Pandemic raises concerns about links between vaccination and abortion

by Nick Schwarz

This article by Nick Schwarz appeared in the February 2021 edition of Life News.

Ever since the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, people around the world have been hoping for a vaccine. If one or more effective vaccines could be created, mass-produced and quickly rolled out, a huge amount of illness, disability and death would be prevented, burdensome restrictions on gathering and on travel could be lifted, and life would return more or less to normal.

As it has turned out, scientists have risen to the challenge and quickly developed and trialled dozens of vaccines. Some have already been judged to have met the required standards of quality, safety and effectiveness, and are now being mass-produced and rolled out to the public. More are in the pipeline.

Unfortunately, any hopes we had of vaccines bringing the pandemic to a rapid end have been dampened by the realisation that they aren’t 100% effective, and the emergence of mutant forms of the virus that might make current vaccines redundant. We now know that the first crop of vaccines won’t protect us completely from getting infected and transmitting the virus to others, but they will very likely reduce our chances of severe illness and reduce our infectiousness to others. It is becoming apparent that long before everyone around the world who wants vaccination can get it, the current vaccines will very likely need to be replaced with new ones.

Now that in Australia we are only weeks away from the first vaccinations, we are turning our minds to the question of whether to get one or not. A Newspoll survey at the time of writing suggests that about three-quarters of all Australians will accept vaccination, but fewer think it should be mandatory. The government is encouraging vaccination not just out of self-interest, but out of concern for others around us, especially those who for medical reasons cannot be vaccinated.

For Christians and non-Christians whose respect for human life extends to life in the womb, another vaccination-related consideration has emerged in addition to concerns about safety and effectiveness and the common good. Last year it came to light that a number of the COVID-19 vaccines being developed had a connection to either an abortion that occurred in 1972, or one that occurred in 1985. The AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, which the majority of Australians will receive, is produced with the aid of an ‘immortalised’ foetal cell line codenamed HEK-298. Back in 1973, a scientist in the Netherlands experimented on human embryonic kidney cells taken from a baby electively aborted in 1972 to create cells that could divide repeatedly without ageing and be mass-produced for use in vaccine preparation, drug testing, cell research and other fields of research and development. The Pfizer and Novavax vaccines, which are also on order for Australia, were not produced with the aid of HEK-298 cells, but HEK-298 cells were used to test their effectiveness in the lab.

A few other long-lasting foetal cell lines that date back to the 1960s continue to be cultured on a large scale and used in the preparation of vaccines for other diseases, such as measles, mumps, rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis A, poliovirus and rabies.[1]

To begin with, at least, Australians will not be able to choose which vaccine they receive. The 20 million doses of the Pfizer vaccine the government has ordered are reserved for people the government has classified as the highest priority: frontline health workers, quarantine hotel and border workers and nursing home residents and staff. After that everyone will be offered the AstraZeneca vaccine, 3.8 million doses of which will be imported and 50 million manufactured here in Australia. The Novavax vaccine is also on order from overseas but not expected to arrive until the end of the first half of the year.

Some Christians consider vaccines with links to historic abortions (like all three COVID-19 vaccines on order for Australia) as ‘ethically compromised’. But that stance doesn’t necessarily stop them from accepting such vaccines. Their policy is first to appeal to the government to find and approve vaccines that are not so compromised. If the government doesn’t respond to their appeal, then they accept the vaccine on the grounds that it will protect themselves and others with whom they come into contact. In other words, they view the acceptance of the compromised vaccine as a mark of Christian love for self and neighbour.

Other reasons for accepting these vaccines include:

  • In accepting a vaccine today, I am in no way responsible for an elective abortion that took place decades ago.
  • Accepting this vaccine for myself or my child doesn’t imply that I am justifying unethical behaviour or that I am unconcerned about it.
  • Vaccines are an example of how God can use humans to transform evil acts into something good.
  • The abortions and associated tissue sampling many years ago that gave rise to these cell lines are now very remote from us today. The cells currently being used in labs are many generations removed from the original foetal cells. We can use them in good conscience for good purposes like creating vaccines.
  • These cell lines are well proven, relatively cheap and in widespread use. There is no demand for new ones. Getting a vaccine prepared with the aid of one of these cell lines, therefore, doesn’t ‘increase abortion’.
  • These cell lines are used in so many areas of medicine and science that it is impossible to escape their reach. Sin taints the whole world. Absolute moral purity is unachievable.
  • It is odd to refuse vaccination on ‘pro-life’ grounds when refusal dramatically increases the chances of disease, disability and death. It seems more like rigid legalism, making an idol of conscience, or more like prideful moral grandstanding than the love of neighbour.

Christians who are persuaded by these arguments, and who accept expert advice about vaccine safety and effectiveness, can still call for high ethical standards in biomedical research. Getting a vaccine with links to a 40-50-year-old cell line doesn’t undermine our mission to promote respect for human life, or our right to challenge the view that human embryos and foetuses are a resource to be exploited.

Further information

Australian Government Department of Health information about COVID-19 vaccines:

Charlotte Lozier Institute updates on COVID-19 vaccine candidates and abortion-derived cell lines:

The Gospel Coalition: The FAQs: Are fetal cells being used in COVID-19 vaccines and treatments?

Thinking about whether or not you should receive a COVID-19 vaccine?

(Debbie Duncan, Malcolm Duncan and Chris Shaw)

UK Evangelical Alliance webinar “Making ethical decisions that respect human life”

[1] WI-38 and MRC-5 cell strains (used in the preparation of MMR, chickenpox, hepatitis A and polio vaccines) are not immortal. After these cells have divided and reproduced themselves about 50 times, they will start to show signs of aging and no longer be usable. However, they were cultured in large amounts and frozen so that they are expected to be in use for some decades yet.