Ought Christians to have a Covid vaccine or not? A live and lively debate has been prompted, not by wild anti-vaxxer conspiracy theories, but by concerns over abortion.
Serious minded evangelicals are on both sides of the debate. Some Christians hold that receiving the vaccine means being complicit in the genocide of the unborn. Other Christians deem that the link to abortion is not strong enough to forgo the benefits to themselves and others of being vaccinated.
Links to abortion
The issue arises from the development and testing of Covid vaccines. In 1972, an unborn baby’s life was ended in the Netherlands. The legal grounds for the abortion seem to have been ‘therapeutic’ – to preserve the mother’s life – since only in 1984 were abortions fully legalised in the Netherlands.
Tissue cultures of kidney cells were removed from the dead baby. In the lab, these were used to produce a stable cell line (HEK 293) for scientific purposes. It is ideal for developing and testing vaccines. By one estimate, the cells in use are perhaps 30 generations down from the 1973 cell line. HEK 293 has been used to test, develop, and produce the Oxford vaccine. It has also been used, to a lesser extent – more in testing – with the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
Piper on vaccination
Retired American pastor John Piper made the case against taking the vaccine with four points. First, it goes against clear scriptural teaching: ‘We should never do evil that good may come’ (Romans 3:8). Second, it goes against kingdom principles: ‘We value Christ and his kingdom more than security or health’ – ‘Aim to preserve a Christian conscience.’ Third, it provides a witnessing opportunity: by refusing vaccination ‘we testify to the sanctity of life.’ Fourth, righteous actions bring rewards: ‘God blesses principled action in his name.’
Those supporting the vaccine generally argue that the ethics are more complex than Piper makes out. First, they question how closely the vaccines are linked to abortion.
Alex Scott, writing on the Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) blog, spoke of the ‘diminishingly small link between the original abortion and the vaccine today’.
FIEC national director John Stevens noted that ‘no new abortion was performed or utilised to develop the vaccine’. Furthermore, Stevens observed that the 1972 abortion was not carried out to produce any Covid vaccine: ‘Past sin was not committed to achieve the immediate current benefit.’
Dave Brennan, from the UK anti-abortion ministry Brephos, has pushed back hard against attempts to categorise ‘the practice of exploiting the bodies of wrongfully killed unborn children for medical advancement’ as merely in the past. Brennan pointed to a 2015 cell line, WALVAX-2, produced in China from nine foetuses, and the US abortion giant Planned Parenthood’s harvesting of foetal organs for medical research. He identified the Cardiff Fetal Tissue bank, where ‘women are asked to donate their tissues’ for research ‘to develop new therapies for patients with degenerative brain diseases’.
Piper and Brennan stated that a principled stand against the Covid vaccine was a witnessing and campaigning opportunity. But John Stevens highlighted the tiny percentage of evangelicals in the UK, noting that ‘the reality is that the vast majority of our population support the provision of abortion, and so there is a need to change millions of hearts and minds before there is any prospect of change’.
Different ethical approaches
One reason for such a sharp disagreement on the Covid vaccine appears to be different approaches to ethics. Those arguing against the vaccine tend to take a more absolutist view. The Saviour is our sinless example and he was never in a situation where there was not a morally pure choice to be made – which he chose.
Those arguing in favour of the vaccine generally make a more complex ethical case. John Ling (who has written on bio-ethical issues for Day One and the Christian Institute) stated that Christians can receive vaccines ‘if their use does not contribute to any future evil acts [contemporary abortions], and if their current use is occasioned by a grave proportionate reason [virtuous, seriously and urgently required]’.
CMF president John Wyatt highlighted other related ethical dilemmas such as injecting Covid into healthy volunteers for vaccine testing, vaccine coercion, and vaccine availability in poorer countries. He placed the Covid vaccine in the category of ‘co-operation with evil’ and appeared to use a lesser of two evils case by saying that vaccinating children is best due to the lack of an alternative. Wyatt stated that ‘some kind of co-operation with evil is tragically unavoidable’.
Others suggest that whereas the HEK 293 cell line was used as the best available option, other alternatives could be developed such as using perinatal cells derived from unproblematic sources like umbilical cord blood.
Why this matters
The ethical issues with cell lines like HEK 293 are not new: it is not unknown for an evangelical to refuse to engage in certain research because of their use. However, the Covid vaccines have highlighted the issues. As Brennan candidly explains, refusing the Covid vaccine for using ‘aborted cell lines’ logically leads to refusing others like the MMR. Other medications are also affected.
Many evangelical churches have a range of opinions on the Covid vaccine. This is challenging for unity. One person holds that Christians ought to be vaccinated out of love for their neighbours. Another person holds that Christians ought to refuse the vaccination out of love for the unborn. How should they interact in a climate of risk assessments and talk of vaccine passports?
Following the Bible
The difference of views does provide opportunities. The prevalent view in the UK is for medical specialists to be the authority: we must ‘follow the science’. There can be no debate; rather, censorship of opposing views. This is obviously counterproductive. Giles Fraser, the liberal rector of St Mary’s Newington, recently wrote: ‘Sneering scientists won’t win over anti-vaxxers.’
Evangelicals should be different. We follow the Bible. There has been a passionate but courteous exchange of views regarding what believers can do with a clear conscience, and what they ought to do. We each stand or fall before our own master (Romans 14:4) as we seek to act with a clear conscience.
Paul Smith is full-time elder of Grace Baptist Church, Broadstairs.