize future abortions.
Nevertheless, the EPPC statement fails to consider how an unambiguous endorsement of these vaccines has the potential to malform our moral imaginations, and it fails to acknowledge that this endorsement may be exploited to support the ongoing symbiotic relationship between scientific research and the abortion industry. In other words, the statement presents as entirely unproblematic what is actually a complex choice among competing goods, thereby squandering an opportunity to form the Christian’s conscience more fully.
Strengths of the EPPC Statement
The statement’s signatories are scholars who have defended the teachings of the Church and Scripture throughout their careers, without regard for public opinion or mainstream acceptability. They have earned our respect, as well as our presumption that they speak in good faith, regardless of whether we agree with their conclusions.
Their statement makes three fundamentally sound points. First, the distinction between vaccines that used HEK293 fetal cell lines or the like in testing versus those that use such cell lines in ongoing production is a distinction without a meaningful moral difference—or, at least, not much of one. All benefited from abortion-derived cell lines in some way. In all four cases, the only connection to abortion is “after the fact.” No abortions were performed in order to produce the vaccines. None of the vaccines require any further abortive acts. Perhaps, as a gesture of protest, one ought to prefer the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines over the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca ones, as the statement allows and my own House of Bishops advises, but such a gesture remains symbolic rather than ethically substantive.
Second, regardless of whether we take any of the vaccines on offer, we are already deeply entangled with HEK293 in innumerable ways, given its use in laboratory testing related to food products, cosmetics, medical technologies (including many other vaccines), and more. You cannot eat at a restaurant without becoming complicit. You cannot use makeup without becoming complicit. You cannot enjoy the fruits of modern medicine without becoming complicit. If we are willing to excuse ourselves of complicity in relation to cosmetics and processed foods, it hardly seems reasonable to draw a red line at potentially lifesaving, pandemic-ending vaccines.
If, on the other hand, we wish to remove ourselves from all connection to products that use or used such cell lines, we must admit that this will require an Amish-level disengagement with the broader society—a revolutionary change that would sacrifice other moral goods, and that would therefore require careful moral reasoning in its own right. Moreover, should we choose the path of total disengagement, we ought to start with measures that inconvenience ourselves—halting all use of makeup and all consumption of processed foods, for instance—before we make choices that could imperil others.
Finally, it does matter that the abortion in question was not procured in order to provide material for science, and that using these fetal cell lines does not require ongoing abortions. The Church has long affirmed that scientists and doctors may make use of human corpses in medical experimentation without necessarily denying or eroding the dignity of the human person. (Experimentation on live subjects is far more problematic, as Gilbert Meilaender has recently pointed out in First Things.) This holds true whether the person died due to natural causes or as a result of homicide—provided, of course, that the scientists in question did not perpetrate or encourage murder for the purposes of scientific experimentation.
What Was Left Unsaid
One can agree with all of these points and yet feel profoundly unsatisfied by the statement’s conclusion. In my case, as I plumbed my disquiet, I found not irrational emotion but rather gut-level evidence of a certain elision in their arguments—a problem partly with what was said, but much more with what was left unsaid. Although the use of HEK293 and other cell lines derived from abortion does not require new abortions to occur, their use absolutely provides moral cover for abortionists (“abortion saves lives”). It exists alongside the ongoing use of newly aborted babies for scientific experimentation and profit—witness the Planned Parenthood sting videos from a few years ago. So even while we can and should make these distinctions, abortionists and their allies will actively blur these lines. They do so disingenuously, pointing to lifesaving medical advances in order to defend the destruction of the most vulnerable of human lives.
Still, we must admit that the scientific use of the corpses of abortion victims is troubling. The standards set forth in the statement—researchers must use a corpse and not a living person; abortions must not be procured for the purposes of medical research; researchers must not cause or encourage abortion—prohibit active collaboration with evil but do not rule out more incorrect degrees of complicity. Imagine a scientist asking a serial killer, “Look, I’m not saying anything one way or another about what you do with your free time, but if you do end up murdering someone, would you mind donating the corpse to science?” One could argue that a better comparison would be that of the state—not the killer—donating the unclaimed body of a homicide victim to science. But the latter metaphor fails to recognize the premeditated agreement between killers and scientists in a legal system that sanctions the homicide of the unborn. Scientists do not come across the corpses of aborted children by chance. The specter of scientists patiently waiting for the killings to be completed so they can take custody of little corpses is rightly repugnant, as is the knowledge that contemporary abortionists perform these killings in such a way as to better preserve the victim’s organs for research. There is a complicity in this symbiotic relationship, a complicity that we share—indirectly and in part—whenever we benefit from it. The benefits we accrue through this system inevitably shape our moral imagination, softening the protests of our consciences against the barbaric evil of abortion.
