The coronavirus pandemic has brought challenges and opportunities to all fields of healthcare, whether that be how GP surgeries operate, how hospital beds are allocated or how pioneering research for treatments is conducted. Alongside these changes, many ethical dilemmas have emerged over the past year. One notable case that has been hurled into the foreground is regarding the vaccines that are reported to be in the final stages of development and testing. For Christians, there has been a sense of unease to learn that some vaccines, including that being developed by Oxford University in collaboration with AstraZeneca, are using cell lines which have been derived from legally aborted embryos (HEK-293, PER-C6) – with the abortions themselves being carried out nearly 47 and 35 years ago respectively. The question is, how do we address this? Do we cry foul play over a vaccine developed utilising such methods? Or do we take the stance that given that the abortion was carried out so long ago, legally and voluntarily, it is good that a potentially world-changing vaccine can be developed from something which we believe to be morally wrong?
Scientific research using cell lines much like those used in the Oxford University coronavirus vaccine has been used in the development of numerous vaccines, including those combatting measles, mumps, chickenpox and hepatitis A. Current vaccines in the UK which have utilised cell lines derived from aborted fetuses (MRC-5, WI-38) include the MMR vaccine produced by GSK. This undoubtedly represents a scientific success in the fight against contagious diseases. However, does this assuage the concerns we may have about the vaccines’ origins?
So often in our lives, we are not aware of a mistake we have made or wrong we have done until somebody points it out to us. Once we are aware of it, do we continue to make the same mistake or continue to do the same wrong? If the answer is no, we surely cannot apply the logic that this new vaccine is morally acceptable only because we have engaged with previous vaccines of the same origin. We must apply our new knowledge to the decisions before us now, however we have acted in the past with regards to the vaccines which are currently protecting almost all of us from deadly diseases.
So, if these vaccines, which are currently keeping us fit and well and running through our veins, have resulted from unspeakable wrongdoing does this make us as responsible for the death of an unborn child as the physician who carried out the original act? Are we propping up injustice in society by continuing to support, administer and receive vaccines whose development has from the death of a child? Does it not make sense that if we are against every form of voluntary abortion, then we would reject any use of vaccines that have benefitted from them?
Or is it the case that given the indirectness of association of clinicians, or even more, patients with the original act, there really is very limited culpability for those who choose to have these vaccines? There is no doubt that if a contemporary abortion had been necessary for the production of this new vaccine, then it would be morally unacceptable. Paul’s question of ‘shall we do evil, that good may result?’ (Romans 3:8) should still receive a resounding ‘no’ in healthcare. However, the diminishingly small link between the original abortion and the vaccine today may make it much less ethically controversial. My own thinking and research has benefitted from this paper by the Anscombe Bioethics Centre. It looks at how some thinkers have sought to unpack the question of moral culpability over time in previous historical wrongs.
After careful consideration of all these challenging aspects, if the vaccine passes the usual rigorous testing that normal medical interventions goes through including stringent ethical approval, I personally would accept a COVID-19 vaccine developed in this way. The Bible isn’t explicitly clear on the morality of a life-saving vaccine that has been developed utilising cell lines from a fetus aborted many decades ago. We do know that God, through common grace, has blessed the world with the medical advances that have enabled such vaccines to be developed. We also know that we are called to love our neighbour, being salt and light to the world. I feel that we are carrying out this moral duty by engaging with or even administering such a vaccine.
Whether you agree with my conclusion or not, it is of crucial importance that this does not become a primary issue in our faith. Whilst it is important and whilst we have a lot to think about and discuss, we must not forget our true identity – it is not within the ‘anti-vaxxer’ camp and nor is it in the other extreme. We are children of God and should remember that when making our decisions, leaning on and trusting in him through prayer and his word. Let us celebrate the goods of vaccinations in general but refuse to softly turn a blind eye to the moral and ethical concerns that these practises raise.
Alex Scott is an intercalating medical student and CMF DeepER Fellow working with the CMF Advocacy & Public Policy Team