Tag Archives: abortion

There is No Legitimate Christian Opposition to the COVID-19 Vaccine Mandate, Part 2: Ethical Opposition

Last week, I criticized religious opposition to the vaccine mandate regarding Christian liberty, faith vs fear, and more, and I found these issues do not provide a good reason to oppose the vaccine mandate. In this four-part series, I am evaluating religious, ethical, medical, and legal opposition to the vaccine mandate from a Christian perspective and show that the opposition is either not legitimate, not Christian (i.e. implied from Christian teachings), or both. In this second article, I will examine ethical opposition to the vaccine mandate surrounding the use of fetal cells. Like last week (and every post ever), I welcome feedback, missing arguments, holes in my discussion, or other considerations.

Ethical Opposition: Use of Fetal Cells
a. Scientific Background
b. Cooperation in Evil
c. Appropriation of Evil
d. Consistency Check
Summary and Outlook

Ethical Opposition: Use of Fetal Cells

It is no secret that substantial, if not the most, opposition to abortion comes from conservative Christians, though there are non-Christian pro-life organizations, such as Secular Pro-Life. It is natural for Christians to be concerned when hearing that cells derived from an aborted fetus were used in either the research & development or production of the vaccines. However, the moral wrongness of abortion, along with the extreme value of the human fetus and embryo, do not imply that the use of fetal cells in vaccine research is also wrong. (Note on nomenclature: I will be using the term “fetus” as that seems to be the most neutral term to use and is what is used in ethics for talking about vaccine research, although it would be just as correct to say, “unborn baby,” “child,” or “human being.”)

It is true that the main COVID vaccines have used cells (more details on this later) derived from aborted fetuses at some point in their lifecycle. Johnson and Johnson use cells from a cell line from an aborted fetus in the research & development (R&D) and production stage, whereas Pfizer and Moderna only used them in the R&D stage for m-RNA vaccine research generally. Since Pfizer and Moderna are both readily available and further disconnected from aborted fetal cells, thus representing the likely more-ethical options, I will focus on the ethics of Pfizer and Moderna in their connection to fetal cell usage. Ultimately, I will argue that use of these vaccines is ethical and, given the great results from appropriating a single evil act in the distant past without any cooperation in the act, results in net good for society.

How would such an argument go if we are to get from a) Christian teaching and the wrongness of abortion or the value of human life and therefore fetuses to b) the wrongness of using cells derived from aborted fetuses in the research and development? Such an argument may go like this:

  1. Christianity is true.
  2. If Christianity is true, then human fetuses have great value.
  3. If human fetuses have great value, then benefiting from cells derived from an aborted fetus is wrong.
  4. Therefore, benefiting from cells derived from an aborted fetus is wrong.
  5. Getting the vaccine is benefiting from cells derived from an aborted fetus.
  6. Therefore, getting the vaccine is wrong.

Let’s grant 1 and 2. How can 3 be supported? I do not think it can be, and this section will explore that. We can also investigate a slightly modified argument with 2’ implying that abortion is wrong, but then 3’ would still be the contentious premise without support.

a.      Scientific Background

In vaccine and pharmaceutical research, immortalized cell lines are used for testing, which is where cells were isolated from its original source and, because of mutation, have the ability to divide indefinitely (not to be confused with stem cells, which form naturally in organismal development without a special mutation). These cells are advantageous for research because once a cell line is developed, no new samples need to be obtained. This single batch of cells can be well-characterized and established, serving as a scientific standard for comparison. The cells can then be used for testing on many different things, and indeed they are. One cell line can be (and is) used for maybe hundreds or more of different research projects at the same time.

