Viruses, vaccines and values: The ethics of COVID-19 vaccines and aborted foetuses

Viruses, vaccines and values: The ethics of COVID-19 vaccines and aborted foetuses

For many people, the ethics of a vaccine for COVID-19 are simple: whatever it takes, and the sooner the better!

Other people are deeply troubled, knowing that the most likely vaccine for Australia will be the “Oxford” vaccine, which is being developed using cells from aborted foetuses: opposition to abortion means opposition to this vaccine and a number of others being developed in China and the USA.  In recent months the Roman Catholic and Anglican archbishops of Sydney have both come out strongly to express concerns based on the issue of abortion  (Around the world, over 100 COVID-19 vaccine projects are using cells derived from historic elective abortions.)

Between the two simple, but seemingly irreconcilable views, there are many other factors that can be considered as part of the mix, no one of them a simple answer.

First, when we say “cells from aborted foetuses”, we specifically mean two cell lines widely used around the world.  HEK-293 is derived from kidney cells from a foetus aborted around 1972.  PER.C6 is owned by Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, and is derived from retinal cells from an 18-week foetus aborted in 1985.

The detail about the cell lines is important for our thinking in a number of ways.  While, yes, these are cells from foetuses, there are other factors to consider than just being opposed to abortion.

First, intent matters.  There is a clear distinction between deliberately aborting foetuses for the instrumental purpose of scientific experimentation on one hand, compared to using tissue secondarily, even though it had originally been derived from an aborted foetus.

Second, the law matters.  These foetal cell lines are derived from foetuses where the pregnancy was terminated legally.  One might consider that this makes the cell lines less ethically tainted than if they originated illegally.

Third, and arising from the first two thoughts, there is a complex question of what do we do with material that was first created in a way that we might think of as morally wrong, but nevertheless does exist.  This can apply to “tainted knowledge”, for instance data about infectious diseases obtained from WW2 Japanese biological warfare experiments carried out on prisoners, or about the effects of extreme cold from experiments in Nazi concentration camps.  The post-war Nuremberg War Crimes Trials established the basis of contemporary medical research ethics which expressly forbids these kinds of experiments, but can we use data sources that were created unethically for an ethical purpose today?  Other areas that may not seem as directly related to medicine can be around money: Should Christian organisations accept funding from government agencies that distribute funds from levies on gambling?  Saying “no” in each case does not make the cell-lines, knowledge or money disappear.  We may feel more pure, but the consequence of refusing to use these may be to increase suffering.

Fourth, there is a huge moral weight on Christians if we oppose the use of vaccines across society because of a belief about the ethics of legal elective abortion.  Are we prepared to accept the deaths that will result from such opposition?  We may or may not be prepared to accept a certain number of deaths, but we can’t pretend that we do not have that responsibility.  Perhaps accepting that wider pluralist, democratic society has a right to use such a vaccine, some Christians may say as an individual that one is not willing to receive such a vaccine.  It is legitimate to refuse any medical treatment, but in the midst of a pandemic, would one who refused to receive such a vaccine accept voluntary quarantine until the end of the outbreak?

Fifth, we might ask, “What most honours the foetus?”  Some ethicists opposed to the use of tissue derived from aborted foetuses argue that this use further exploits innocent beings who were not born.  Others argue that developing life-saving treatments and vaccines gives meaning to a tragic human situation.  Would you refuse an organ transplant from a victim of murder because you believe that murder is wrong, or would you see that this brings meaning to otherwise senseless suffering?  Similar issues around personal treatment arise for people who oppose the killing of animals.  Replacement heart valves and surgical glues are derived pigs and cows.  Vegetarian/vegan people may not wish to be treated using products from killed animals.  Hindus may not wish to receive products derived from cows, considered holy.  Jews or Muslims may not wish to receive products derived from pigs, considered unclean.

Sixth, many other vaccines and treatments are already derived from the use of foetal tissue.  Examples of vaccines created using foetal tissue include vaccines against rubella (German measles), chickenpox, hepatitis A and shingles.  Examples of therapeutic drugs in use today treat diseases such as haemophilia, rheumatoid arthritis and cystic fibrosis.  It may be that opposition to COVID vaccines created using foetal tissue could lead to massive consequences if this thinking were applied to a great number treatments that currently save many lives and relieve suffering.

In passing, the Pope has stated that it is permissible for Roman Catholics to receive a vaccine derived using foetal tissue if there are no alternative vaccines.  Certainly, it would be highly desirable if vaccines were available that could be received by people opposed to receiving a vaccine with links to aborted foetuses in any circumstances.

In conclusion, I have suggested six factors that could be considered when thinking about viruses, vaccines and values.  I don’t want to sound as though these factors are knock-down arguments to say that there are no ethical concerns about using cell-lines from historical elective aborted foetuses when creating vaccines.  Rather, I invite people to see that this issue, like all of life, is more complex than it might first appear.  While I would never suggest that we should deliberately abort foetuses to produce cell-lines for medical research, I do invite people to consider that “we are where we are”.  These cell-lines do exist and have been widely used for decades.

Where do we go from here?

Rev. Dr Rob McFarlane has served for over 20 years on institutional ethics committees in public hospitals and non-government agencies in NSW & Queensland. He has also served on Uniting Church ethics working groups around issues such as euthanasia. Rob brings together theological reflection and pastoral experience to his teaching, public speaking and writing in health ethics. He currently serves as Presbytery Ministry Leader with Parramatta Nepean Presbytery.

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