Pfizer, Moderna, and now AstraZeneca have produced successful COVID-19 vaccines—an achievement that is naturally being hailed as a nearly miraculous medical breakthrough. But it has raised important ethical concerns in some quarters: Should pro-lifers refuse to use the vaccines because they were developed using cell lines derived from the tissue of aborted fetuses?
Pro-life ethicists and organizations like the Lozier Institute and the Personhood Alliance have cautioned that many of the COVID-19 vaccines under development are unethical because they are being created using fetal cell lines like HEK 293, thought to be derived from the kidney tissue of a fetus aborted in 1972. While Pfizer’s and Moderna’s vaccines—recently shown to be 90 percent and 94 percent effective, respectively—were not made using fetal cells, it is true that they did use HEK 293 for confirmatory lab testing. And fetal cell lines are being used in the production of AstraZeneca/Oxford University’s vaccine—just revealed to be 90 percent effective in preventing infection—as well as those being developed by Inovio Pharmaceuticals and Janssen, among others.
Let me be clear that I am firmly opposed to abortion and deeply committed to protecting the inherent and equal dignity of every human being from conception to natural death. Nonetheless, although it is a complex question, I do not believe that it is morally wrong to use vaccines (or other medical treatments) created using HEK 293 or other cell lines derived long ago from the tissue of aborted fetuses.
Cell lines like HEK 293 are far removed from the unborn child from whose tissue they were initially derived. Such cell lines are “immortal,” meaning that, once developed, they continue to divide and reproduce themselves indefinitely. This means that the use of such lines does not necessarily create additional demand for new fetal tissue.
Furthermore, the original fetal kidney cells used to create HEK 293 underwent numerous modifications before the cell line was successfully produced, and the line itself has since been modified in many ways to optimize its usefulness. HEK 293 has become a staple for biological research; its use is so ubiquitous—and so many other basic research materials like recombinant proteins and molecular reagents have been produced from it—that conducting research without relying on it in some form is practically impossible. Anyone who wants to completely avoid benefiting from the use of HEK 293 would effectively have to eschew the use of any medical treatments or biological knowledge developed or updated within the past forty years.
Consider also some additional examples of ways in which we routinely benefit from past injustices. As horrifying as it is to conceive, immoral experiments performed in Nazi Germany on concentration camp prisoners and those in mental institutions led to the development of the antimalarial drug chloroquine and many other medical advances. The railroad network in the southern United States was constructed largely through slave labor. The acquisition of California and other southwest states was the result of the Mexican-American War, provoked by President Polk. Sadly, the list could go on and on./p>
My point is not that we should desensitize ourselves to these historical injustices, far from it, but simply to make it clear that we live in a morally imperfect world in which it is impossible to insulate ourselves completely from the fruits of such injustices.
If the use of HEK 293 or other fetal cell lines perpetuated the injustice of abortion by creating ongoing demand for more fetal tissue, or reflected implicit approval of that gross injustice, then I believe that pro-lifers would not only be morally justified, but would be morally required to avoid benefiting from it. That is why it is important to promote policies—like the one adopted in June 2019 by the Department of Health and Human Services—that discourage the use of newly acquired fetal tissue obtained from elective abortions and promote the development of ethical alternatives.
But the use of historic cell lines like HEK 293 is, in my view, fundamentally different. Because these cell lines are immortal, their continued use does not lead to a demand for more fetal tissue. Indeed, for scientific purposes, using established, standard cell lines is actually best because researchers understand how they behave and can easily compare their results with those of others using the same line. Furthermore, given that the fruits of research using these cell lines is so ubiquitous, it is unreasonable at this point to claim that if I voluntarily benefit from these fruits, I am somehow implicitly approving of the abortion that, decades ago, made them possible.
Although the origins of these scientific breakthroughs are regrettable, to say the least, no one today thinks that using chloroquine reflects approval of the Nazi experiments that led to its development, that riding the train in Georgia reflects approval of slavery, or that living in California reflects approval of the Mexican-American War. Taking a vaccine created with the help of HEK 293 or other fetal cell lines is, in my opinion, no different.
Although I fully understand and respect their concerns, pro-lifers need not have conscientious objections to any of the COVID-19 vaccines under development. The potentially life-saving work of vaccine developers is a great gift to the world. Sadly, there are many ongoing threats to the dignity of unborn human life, and pro-life organizations would best serve the common good by continuing to focus their moral energy on exposing and confronting them.
This is a revised version of an article that originally appeared in First Things