A COVID-19 Vaccine Developed on Aborted Babies’ Cells?

by Maurizio Ragazzi, DPhil

We are anxious to see a COVID-19 vaccine materialize in the shortest possible time. At least some of us, however, are even more anxious at the prospect that the only vaccine that may eventually become available to us (if not imposed on us) will be an abortion-related vaccine. The ethical problems arising from the research, production, marketing and use of vaccines are not new. For some anti-COVID-19 vaccines under development, Children of God for Life, based in Florida and ably directed by Debi Vinnedge (the leading pro-life NGO on the topic of vaccines), has already sounded the alarm: the vaccine currently under development by the pharmaceutical company Moderna (mRNA-1273) and that of Johnson & Johnson (which receives public funds for its anti-COVID-19 research) use cell lines from aborted babies. All this is in stark contrast to other vaccines under preparation, such as those of Sanofi Pasteur and AVM Biotechnology, which do not use abortive cell lines.

But what exactly does the expression “cell lines from abortions” mean? This is what Angel Rodríguez Luño wrote in 2006: “widely used vaccines against diseases such as rubella, hepatitis A, and varicella [chickenpox] were developed with virus strains obtained from human fetuses that had been voluntarily aborted… or were derived by attenuating the virus through successive passes in human diploid fibroblast cultures… which also came from voluntarily aborted fetuses”. The list of these “cultures”, identifying sex and gestational age of the aborted babies whose cells were utilized, is available on the Children of God for Life website, together with a list, which is being regularly updated, of the vaccines related to abortion and their ethical alternatives, when they exist.

 It could be argued, however, that it would be fairly gratuitous to raise moral problems against these vaccines nowadays, decades after the abortions that were at the origin of their development. Furthermore, what is the problem, if these vaccines have done and continue doing much good to their many beneficiaries? Well, neither objection stands, starting from the contention that the abortions relating to these vaccines are merely a thing of the past. In fact, at the end of quite a detailed analysis, Debi Vinnedge remarked that (a) “cultures” are not immortal, and therefore new biological material is required from new abortions to create new vaccines, (b) the use of these vaccines ends up being an incentive to research based on the destruction of fetuses and embryos, and (c) the polio vaccine, just to give one example, became an instrument for getting rid of restrictions imposed on immoral research. And, even conceding the premises of the two above mentioned objections, the first one (the one appealing to the time lapsed since the initial abortions) would be tantamount to suggesting that, after several passages from hand to hand, counterfeit money should be used as if it were good. The second objection (the one justifying these vaccines with the benefits they produce) is a variant of the discredited refrain that a good end justifies a bad means.

Therefore, however one looks at the question, a significant problem remains. In philosophy and moral theology, this problem is known as that of cooperation in evil. Applied to the issue of vaccines, the problem was summarized in a declaration adopted by the Pontifical Academy for Life in 2005, in response to a question submitted by Debi Vinnedge. In that document, the problem of cooperation was rightly addressed from the perspective of three different categories of people (who may have different moral responsibilities): “a) those who prepare the vaccines using cell lines coming from voluntary abortions; b) those who participate in the mass marketing of such vaccines; c) those who need to use them for health reasons”. The morality of formal cooperation (namely sharing the evil intention to proceed with an abortion) was obviously excluded with respect to all three categories of people. As to material cooperation, the preparation, distribution and marketing of these vaccines were judged to be morally illicit as a matter of principle, because they could contribute to encouraging the performance of more abortions. Likewise illicit was the passive material cooperation carried out by the producers of these vaccines, “if they do not renounce and reject publicly the original immoral act (the voluntary abortion), and if they do not dedicate themselves together to research and promote alternative ways, exempt from moral evil”. (In this respect, Debi Vinnedge has warned that, for some abortion-related vaccines, alternative forms had been produced and marketed in the past, before being discontinued for reasons that had nothing to do with the effectiveness or safety of the ethical vaccines.)

Regarding material cooperation of vaccine users, the document found that cooperation is more intense on the part of “the authorities and national health systems” that accept their use. In the case of diseases against which there are no ethically acceptable vaccines, “it is right to abstain from using these vaccines if it can be done without causing children, and indirectly the population as a whole, to undergo significant risks to their health”, but these can be used on a temporary basis if there are considerable dangers to health. At the same time, the document called on “the faithful and citizens of upright conscience (fathers of families, doctors, etc.) to oppose, even by making an objection of conscience, the ever more widespread attacks against life and the ‘culture of death’ which underlies them”. Hence the “grave responsibility” to resort to alternative vaccines where they exist and, for vaccines without ethical alternatives, the duty to exert pressure so that ethical vaccines be prepared.

In this same spirit, while calling Catholics and all men and women of good will to make themselves heard so that vaccines be produced ethically, Mons. Strickland, Bishop of Tyler near Dallas in Texas, could not have been more eloquent in his tweet in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis: “So sad... even with Covid-19 we are still debating the use of aborted fetal tissue for medical research... let me go on record... if a vaccine for this virus is only attainable if we use body parts of aborted children then I will refuse the vaccine... I will not kill children to live”. And his voice has not remained isolated. On April 17, 2020, four archbishops and bishops, in their capacity as chairmen of committees and a subcommittee of the US Bishops’ Conference, together with representatives (not all of them Catholic) of various organizations, signed a letter (which was copied to President Trump) emphasizing that it is “critically important that Americans have access to a vaccine that is produced ethically: no American should be forced to choose between being vaccinated against this potentially deadly virus and violating his or her conscience”.   

In other words: an anti-COVID-19 vaccine? Certainly, and hopefully soon. A vaccine at any price? No way. As in all things, moral ways are to be pursued, while immoral ways are to be rejected. Thank you for your courageous witness, Bishop Strickland, and thank you for your firm reminder, signatories of the April 17 letter!

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