May 2021 Pulse
The roll-out of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine in March is seen by many as a welcome boost to efforts to get the world immunised against the Covid-19 virus. Unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which must be stored in extremely low temperatures (-70 C), the one-shot J&J vaccine requires only normal refrigeration (2-8 C). This means that countries and regions that do not have the facilities for extremely cold storage can have access to the vaccine.
However, for some Christians, the J&J vaccine re-ignited the debate about the ethics surrounding vaccines that are connected to cell-lines procured from aborted foetuses. These cell-lines were used for testing both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. In the case of the J&J vaccine, however, they were employed in every stage of development: research, production and testing.
Some Christians have objected to these vaccines because they believe that abortion is murder, an act which the Bible clearly prohibits and condemns (Exodus 20:13). They believe that because human beings are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-28), human life is sacred and must be always valued and protected.
While these concerns must be taken seriously, the vast majority of Christian ethicists are of the view that given the current situation the use of these vaccines do not pose a serious moral problem for Christians.
On 21 December 2020, the Vatican issued a statement which makes clear its position that these Covid vaccines ‘can be used in good conscience.’ In a similar vein, many evangelical Christian leaders in America — who oppose elective abortion — have openly approved of these vaccines.
Cooperation with evil
In Christian ethics, this issue is addressed by assessing how the production of the vaccine involves a cooperation with evil. In this case, the evil in question is, of course, abortion.
There are basically two types of cooperation. The first is formal cooperation. This is where the person who cooperates with an act of an immoral person shares the latter’s evil intention. The second is material cooperation, where the person cooperates with the immoral acts of another person without sharing his intention. Christian ethicists are generally of the view that material cooperation is less morally significant or consequential than formal cooperation.
The use of vaccines that are linked to the cell-lines of aborted foetuses is regarded by many Christian ethicists as an instance of material cooperation for the following reasons:
- The foetuses were aborted many decades ago (in this case, in the 1970s).
- The foetuses were not aborted in order to obtain cell-lines to be used to produce or test these vaccines.
- The tissues were procured for medical research only after their deaths — the human foetuses were not killed as a result of procuring the tissues.
To put this another way, the use of these vaccines is morally licit because the cooperation in the evil of abortion is material and remote.
Perhaps an analogy from the practice of the procurement of organs for transplantation would help to clarify this ethical argument. Christians would have no objections to using an organ donated by a murder victim. They would not think that by accepting the organ for transplantation, they are approving of murder. In the same way, Christians should not think that by using vaccines that are produced or tested by using cell-lines obtained from the cadavers of aborted foetuses they are condoning abortion.
Not an endorsement for abortion
It should be stressed, however, that in maintaining that the use of these vaccines is morally licit, Christian ethicists are not in any way endorsing abortion. Neither are they saying that using cell-lines procured from aborted foetuses to develop vaccines is ethically unproblematic.
Where possible, all forms of cooperation of evil — including material cooperation — must be avoided. This general principle is articulated very clearly by the Vatican:
Both pharmaceutical companies and governmental health agencies are therefore encouraged to produce, approve, distribute and offer ethically acceptable vaccines that do not create problems of conscience for either health care providers or the people to be vaccinated (emphasis in the original).
This means that once an ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccine — whose research, production and testing are not dependent on cell-lines of aborted foetuses — is available, Christians should opt to use it instead of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
Morality of vaccination
Most Christian ethicists would argue that in the context of a deadly pandemic, where ethically acceptable vaccines are not available, it is morally permissible to use vaccines are are connected remotely to abortion.
The Christian morality of vaccination is based on Jesus’ command to love our neighbour as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31).
Applying this to the issue of vaccination, this command suggests that we not only have the duty to protect our own health but also that of our neighbour. In the context of a raging pandemic, getting vaccinated is one way in which we serve the common good of society.
However, it should be pointed out that vaccination is just one way in which we can fulfil our duty towards the common good in a pandemic. That is why vaccination must be voluntary. As a rule, vaccination should not be regarded as a moral obligation.
Christians can fulfil their duty towards themselves and their neighbours by taking precautionary measures and behaving responsibly so that they will not become vectors for the transmission of the virus. Thus, although many Christian ethicists have argued that Covid-19 vaccines that use cell-lines from aborted foetuses do not pose serious ethical issues, they stress that Christians should make their decisions according to their conscience.
This brings us back to the J&J vaccine.
According to the Vatican, once an ethically irreproachable vaccine is available, Christians should opt to use this vaccine instead of those that have remote links to aborted foetuses.
Based on this principle, it could be argued that Christians should use the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines instead of the J&J vaccine. This is because while the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines use foetal cells only in the testing stage, the J&J vaccine used them at every stage of its development: research, production, and testing.
Be that as it may, the main point I wish to underscore here is that while all these vaccines are in one way or another dependent on the cells of aborted foetuses, their connection to the act of abortion itself is remote. Christian ethicists are therefore generally agreed that under the circumstances of a raging pandemic and in the absence of an ethically acceptable vaccine, it is morally permissible for Christians to use these vaccines.
If a Christian wishes to avoid the J&J vaccine because the cells of aborted foetuses are used more extensively in its production, then it should be regarded as a matter of personal conscience.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.