Both Pfizer and Moderna employed cells from the same cell line, HEK-293, or human embryonic kidney 293, in their research & development stage. HEK-293 is a specific immortalized cell line that is ubiquitous in biological research and has been used for decades. Indeed, “A student or fellow involved in life sciences research would almost inevitably encounter this cell line [HEK-293] in the course of his work.”[1] The cell line of HEK-293 was started in 1973 based on kidney cells obtained from an aborted fetus. Whether the abortion was a spontaneous abortion (the medical term for miscarriage) or an elective abortion is uncertain, but the preponderance of evidence seems to favor it being from an elective abortion with unknown reason[2] (though was NOT obtained for the purpose of using its cells for research). While there is some uncertainty, we will assume a worst-case scenario of being an elective abortion moving forward.

Figure 1: Human embryo (source)

Let us recap the situation. A fetus, a human with great value, was intentionally killed for unknown reason. This is morally bad. However, using his or her cells for a good purpose is not obviously wrong by mere implication. The cells used in research for the COVID vaccines are generations away from the original fetal cells. None of the original fetal cells remain, by many generations. No fetal cells are contained in the vaccine, either. The cells, generations removed from the original fetus down the cell line, are only used for testing purposes, and not in production and are certainly not in the vaccine.

b.     Cooperation in Evil

One line of thought that might show how this is problematic is that using these cells is cooperation in evil, where the cooperator contributes in some way to an evil action. Cooperation can be formal (sharing in evil intent) or material (cooperator has a different intent). Since the elective abortion was not carried out in intention for cell extraction and research purposes, then the cooperation could not have been formal. Furthermore, material cooperation can be either immediate or mediate. Immediate cooperation, from an external perspective, looks like the cooperator and evil actor are doing the same thing. Mediate cooperation, however, means there is some distance (whether temporal or spatial) between the two actions. There is clear differentiation in time and space between elective abortion and kidney cell extraction, so the cooperation was not immediate. Finally, since the cooperator was not necessary for the evil action to be carried out, the cooperation was contingent.

Therefore, a worst-case scenario thus far investigated is a contingent, remote, mediate, material cooperation. Of all the types of cooperation in evil considered, this is by far the most justifiable. Since the research from this one cell line has, by now, saved countless lives, it is quite possibly justified. However, is using the cells “cooperation” at all? Does cell extraction contribute in any way to the elective abortion? Does it factor into the causal explanation of the elective abortion (death of the human fetus)? No, it does not. Cell extraction does not aid elective abortion in any way, as they can be performed completely independently of the other and removing kidney cells does not make the abortion process any easier. Rather, deriving a cell line from an aborted fetus is likely more accurately termed as an appropriation of evil.

c.      Appropriation of Evil

The appropriation of evil is where agents “take advantage of the fruits or byproducts of some else’s wrongful acts in order to facilitate their own morally worthwhile activity.”[3] The appropriation of evil “is not about contributing to, but about benefiting from evil.”[4] The evil action is going to happen anyway. Is appropriation of evil also evil? I think the answer is definitely not. Now, Paul did say that we should not do evil so that good may come (Romans 3:8), but we are not doing evil and not even in a position to prevent the evil. Appropriation of evil is where you take an evil act that someone else did and turn it into something good. If that wording sounds familiar, it is because the concept is biblical, central to Christianity.

After Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt (an evil act), a huge famine swept the land, but Joseph had risen to prominence in Egypt and was entrusted to save grain for the famine. Joseph’s family returned to Egypt to receive assistance, and Joseph confronted his brothers, giving a demonstration of the appropriation of evil: “You intended evil against me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Genesis 50:20). The fetus that was aborted around 1972 to support the HEK-293 cell line could reasonably say the same thing to his killer (assuming an afterlife interaction): “What you intended for evil, God intended for good to save many lives.” Appropriation of evil does not excuse the evil or allow it in the future (because that may turn into cooperation with evil), but it does allow for making the most of the current situation. If appropriation is wrong, then it seems Joseph (or anyone else who has ever been harmed) is wrong to take advantage of the harm done to them to do good.

