In the midst of a pandemic that has consumed the world for more than a year, the familiar culture-war issue of abortion is shaping the debate about COVID-19 vaccines. Opponents of the vaccines insist that their proximity to aborted fetal cell lines taints their moral permissibility, while proponents argue that any proximity is remote and that our duty to aid our neighbor justifies taking the vaccine.
Appearances, however, can be deceiving. Although the question about the vaccines’ proximity to abortion is important, many debates about vaccines in the pro-life community are not fundamentally about abortion at all.
Consider, for example, one of the most visible figures in the pro-life movement: the Planned Parenthood director turned pro-life activist, Abby Johnson. Johnson believes that pro-life advocates should refuse the COVID-19 vaccines if abortion had any part whatsoever in their development or testing. Yet, in a widely-shared video on social media at the end of 2020, Johnson prefaces her pro-life criticism of the vaccines by saying that “I’m not taking the COVID vaccine regardless of how it was made; regardless of whether it was born and tested on the backs of aborted babies.” More recently, Johnson co-authored a statement that folded her pro-life objections to the vaccines alongside more standard objections to them, such as that they are experimental, that their adverse effects are substantial, and that they are not very effective at preventing infection or transmission of the novel coronavirus.
Eric Metaxas is another prominent pro-life public figure who, like Johnson, has suggested the COVID-19 vaccines should be avoided because of their connection to abortion. More often, however, he has raised conspiracy-theory objections against them, asserting that they do not count as vaccines, that they help create new variants, and that they change your genome. Pro-life websites such as LifeSiteNews.com similarly trade in conspiracy-theory objections to the vaccines that have nothing to do with abortion.
Start your day with Public DiscourseSign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.
It is not just that the pro-life case against the COVID vaccines is muddled by public figures like Johnson, Metaxas, and Kanye West. Even pro-life law professors at the University of Notre Dame defended the right of students to refuse vaccines based on a broad range of reasons. And a recent statement authored by pro-life scholars and signed by thousands not only describes why they believe the vaccines are “morally objectionable” and “abortion tainted,” but also encourages skepticism about “the scientific-industrial complex” and draws attention to the experimental nature of the vaccines as well as their unknown effects. This statement seems more to defend, as a matter of conscience, the right to refuse the vaccines for any reason than to defend the pro-life objections to the vaccines in particular.
None of this means necessarily that the pro-life objections made against the vaccines are disingenuous. Rather, my point is merely that the pro-life case against the COVID vaccines is significantly overdetermined.
Even if abortion had nothing whatsoever to do with the vaccines, many pro-life advocates who express pro-life objections to them would be just as vaccine-hesitant. Even if Americans were required to picket an abortion clinic for an hour before they could receive a COVID vaccine, Abby Johnson and Eric Metaxas would hardly jump in line to receive one.
The pro-life objections to the vaccines amplify a moral gravitas to a certain segment of the vaccine-resistant movement. The common objections to the vaccines that are not relevant to abortion depend on some fundamentally non-moral claim about science or risk calculation. If these objections are in fact sufficient for a person to refuse the vaccines, there is at best a question about undue attention being paid to the abortion issue. At worst, we should be concerned that pro-life objections are offered merely as a way to blunt the moral case for taking the vaccines: namely, that they help protect others.
Acknowledging the overdetermined nature of the pro-life case against the COVID vaccines reveals that addressing pro-life objections to the vaccines will not necessarily persuade anyone to take them. Good-faith arguments defending the vaccines against pro-life criticisms need to be made. But to convince our neighbor to take a vaccine requires rebutting objections that have nothing to do with abortion.
It goes without saying that arguments made in favor of the vaccines need always to be made respecting the right to refuse to get one. In my view, pro-life advocates who resist the vaccine have an undue fear that they will be coerced into taking one. While employment and school situations can be complicated, U.S. legislators and policymakers understand that the acceptance of vaccines must be voluntary. True, public incentives are sometimes offered, and there is talk of vaccine passports, but I know of no serious policy proposal in the United States that would force any individual to get a vaccine. Nevertheless, pro-life people should always emphasize (as they have) their respect for any individual’s decision to refuse a vaccine.
Further, pointing out the overdetermined case against the vaccine might in some circumstances persuade the minority of pro-life advocates whose sole objection to the vaccines really is a hesitancy about cooperating with abortion. If we satisfactorily address the pro-life objections and show that the country’s best pro-life scholars, the Vatican, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and prominent evangelical leaders all endorse these vaccines as ethical, we might show for some that any remaining hesitancy is rooted in certain anti-vaccine positions they would not endorse upon reflection.
Pointing out the way in which pro-life objections to the COVID-19 vaccines might be conflated with other objections does not mean that we should shut down discussion about the abortion-related implications of these vaccines or any other medical developments that have an indirect connection to abortion. But, as others have argued, if these objections really are to be decisive against the vaccines, then our participation in almost all of modern medicine (and beyond) will be in jeopardy.
It is an interesting sociological question to consider why certain segments of the pro-life movement are so susceptible to vaccine resistance. At least partly, it seems related to being politically conservative. An affirmation of the primacy of the family can manifest itself in suspicion of medical and state intervention that can become excessive. In a similar way, the response to COVID has been so politicized that the default “conservative” position is to be critical of pandemic mitigation measures such as lockdowns, masks, and, yes, vaccines.
More sympathetically, a general suspicion of the Western medical “establishment” may stem from the fact that it typically endorses, promotes, and profits from many things that are in fundamental opposition to Judeo-Christian ethics, such as assisted suicide, in vitro fertilization, and—of course—abortion. Recognizing the serious bioethical violations and flawed anthropology at work in so many cases can lead people to become disillusioned and write off the whole medical industry as morally bankrupt.
In any case, as a pro-vaccine, pro-life advocate, I regret the apparent alliance between the pro-life cause and the vaccine resistance movement. It risks painting the pro-life position as an enemy of science and reason, when both are on our side.
More importantly, however, there is a deeper tension between these two positions. It’s not merely that when it comes to vaccines, there is a problematic retreat to the mantra of “my body, my choice.” It’s also that avoiding harm to oneself is not the only relevant consideration. Pro-life advocates ask a great deal from mothers who find themselves with unwanted pregnancies, who often must take on many risks and make many sacrifices to bear their children. Yet, when it comes to vaccines, too many pro-life advocates seem not to want to bear any risks or make any sacrifices for the sake of others.