Updated: Dec 4, 2020
By Dr Paul Coulter, BSc, MB, BCh, BAO, MA, PhD
This week, the UK became the first Western nation to approve a vaccine against COVID-19. The news has been celebrated by many who hope that the roll out of a vaccine will restore some level of normality to society. We can certainly all hope for that! Others have raised concerns about the adoption of vaccines that have developed much quicker than normal, worrying that short-cuts may have been taken in safety testing. It does seem, however, that the results from the testing that has been done are positive and I am sure the UK health system will monitor reactions to the vaccine carefully over time. My purpose in this article is not to question the safety of the vaccine, still less to attack the idea that vaccination is a good thing (I believe firmly that it is), but to sound a note of caution about a celebratory tone because of the way the vaccine has been developed.
The vaccine that has already been approved is produced in the Netherlands by BioNTech and Pfizer. The UK government has ordered 40 million doses. It is only one of seven vaccines procured by the nation. The EU, meanwhile, has ordered doses of six vaccines. What is not widely known is how these vaccines are produced. Vaccines are produced using live cells. Some vaccines are made in chicken eggs, but increasing numbers are developed in cells that have been grown from tissues taken from mammals such as dogs, monkeys or human beings. In other words, tissue was taken from a body of one of these species and cells were isolated from it and multiplied in the lab to be used in scientific research including vaccine production. From a Christian perspective, there should be no problem with using tissues from other species, but we should wonder whether it is right to use human cells in this way. The answer to that question depends on where the human cells came from.
There are human cell lines in use in labs that came from adults who consented to their tissue being used in this way (specifically tissue from cancerous tumours). That shouldn’t trouble us. In fact, we might see it as an indication of good coming from something bad. What is troubling is that some cell lines in use were made from tissues taken from aborted foetuses. That includes cell lines used in making COVID-19 vaccines which were made from foetuses aborted in the 1970s and 1980s. Some COVID-19 vaccines were produced using these cells, as were vaccines against other diseases (see the video for more detail). Some, like the BioNTech/Pfizer vaccine were developed in non-human cell lines but tested on foetal cell lines after production. In Table 1, I outline which of the vaccines ordered by the UK and EU used foetal cell lines in one of these ways.
Table 1: Foetal cell line (FCL) use in COVID-19 vaccines ordered by UK and EU
BioNTech/Pfizer - 40 million (UK); 300 million (EU) - developed without FCL; tested on FCL
CureVac - 225 million (EU) - no use of FCL †
GSK/Sanofi Pasteur - 60 million (UK); 300 million (EU) - no use of FCL †
Moderna - 5 million (UK); 160 million (EU) - developed without FCL; tested on FCL
Janssen - 50 million (UK); 400 million (EU) - developed using FCL
Novavax - 60 million (UK) - developed without FCL; tested on FCL
Oxford/AstraZeneca - 100 million (UK); 400 million (EU) - developed using FCL
Valneva - 60 million (UK) - no use of FCL †
Data includes doses ordered by the UK and EU plus including potential additional orders negotiated at time of writing
† correct at time of writing
How are Christians to respond to the realisation that foetal cell lines are used in this way? I suggest we should do three things. Firstly, we should educate ourselves and others about the facts so we can all make informed decisions. That is the purpose of this article and the longer video that accompanies it. Secondly, we should campaign about this issue. We should campaign to see an end to the use of foetal cell lines in this way. I believe firmly that these cell lines should never have been created, just as the abortions were an act of evil. It is horrendous that they are still used in Western countries, especially when there are alternatives as the vaccines produced by GlaxoSmithKline/Sanofi Pasteur, Valneva and CureVac demonstrate. We should also campaign for a choice to be available to people to receive only those vaccines produced without using foetal cell lines. At present it seems that will not be available in the UK, which will offer the first available vaccine to the most vulnerable people initially and down the line is likely to offer whichever vaccine seems most effective and safe for the person’s age group or risk level. Another ethical issue – that of global equality – should also factor in our campaigning. We should ask Western governments to avoid selfishness in buying up as many vaccine doses as they can to the detriment of poorer countries.