The appropriation of evil is also the cornerstone of Christianity: the crucifixion of Jesus was an evil act that was used for the single greatest event in the history of mankind: the resurrection of Jesus Christ and offering salvation to the entire world. The entire Christian faith is built on the appropriation of evil. So in reality, I am not sure a better response to evil than its appropriation (among other things, such as righteous indignation).

d.     Consistency Check

Since I am running out of space and time, I will briefly mention two final things on this topic. First, if you support organ donation generally, then you should support the use of fetal cells to develop vaccines. Some organs are donated as a result of homicide or other crimes,[5] which are evil acts, and would thus be relevantly similar. Both actions are taking cells from dead humans to put it for a good medical cause that saves lives.[6]

Secondly, rejecting a vaccine because it is associated with a fetal cell line means you should also reject some ubiquitous over-the-counter and prescription medicines. For example, the following drugs were tested on HEK-293: Tylenol (acetaminophen), Advil (ibuprofen), Aspirin, Benadryl, Robitussin, Mucinex, Tums, Colace, Ex-Lax, Pepto-Bismol, and two of the vaccine treatment alternatives: hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.[7] For this reason, Conway Regional Health System’s religious exemption form (see figure below) requires a signature agreeing that you “do not use or will not use any of the medications listed,” subject to disciplinary action for failure to adhere. This point does not show that such research is justified, but it does mean that avoiding these medications is required to maintain consistency.

Figure 2: Conway Regional Health Religious Exemption Form. It lists medications developed or tested using fetal cell lines. (source)

Finally, the Catholic Church and Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission have both said that “receiving a COVID-19 vaccine that required fetal cell lines for production or manufacture is morally acceptable.”[8] Beyond this, many Christian groups are starting to speak out against religious exemptions, stating that they will not offer nor approve them because there is no Christian basis for them.[9]

Summary and Outlook

In conclusion, the use of cells derived from aborted fetuses in the development of the vaccine is ethical, so these considerations do not offer any compelling reason to not get vaccinated, and it is not legitimate opposition to the vaccine mandate.


[1] Wong, Alvin. “The Ethics of HEK 293.” The National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly 6.3 (2006): 473-495, p. 473-474.

[2] Ibid, p. 474-476.

[3] Ibid, p. 479.

[4] Ibid, p. 480.

[5] https://www.wrtv.com/longform/homicide-victims-are-rarely-candidates-for-organ-donation-scott-morin-was-one-of-the-few. Accessed 9.21.2021. This discusses one particular example in depth and also has some relevant statistics.

[6] There are some sticky issues I don’t have space to explore, such as the issue of consent. Some of the issues are parallel to organ donation and some are not. In the end, I do not think it changes the result. 

[7] https://www.somerset-kentucky.com/opinion/letters_to_the_editor/there-are-no-aborted-fetal-cells-in-vaccines/article_14809887-84f7-58a4-bb4c-76bc29724d8a.html. Accessed 9.21.21. There is substantial overlap between this list and the one on Conway Regional Health System’s religious exemption form, so the lists seem partially verified. I have not done further verification at this time (all the news articles on this claim do not help). At least some of these medicines had passed the initial R&D phase and had been manufactured for decades by the time HEK-293 was a thing. However, even these medicines were still tested using HEK-293.

[8] http://publichealth.lacounty.gov/media/coronavirus/docs/vaccine/VaccineDevelopment_FetalCellLines.pdf. Accessed 9.21.21.

[9] https://dnews.com/local/many-faith-leaders-in-america-say-no-to-endorsing-vaccine-exemptions/article_5bb15b7c-acd7-5dd5-b4cf-ef016eb2175a.html. Accessed 9.21.21.

My Winding Journey into Ethics

Upon reflection, it is surprising to me that it took me so long to get interested in the academic field of ethics. I have been interested in and passionate about many issues in ethics since high school, long before I knew what the field of “ethics” actually included. I will give some background on my life, especially how a preliminary (unknown) interest in ethics developed into an academic interest in ethics (in other words, how we got here).

