What pro-lifers should know about COVID-19 vaccines
Most of the drugs bear some connection to the abortion industry
Most vaccines take years to develop, but almost exactly a year after the first recorded case of the novel coronavirus in China, three companies have promising results. Two potential vaccines have proven more than 90 percent effective against the virus, and another is nearly as effective and easier to distribute because it does not require cold storage. Pfizer applied for emergency use of its vaccine on Nov. 20, and Moderna said on Monday it would do the same. Some officials expect to start distributing the shots in December, and many hope that widespread immunity could begin returning life to normal by mid- to late-2021.
The encouraging prospect comes with discouraging ethical questions. Research on tissue from aborted babies became a widespread concern in the United States after pro-life activist David Daleiden and the Center for Medical Progress exposed Planned Parenthood’s participation in the fetal tissue trade with a series of undercover videos in 2015. None of the COVID-19 vaccines in development used the kind of fresh baby body parts that the videos discussed, but they did use fetal cell lines that originated from abortions.
The manufacturers of those cell lines send samples to labs, which can continue growing them for research purposes. Since they have been multiplied and grown many times, the cells are distinct from the baby’s original cells.
“We’re not performing an abortion on an unborn child every time we’re creating a vaccine,” said Jonathan Abbamonte, research analyst at the Population Research Institute. But he said the use of the cell lines from aborted babies encourages the pharmaceutical industry to continue that form of research.
Researchers developed one often-used cell line known as HEK293 in the 1970s from the kidney cells of a female baby aborted in the Netherlands. According to data from the Charlotte Lozier Institute, AstraZeneca and at least five of the other companies developing a COVID-19 vaccine used HEK293 to grow the coronavirus and then create inactive versions to use in the vaccines. Two other companies—Altimmune and Janssen Research and Development—used cells from PER.C6, another line taken from an aborted baby.
Pfizer and Moderna explored a new technology that did not require cells for design or production. Their vaccines use messenger RNA that carries the genetic code for the coronavirus’s protein to the cells. The code prompts the body to make the coronavirus proteins, and the body responds with antibodies that protect the person against actual exposure to the virus. Moderna and Pfizer did use the HEK293 cell line during lab tests.
The only vaccine with information about all three stages of its development that doesn’t appear to have connections to a fetal cell line comes from the German company CureVac. But that could change. “Even the ones that appear clean at first, oftentimes … several months later they put out a paper and you find out that one of the experiments they used to test their vaccine used HEK293,” Abbamonte said.
The John Paul II Medical Research Institute in Coralville, Iowa, does not use any byproducts of abortion in its studies, but its vaccine hasn’t even entered the clinical trial stage. “I don’t think there’s any hope that they’re going to be available soon along with the rest of the frontrunners out there,” he said.
The wide availability and long history of fetal cell lines like HEK293 make it difficult for any developer in the industry to separate itself fully from abortion. Researchers can quickly and easily get cells from these ubiquitous sources, speeding up operations such as the development of the COVID-19 vaccine. But Abbamonte said that’s no reason to let the industry off the hook.
“As pro-lifers, we are called to voice our opposition against any vaccines that are produced with fetal cell lines,” he said, including the ones from AstraZeneca and Janssen. He called the vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna the lesser of two evils: “The fact that they do not use fetal cell lines to produce their vaccine means that the vaccine’s association with fetal cells is more remote. Pro-lifers can be assured that at least these vaccines are not manufactured using fetal cells.” But, he said, they’re still “morally fraught.”
But does voicing opposition mean refusing a vaccine altogether? “An argument could be made that—given the severity of the virus and given the risk that it poses especially to certain populations—that it would be morally licit to receive a vaccine that was produced or that was developed using fetal cells,” Abbamonte said. But he said he does not feel fully satisfied with that argument, and faith leaders and ethicists must help pro-lifers as they grapple with the dilemma.
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