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What pro-lifers should know about COVID-19 vaccines

Most of the drugs bear some connection to the abortion industry


A volunteer receives AstraZeneca’s trial vaccine in Oxford, England. Associated Press/University of Oxford/John Cairns (file)

What pro-lifers should know about COVID-19 vaccines

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.


Leah Hickman

Leah is a reporter for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Digital. She is a World Journalism Institute and Hillsdale College graduate. Leah resides in Cleveland, Ohio.

@leahmhickman

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JENNYBETH

@RC

--sorry I forgot to check this for responses until now. More or less, yes, my point is that it is impossible to go about life in the world avoiding everything with sinful sources, and I'm expressing a wish that Christians consider that fact in discussions about vaccines and abortion sources so as to be consistent. In other words, I want to make sure we are not (as pro-lifers are often accused of by the left) zeroing in on the unborn while excusing other sins for political expediency.

OldMike

Possibly the following Scripture has some guidance in this situation,

I Corinthians 10: 25-32:

25 oEat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 26 For p“the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” 27 If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, qeat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 28 But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— 29 I do not mean ryour conscience, but his. For swhy should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? 30 If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that tfor which I give thanks? 

31 So, whether you eat or drink, or uwhatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 vGive no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to wthe church of God,

TCR5862

JennyBeth While you make an excellent point to the boarder truth as it concerns humanity, in that the world has historically been, and is, soaked with sin. This article is focused on a single issue and Mr. Caminho expresses his decision based on his well-researched and thought out answer.  On the other hand, you seem to be saying, because of the widespread abuse, one cannot buy or use anything simply because it is not free from some element of sin.

So, your conclusion is, life, without accepting the effects of sin of others on us, would be impossible?  

You sure seem to be implying a Principle, by saying it is practically impossible to avoid the sin of others, so we just have to live with it.  Is that right?               

Caminho

While working on my Ph.D., I was asked to do some of my research using HEK293 cells. I debated on the morality of this, and did a good bit of reading on the background of this cell line. As a Christian (and pro-life), in the end I decided I was morally OK with using these cells. I respect those who are not OK with this, but below are a few of my reasons:

A) With the HEK293 cell line, it is actually not known if the original cells came from stillbirth or an induced abortion. The baby *may* have been aborted, or may not have been.

B) This cell line was taken in the 70s. The cells were taken from the baby's kidneys and altered with adenoviruses so that they would grow indefinitely. This is not a trivial process, and it's generally acknowledged that the scientists who did this "got lucky," as it is very hard to get cells to grow in such a way that they just grow indefinitely. In any case, the genomic structure of the cell line has been altered from that of the original child. If these cells were implanted today into a woman, there is literally no possibility they could ever become a child. Not even the most advanced modern techniques could ever permit these cells to become a child. In fact, these cells could never have become a child in the first place -- they were taken from kidney cells, and would never have been able to grow into a child.

C) Use of these cells *decreases* the demand for fetal tissue. With such a resource at hand for doing research, we decrease the motivation to explore any more recent sources of fetal tissue. It certainly doesn't make scientists want to go back and get more tissue -- they already have a good resource.

D) There is much good that is done with these. Sadly, vaccines have become suspect in parts of the Evangelical world, but it is unquestionable that millions of lives have been saved by vaccines produced with the HEK293 cell lines. A great deal of reseach is done in these cells that directly informs us about cancer and normal processes of our cells. Much safety data can be done in these lines before it goes to human or animal trials in order to save and preserve lives.

E) For a hypothetical, but similar, moral scenario: imagine that the while the Nazis did horrible experiments on concentration camp prisoners, they had discovered a cure that could save millions of lives every year. At what point would be willing to use that information to save those millions of lives? It's not an easy question, and I get that using a cell line from a (potentially) aborted child is not an easy question. It is easy (especially when reading vaccine-skeptic sources) to use black-and-white thinking and put anything like this on the "forbidden" shelf. I personally find such reasoning a bit more similar to the Pharisees' way of reasoning than Jesus'. The Pharisees took (good) principles and laws, and then extended them into hard and fast rules for every aspect of life. Jesus' principle was to use the principles of the Scriptures as indicators of God's heart. God loves life, and in the end, I think he would want us to use these cells - controversial in origin that they may be - and use them for good.

F) All the above said, I prefer using cell lines that do NOT have this questionable origin. I certainly would support encouraing vaccine and research companies to explore less controversial sources of cells, even if they are less cost effective. However, I am deeply troubled by those who are willing to make a blanket statement that anyone pro-life should avoid these vaccines as "morally compromising."

Tpm A

Thank you for this information!  I have often wondered which products use aborted fetal cells.  And thank you, Hope, for providing some information.  

AMYB

Which other vaccines also use aborted fetal cells in their production?