To say that the lines of culpability are more complex than the statement implies does not ultimately mean that the statement’s conclusion is wrong. It is wrong, however, to present as unambiguously clear what is in fact deeply complicated. The use of HEK293 and the like throughout the food, cosmetic, and medical industries does expose opposition to the vaccines on pro-life grounds as a form of special pleading, unless such opponents are willing to engage in a comprehensive reorganization of their entire lives. Nevertheless, this logic does not absolve us of all responsibility, so much as it exposes us as already complicit. We may and we do choose to fight for laws to protect the unborn. We may and do support crisis pregnancy centers. We may and do publicly proclaim our dedication to life in the March for Life and other public events. Most importantly, we may and we do bring this enormity before God in personal and common prayer. But as we petition the Lord of Hosts to bring justice to our land, as we ask him how long he will tolerate the ongoing holocaust of his children, we must do so in fear and trembling, because we are, all of us, already complicit.
Personal Responsibility Amidst Systems of Sin
Some of us are squeamish about language of systemic injustice, and perhaps rightly so. As individuals, we will stand before our Lord to give an account of our own sins. But we also know that God does not only deal with individuals. From Genesis to Revelation, Scripture reveals a God who engages with us corporately—who holds the human race accountable for the sins of our primal parents (Romans 5), who curses families down the generations for the sins of the fathers (Deuteronomy 5), who calls nations to account for national sins (see: all of the prophets). Nor is this merely an Old Testament or even this-worldly phenomenon, given that the ethnos persist in heaven. If we feel squeamish about “systems” of sin because we wish to avoid complicity in acts for which we are not individually, willingly, and consciously responsible, then we must accept that this is a very unbiblical squeamishness.
But there are other and better reasons to be squeamish about “systems” language. Ironically, such language can actually diminish personal responsibility. If we are all equally guilty in our culture of death, then individual actions become meaningless. If we cannot excuse ourselves of complicity through acts of prayer or by working to outlaw abortion or by giving of our time and money to aid mothers and their children, then perhaps we ought not bother with any of it. This, however, is to err in the opposite direction—to forget that the depth of one’s complicity varies, and that God deals with us personally as well as corporately.
The hints and shadows we see of the Last Judgment in Scripture strongly suggest an individual accounting that occurs separate from corporate judgment. More importantly, our Christian duty is not negative—merely avoiding blame—but is rather the positive task of theosis. We combat sin not to feel better about ourselves or to escape God’s wrath or earn his favor but rather to become more and more like God in Jesus Christ.
Forming the Moral Imagination in a Culture of Death
However indirectly, the evil of abortion played a role in the production of the vaccines. This role, moreover, reshapes our moral imagination toward abortion. Rather than fully accounting for the ambiguities introduced by this connection, the EPPC statement minimizes and brushes these tensions aside as irrelevant. Facing the problem more fully should not rule out vaccination, but it will help us better understand the depths of our entanglement in this late-modern culture of death. It equips us to counter the logic of the world, the flesh, and the devil, which would have us believe that the goods produced using HEK293 prove the moral permissibility of the abortive acts themselves. A fuller accounting reminds us that the goods proceeding from scientific study come about in spite of, not because of, evils like abortion—what was intended for evil, God can nevertheless use for good.
If vaccines can end this pandemic, then refraining from taking them solely due to the use of immortalized cell lines is both selfish and pointless—a vain attempt to avoid an unavoidable burden of complicity in our civilization’s greatest ongoing wickedness. Perhaps, then, what these Catholic scholars left unsaid should remain unsaid. It seems to me, though, that this reticence breeds a false sense of comfort amid a culture of death. It soothes the conscience of the Catholic when it should prick. It therefore functions as yet another way of looking away from abortion. And so long as our culture is built on the wreckage of tiny human bodies, we can never escape complicity, and we must never look away.