The third thing we need to do is decide whether we should receive a vaccine made using foetal cell lines if we have no choice. For some readers this may be even more pressing as they may be a healthcare professional who might be asked to administer these vaccines. How, then, should we make that decision? I think we can start by recognising that this is not a black and white issue where there is a clear correct answer. If we take or administer the vaccine we are not cooperating in the evil acts of the abortions or creating the cell lines. Nor are we encouraging more evil to be done, since these cell lines came from babies killed decades ago and newly aborted babies are not being used today in the West to create new cell lines (although, sadly, they are in countries like China). We are, however, benefiting from the consequences of those evil acts. Before we say immediately that this means we must not take them, we need to realise that we benefit from consequences of evil all the time. In a complex world of interconnected systems of government and society we are inextricably linked to evil, from the way our clothes are made to the way our taxes are spent by governments. The fact that a specific vaccine has not been made using foetal cell lines does not necessarily mean we are free of all evil in receiving it. What if the company that made it uses foetal cell lines in other research or is profiting excessively from making this and other pharmaceuticals? What if our government has acted selfishly in outbidding majority world nations to get the vaccine? We simply cannot stay free of connection to evil so long as we live in a fallen world. All we can do it try to minimise our connection to evil and, wherever we can, to choose options that are less problematic than others.
The category into which the question of accepting a vaccine made using foetal line cells fits, I believe, is what the apostle Paul called a ‘disputable matter’. In Romans chapters 14 and 15 he dealt with the issue of food some Christians thought it was acceptable to eat it while others did not (I think most likely, and suggest in the video, that this was food offered to idols, which certainly was an issue for the Christians in Corinth according to 1 Corinthians 8, but it could have been food that was prohibited by the Old Testament law). Paul outlined three principles for those who were trying to decide whether they should eat or not:
1. Faith – Paul makes it clear that to act against our conscience is sinful (Romans 14:23). We must prayerfully consider the issue at hand. If we have doubts about whether it is right to take the vaccine, we should not do it.
2. Love – even if our conscience is clear, we may be wrong to do something if it causes another person to stumble (Romans 14:15). In the case of COVID-19 vaccines, this means that if you decide it is alright for you to accept the vaccine you should be careful not to talk about that decision in a way that implies it should be right for everyone to do so. By doing that you might encourage someone else to take the vaccine when their conscience is not clear. You have caused them to sin. So, perhaps you should not tell others whether you will take the vaccine – you can keep it “between yourself and God” (Romans 14:22). You may even decide not to have the vaccine, even though you believe you would not be sinning in doing so, because you do not want to cause someone to stumble. There is another angle to this part of the decision-making process, though. If we are to act to maximise love for others, we may be convinced further that we should take a vaccine because by doing so we are helping to protect vulnerable people in our society from COVID-19 and to restore the economy and so help people in hardship.
3. Unity – disputable matters should not cause division among Christians. In Chapter 15 verses 1 to 7, Paul explains that we should have harmony and unity of purpose. That cannot be so if we pass judgement on those who reach a different conclusion about these issues from us. This is vitally important for churches today over this issue. Too many people are falling out because they do not see eye to eye. That cannot be right. We must prize and work hard to maintain unity for the sake of the gospel.
I hope these three principles will help you reach a personal decision about whether you will take one of the COVID-19 vaccines produced using foetal cell lines should you be offered one without the choice to receive one created without using them instead. If you decide that you can, I don’t think you should do so without pausing for a moment to remember the baby that was killed. It should be a solemn thing, not a celebratory thing. If you decide that you cannot, be certain to do all you can to preserve others from harm by continuing to take measures not to spread the virus. Whatever you decide, “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God”.
For a more detailed examination of this issue see Paul’s video