Background

For starters, ethical issues surrounding the Atonement and their beautiful coherency[1] were the biggest reason I became a Christian 16 years ago (16 years to this day: September 13, 2004). The parallel ethical issues in Islam of sin, judgment, and the afterlife remain, by far, my biggest concern with Islam, given their apparent incoherence.[2] My “extreme views”[3] on the ethics of wealth and possessions has caused a couple of Sunday School teachers, a pastor, and several friends to be uncomfortable or upset. I debated the ethics of abortion in my high school debate club. I made a survey of questions on abortion as a project in my sophomore government class that was intended to show the immoral absurdity of abortion. Abortion also played a central role in an admissions essay[4] to my current university (Texas A&M).

The ethics of the the Atonement was the biggest reason I became a Christian 16 years ago.

Given all this, you would think ethics would be a natural extension of the above; however, my actual journey into academic ethics was a bit more complicated. My first encounter with ethics as a field of philosophy was a class called “Ethics and Engineering” during my sophomore year. I was the only person I knew that enjoyed that class[5] and learning about the ethical theories (ethical egoism, utilitarianism, and virtue ethics specifically). I did not find any of them compelling in and of themselves though, mostly because I saw no connection at all to what I viewed as correct ethic and decision-making framework, which was following Christianity/the Bible. However, I did “incorporate some of the framework of utilitarianism into my life philosophy.”[6]

At this point in time, my only knowledge about philosophy came from twice-a-year discussions with my cousin Nathan, who was already interested in philosophy. In fact, I likely would not have gotten interested in philosophy at all if it were not for my cousin Nathan and the very difficult questions he was refusing to leave inadequately answered, especially on issues of epistemology (how do we know anything?), predestination, free will, and arguments for God’s existence. I would thus mark my true initial interest in philosophy probably with watching the William Lane Craig vs Christopher Hitchens debate in July of 2017 (which I re-watched last month to see how I felt after studying the arguments in depth for 3 years).[7] The next step for me was listening to Craig’s Reasonable Faith podcast (which I highly recommend), which talks about a wide range of issues in philosophy and Christianity. This led me to considering issues of logic, epistemology, and the cosmological argument for God’s existence more in depth by reading Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, books, and academic papers. This, in turn, lead to the avalanche that resulted in where I am today. Thankfully, this journey was taking place parallel with my doing undergraduate research and literature reviews, so I was learning how to ‘Google things’ at a scholarly level. My philosophical interests, therefore, reside pretty squarely within philosophy of religion, epistemology, and ethics.

Into Academic Ethics

It was not until my last semester of undergrad (January 2020) that my political science professor’s silly comments about abortion gave me the prompting I needed to do a rigorous investigation into abortion (now that I knew how to do a rigorous investigation). It started with legal issues and the history of abortion,[8] then into metaphysical issues about personhood.[9] A couple of the latter papers mentioned the ethical impact, but not often. I was also first exposed to the violinist argument at this point. In the summer, I finally was able to dive into the ethical aspect, including the arguments from the violinist, embryo rescue case, future-like-ours, and much more. However, I did not recognize at this time that I was reading applied ethics papers. I was just so engrossed in a topic that I was passionate about that I wasn’t paying attention to what journals these papers were being published in or the broader field in question. In my mind, I was just reading “papers on abortion.” Thus, the ethics of abortion was the real breaking ground into the field of ethics. It helped me realize that thought in applied ethics could even help us tease out the ethical implications of Scripture and the relationship between ethical intuitionism, divine command theory, and situational ethics.

The next stage of ethical inquiry came from my friend Emily sharing her moral case for veganism. She mentioned the name Peter Singer several times, whom I had not heard of previously (or, at least, I thought I had not).[10] I began to (try to) think seriously about these ideas, which is still an ongoing process. I watched a video on Singer’s ideas, and his name came up several times by CosmicSkeptic (a vegan, atheist YouTuber) in his 50 book recommendations. I began reading a little bit on the moral argument for veganism based on opposition to industrial animal farming practices that result in massive amounts of animal suffering. I have not quite come to a position on this topic.

