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COVID-19 Vaccine and Fetal Tissue


As reports emerge of a likely “second wave” of COVID-19 outbreaks expected this Fall, and with such outbreaks the possibility of extended or intermittent lockdowns through the end of the year, if not longer, the need and demand for a vaccine grows.

It is unsurprising, thus, that several lawmakers have urged Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to “waive the restrictions on research with human fetal tissue” and to allow the National Institute of Health to “utilize human fetal tissue” in coronavirus research. For context, NIH-funded research using human fetal tissue obtained from abortions was banned by the Trump Administration in 2019. Conversely, some opponents of abortion have indicated their opposition to using aborted fetal tissue in developing a vaccine for novel coronavirus.

Several vaccines already in wide use for other diseases, such as rubella, are “made by growing the viruses in fetal embryo fibroblast cells,” which were “first obtained from elective termination of two pregnancies in the early 1960s.” So while “further sources of fetal cells” are not needed to make those vaccines, as the products are prepared using descendent cells, which are not and never were part of an aborted child’s body, they do, nonetheless, have a historical connection to aborted children.

Even strongly anti-abortion institutions, such as some religious groups, permit the reception of vaccinations produced from descendent cells if there are no alternative vaccinations available and if forgoing the vaccination causes significant risk to health, either to one’s own self, one’s children, or the population at large. Still, they note “the grave responsibility to use alternative vaccines” if available, and to voice reservation and demand further research into alternatives not reliant on descendant cells.

However, the COVID-19 situation differs somewhat. A parent accepting a rubella vaccination derived from descendent cells is quite distinct from actively developing a COVID-19 vaccine using the fetal tissue of aborted children. Even a praiseworthy goal—saving lives—does not justify cooperating in morally illicit means; the morality of an action is not determined solely by the good consequences of that action, let alone the good intentions of those involved. Instead, the moral permissibility of an action includes the desired end, the means chosen to that end, and the consequences, too; a permissible action must pass all the moral tests, not just some of them, no matter how significant or frightening the consequences.

For those who conduct medical research, it is important to remember that it is morally impermissible to directly cause the death of an embryo or fetus for medical research, just as impermissible as it would be to cause the death of a child already born. Similarly, it is morally impermissible to conduct medical experiments on embryos or unborn children, even if not resulting in their death, as it violates the dignity due them; the very same dignity due all persons, born or unborn.

Furthermore, even if a researcher is not directly responsible for the abortion, it is impermissible for them to conduct research on fetal tissue that they or their laboratory have obtained, even if there is a clear remove or distance between the agent of abortion and the research. Researchers may not cooperate in immoral actions, let alone provide tacit approval of such actions, by engaging in such research.

For the rest of us ordinary citizens, non-researchers, we must remember, despite any fears, that alternatives are possible. Research is underway to develop a safe, effective vaccine for COVID-19 that would not utilize fetal tissue, or even descendant cells, in any way. Just as a parent should articulate his concern and support for alternatives when grave health reasons prompt his acceptance of the rubella vaccine for his child, so ordinary citizens should now indicate their support—ahead of time, as it were—for vaccines which will not utilize aborted fetal tissue in research. There are alternatives, and those alternatives require no morally illicit action or cooperation with illicit action.

If we wish to avoid the unhappy situation in which an effective—but morally illicit—vaccine has been developed by utilizing fetal tissue, with use of that vaccine perhaps even required by law, then moral responsibility demands researchers and ordinary citizens acting now to support valid means of producing the vaccine and indicating, now, that they will not cooperate with illicit medical care. It would be far better if we reject immoral research which will later involve violations of the consciences of many, than to proceed a single step in that direction. Especially when safe, effective alternatives exist, if we simply choose to support and use them.