Covid-19 vaccines and foetal cell-lines
Covid-19 vaccines have been hailed as the cavalry appearing on the skyline to save us all from a pandemic that, in combination with alarmed responses, has devastated countries around the world. It is natural that people look forward eagerly to the prospect of relief, even if fatality rates for those infected may be much lower than once feared. Of course, there is also relief at the thought of an end to swingeing restrictions aimed at protecting our healthcare systems and those particularly at risk.
With several coronavirus vaccines already available, or at a late stage, what questions should we now be asking? I will not look here at questions of fair distribution or vaccine risks: women of childbearing age, for example, may be concerned about unknown risks to their fertility. Rather, I will focus on another question that is troubling those of us who are pro-life: the use of foetal cell-lines at some point in the development of some vaccines, if thankfully not all.
It needs to be said at the outset that foetal cell-lines are not the same as actual foetal parts or tissue. Such tissue was itself sourced from historical abortions: a horrifying practice involving close complicity with those performing the abortion. The tissue was then used many years ago to make various cell- lines that circulate in labs today and are used in developing some vaccines. Although in the case of the HEK 293 cell-line there is some possibility that it may have come from a miscarriage,  I will assume that this cell-line too originated, as seems all too likely, from a deliberate abortion.
Foetal cell-lines are developed from the original cells or tissue: they do not include any cells of the unborn child. It is also worth noting that where they are used for vaccines, these cell-lines are used not as intended ingredients (even if some frag-ments of cells remain) but to prepare the vaccine in or e.g. to test it on.
The Covid-19 vaccine candidates range from those that did not involve foetal cells at any stage (for example, CureVac), to those that used foetal cells at every stage: design, testing and production (for example, Astra-Zeneca). Other vaccines again (for example, Pfizer) do not use a foetal cell-line in ongoing production, but did use one in confirmatory tests.
May a vaccine which has involved a foetal cell-line at some point be accepted by end users? This is one more example of a general moral question: when is it right to benefit from the past wrongdoing of others? The wrongdoer may be still alive or may be long dead: perhaps our house was built by a slave -owner, for example. Accepting a ‘tainted’ benefit is sometimes right and sometimes wrong: we need to discern here and make distinctions.
May we, for example, keep money we inherit from relatives who earned it in wrongful ways? What about accepting gifts from living relatives, who want to give us money wrongfully gained for this very purpose? Should we accept gifts from those who themselves inherited ‘tainted’ money in the past?
We can benefit from past wrongdoing (‘appropriation’ of evil) without ourselves endorsing that wrongdoing. However, we do need to consider the messages we give out, and whether these are justified by our need for the benefit concerned. Some degrees of connection are much more likely to give bad messages, and perhaps even encourage further wrongdoing, than are other, more remote degrees of connection.
What guidance does the Church give? In a document called Dignitas Personae  produced by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) in 2008, there is an explicit treatment of vaccines, in this case, childhood vaccines for conditions other than Covid-19. Looking first at the responsibilities of scientists, the CDF states that even those who are not closely connected with the original wrongs of abortion and foetal tissue collection should be avoiding the resulting cell-lines so as not to compromise their witness. There are some caveats, including further distinctions between levels of responsibility, from that of decision-makers who chose to use the cell-line to that of those who had no voice in the decision.
What about end users and their relatives oﬀered an abortion-derived vaccine: is it always wrong to accept such a vaccine? Not necessarily, according to Dignitas Personae: parents, for example, may accept a vaccine for their children for a serious reason in the absence of alternatives. They did not, after all, choose which cell-line to use, unlike some at least of the scientists involved. Nonetheless, Dignitas Personae says that parents who do accept these vaccines should make their views known to their healthcare systems so that alternative vaccines not developed using foetal cell-lines can be made available.
So, what does this mean for Covid-19 vaccine choices? If we believe we need a vaccine, we should first try to access the least problematic vaccine we can, also considering vaccine safety and eﬃcacy. If no safe working vaccine with a completely clear record is available to us, we need to consider our personal responsibilities. Those who are very vulnerable, or caring for very vulnerable people – especially if the vaccine is also found to stop transmission – will have a more ur-gent need for a vaccine than those in the general population. Whether the virus is still prevalent, and whether herd immunity has been reached, are also relevant considerations.
Whether or not we accept a ‘tainted’ vaccine, we should write, if we can, both to health authorities and to pharmaceutical companies urging them to make alternatives available. The time is ripe to raise awareness of foetal tissue collection – a repellent practice which continues today albeit not normally for vaccine production.
Asking companies to avoid even a cell-line historically derived from foetal tissue collection will help make such collection – an act of close complicity with abortion – be seen as the aber-ration it is. In a world where abortion is ‘sold’ so euphemistically both to pregnant women and to wider society, the hope is that a dawning of respect for foetal remains may pave the way for greater respect for living unborn babies and their unique ties to those who bear them.
Post publication Addendum
The CDF issued a statement specifically about Covid-19 vaccines on 21st December 2020
- Rev. Austriaco N, O.P. Moral Guidance on Using COVID-19 Vaccines Developed with Human Fetal Cell Lines. Public Discourse, May 26, 2020 https://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2020/05/63752/
- Prentice D (2020) Update: COVID-19 Vaccine Candidates and Abortion-Derived Cell Lines. David Prentice, Ph.D. Charlotte Lozier Institute https://lozierinstitute.org/update-covid-19-vaccine-candidates-and-abortion-derived-cell-lines/
- Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Instruction Dignitas Personae on certain Bioethical Questions.. Published Vatican 8th September 2008. https://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/congregations/cfaith/documents/rc_con_cfaith_doc_20081208_dignitas-personae_en.html
- Anscombe Centre COVID-19 Briefing Paper 2 27April 2020 http://www.bioethics.org.uk/images/user/covidbriefing2.pdf
A version of this article was
published in the Irish Catholic on 10/12/2020;
article is republished here by kind permission.
Dr Helen Watt is Senior research Fellow at the Anscombe Bioethics Centre and a research Fellow at Blackfriars Hall, Oxford.