I soon realized via his website that Singer was not just the guy who is the front-man for principles that can support abortion, selective infanticide, and euthanasia, but also for ideas that support substantial giving to charities under the name of effective altruism (see his book, which you can get for free, The Life You Can Save). At this point, I was extremely intrigued: there are secular proponents of giving substantial amounts of our income to charities? There are secular arguments for a moral obligation for the wealthy to give possibly a majority of their income to charity? I had discovered plenty of secular pro-life organizations via Twitter,[11] but I was honestly surprised at this.

I found out that Peter Singer wrote a game-changing paper in 1972 called “Famine, affluence, and morality” (cited over 3500 times!), and this paper has inspired many critiques, further development by Singer, and more. I think the effective altruism was really the cake that led me to really jump into ethics, knowing I wanted to go deeper. But it wasn’t Singer’s positive arguments that really sealed the deal, it was two revolting responses I read that were so incredibly stupid I couldn’t believe they existed. Namely, “Sometimes there is nothing wrong with letting a child drown”[12] and “On the supposed obligation to relieve famine.”[13]

Figure 1: Probably my least favorite philosophy paper in the world. I label it as the philosophy paper that annoyed me the most, even beating out all the abortion papers I’ve read.

This made me start thinking back to my plans I made a long time ago. During my sophomore year of college, after being influenced by David Platt (which I will elaborate on in the next post), I started studying theology of possessions, which could be considered an area of applied Christian ethics. A prominent Christian view is stewardship theology, which says that God made us stewards over the planet (which gives us an obligation to take care of animals and the environment) as well as of our money and our possessions. In practice (not necessarily in theory), this seems to be taken to mean that I can pretty much do what I want with my money and you can’t tell me anything I ought to do because “Christian liberty.” I find this both revolting and starkly unbiblical. The short version is, I thought of a stronger form of a theology of possessions and developed it slightly along with my dad (who even gave presentations on it to at least one church). I made plans to come back and study the topic more rigorously in the future, even contemplating doing a master’s degree in theology where my thesis would be on this topic. This discovery of effective altruism and applied ethics, however, made me realize that I could incorporate Singer and related arguments into a type of theology of possessions for an even stronger case.

During this same timeframe, I was also beginning to study metaethics. I was introduced to William Lane Craig’s moral argument for God’s existence awhile back. I plan to study some of the other moral arguments for (and against) God’s existence in the future and discuss them here. I read Andrew Fisher’s introduction to metaethics this summer and saw a lot of interesting questions there, especially those surrounding divine command theory. I started to think about the connections between metaethics and normative ethics. Can someone believe in subjective morality and still think right and wrong is based on God’s commands? Can someone think morality is grounded in God but think that right and wrong is based on “natural law?”

At some point during this process, the two strands above (theology of possessions and meta-normative connections) came together such that I realized that I could turn some theological ideas that I’ve had, namely the ones about our purpose in life and my “life philosophy,” into a normative ethical theory. Glorifying God is really what I saw as our primary obligation the whole time, but I only recently began thinking about it in terms of an ethical framework. Divine glory utilitarianism is the result.

Glorifying God is what I saw as our primary obligation, but I only recently began thinking about it in terms of an ethical framework. Divine glory utilitarianism is the result.

Next, I was looking into normative ethical theories, especially utilitarianism, and came across the demandingness objection frequently. I started thinking about how that objection would apply to Christianity and Christian ethics, which made me think of the name What the Gospel Demands, then I had this idea for a blog! I started the website two years ago, as I originally set out to start a blog on discipleship and missional community, but I didn’t have/make the time and energy to do this. So this is take two. Considering I didn’t even make it to my first blog post last time, we’re doing great so far.

