One of the more controversial questions raised with the COVID vaccines has to do with the cell lines from which they are developed. That is, if you find elective abortion morally problematic, how can you support a vaccine developed from a cell line derived from aborted fetuses?
I think it’s possible to be an advocate for COVID vaccines and be pro-life at the same time. It is true that there are several cell lines that were begun many years ago from aborted fetuses, that contribute to many vaccines and other treatments. The cell line that is used for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccine is called HEK293. That cell line was begun in the Netherlands in 1973 and has been active for 40+ years. The reason that’s possible is that once the cell line has begun, it becomes “immortalized,” which means it is capable of dividing, reproducing and continuing on and on indefinitely, if it is in the right laboratory conditions. Once the cell line is immortalized it contains no fetal remains. The fetal parts are used simply to jumpstart the cell line. This particular cell line, HEK 293 is used in numerous medical treatments. It’s used in the vaccines for Mumps, Measles, and Rubella (MMR). It’s used in treatments for diabetes, arthritis and many others. If you did not want to have anything that did not have this cell line, you would probably have to step out of medicine altogether. It’s been that impactful in medicine.
That particular cell line which was harvested in the Netherlands, when it was begun in 1973, only abortions when the life of the mother was in danger, were legal at the time. Whether that proves that it came from a morally justifiable termination of pregnancy or not, we can probably debate that. But I think at least the likelihood is that it came from an abortion that most people would recognize as being morally legitimate.
The Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines are a little bit different because the cell line is used in the production of the vaccine. That cell line (PER C6) was begun in 1985, cells from the retina of an aborted fetus were harvested and used.
Even assuming that the cell line came from an electively aborted fetus, it’s important to recognize that there’s a difference between impact and complicity. Just because something has an impact on a medical practice, doesn’t automatically make you complicit with the problematic action. For example, one of the of other well-known cell lines that has been produced, was harvested from a well-known African American woman, Henrietta Lacks, who had a tumor from which the cell line (HELA) was developed. This was done some time ago, when consent was not what it was today. In addition, at that time, being African American, her consent was considered irrelevant. As a result, the cell line is morally tainted because consent was not properly obtained, but the cell line has continued to be useful in treatments for some time. Even when none of us were involved in the breach of consent, none of us who benefited from that are complicit in the abortion that took place to form these cell lines.
Just because you benefit from a questionable practice doesn’t necessarily give you guilt or complicity in it. In a fallen world, complete distancing from all evil is not possible. Criteria for complicity include, as mentioned, that the original action is sufficiently distanced from the original evil act, that the association with the past or present evil act is uncertain, that the intent is for good and that the action does not reward, perpetuate, justify or cooperate with the original evil. (See the statement by Christian Medical and Dental Association on moral complicity: https://cmda.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Moral-Complicity-with-Evil.pdf.) In summary, there is nothing problematic about the Pfizer/Moderna vaccines since they do not contain fetal materials and the cell line that was used likely came from a morally justifiable termination of pregnancy. Though the cell line for the Johnson & Johnson/Astra Zeneca vaccines is used differently, in my view those do not pose a problem either. This is because there are no fetal materials in the vaccines, these vaccines do not encourage abortions for medical research, nor are they complicit in elective abortions in such a way as to make the person receiving the vaccines culpable for association with evil.