Conclusion

Here we are today! In summary, my pathway into ethics was abortion > animal rights > altruism > theology of possessions > normative ethics. As you can see, I have interests in all three fields of ethics: meta, normative, and applied. I just started diving into academic ethics this summer, so I’m still kind of a n00b. It’s been a good journey to get here, and I’m excited for the path forward, exploring many new ideas.

What areas or questions in ethics do you find interesting? How did you get interested in ethics?


[1] In Christianity, God rewards every good deed and punishes every wrongdoing (e.g. Romans 2:6, Ephesians 6:8, Revelation 22:12). Given that this is the definition of justice, God is perfectly just. God’s perfect mercy is displayed by Jesus voluntarily taking on the sin of humanity to offer forgiveness to all. There are complications here worth exploring, but in the end, only the innocent are rewarded and only the guilty are punished, and yet all have the opportunity for reconciliation.

[2] In Islam, God does not reward every good deed nor punish every wrongdoing. The two most problematic cases are 1) nullification and 2) the 70,000 that skip Judgment Day. Nullification refers to the 10 or so groups of people (based on specific sins they have committed) who will have their good deeds “nullified,” i.e. cancelled or ignored, on Judgment Day. Secondly, there are 70,000 individuals who will not have an account of their good or bad deeds, and will be sent to heaven regardless (source: the most authentic Islamic tradition collection, Sahih al-Bukhari). There are more problems to be explored here.  

[3] See Divine Glory Utilitarianism for my proposal of Christian ethics and its application to wealth and possessions at the end.

[4] When I reread this essay, which was on interacting with people of different beliefs, I cringed at my use of language and terminology. My entrance into philosophy, especially analytic philosophy that emphasizes clarity and precise argumentation, has made me a bit more careful about definitions and precision in speech (and not being so unnecessarily charged).

[5] This is probably because every other person in the class were graduating seniors, to whom the class is normally restricted. By the grace of God, they let me take it as a sophomore because I had no other options.

[6] This is what I told the teaching assistant of my 2016 Ethics and Engineering class in an email dated January 2019. It is clear that at this point, the seeds of ‘divine glory utilitarianism’ had already taken hold. I did not yet think of it as an ethical framework, but more about the purpose of our lives being to maximize God’s glory rather than that being our (primary) moral obligation and reason for things being right or wrong. It is worth noting that Alasdair MacIntyre argued in After Virtue that the purpose of our lives (aka the telos of humanity) informs and should be the source of our moral obligation, which would connect my understanding of ‘life philosophy’ and ethical framework.

[7] In case you were wondering, like most debates involving Craig, Craig was victorious and widely admitted as such on both sides due to his precise and (relatively) rigorous philosophical argumentation. Though, I find who “won” a debate to be irrelevant, but the soundness of the arguments is what matters. The funniest part when re-watching was Hitchens’ summaries of free will. He describes free will on atheism as, “We have no choice but to have free will,” and on theism as, “Of course we have free will. The boss demands it.”

[8] See this video for example. It is made from a very pro-life organization, Live Action, but I was surprised to see that a preliminary investigation confirmed pieces that I had time to look at. It was confirmed in part, for example, by the whopping 1200 page book Dispelling the Myths of Abortion History by Joseph Dellapenna published by Carolina Academic Press.  

[9] Usually humans are seen as “persons” when they have a certain developed form of rationality. It is usually said that “persons” have rights, rather than humans, including the right to life.

[10] It turns out, I wrote a response essay to Singer’s “All Animals are Equal” in my Ethics and Engineering class, but I had no recollection of this whatsoever.

[11] Especially Secular Pro-Life, Feminists for Life, and Pro-Life Humanists.

[12] Timmerman, Travis. “Sometimes there is nothing wrong with letting a child drown.” Analysis 75.2 (2015): 204-212.

[13] Kekes, John. “On the supposed obligation to relieve famine.” Philosophy 77.302 (2002): 503-517.