There are two basic discussions that swirl around the question of vaccination. One has to do with vaccines generally, and when it comes to this question I confess that I am not an anti-vaxxer at all, not even a little bit. The fact that we have largely gotten rid of whooping cough and other pernicious diseases bothers me not at all. Couple this with the fact that militancy against such forms of modern medicine seem to me to just invite the cranks. So it would seem that having such an outlook would place me solidly in the pro-vaxx camp.
But a fact such as this should not cause us—for the sake of loyalty to our own faction in that general debate—to deny a good argument that the other side might put forward. And by “good argument” I mean one that needs either to be acknowledged as sound or answered with the respect it deserves. And so this leads us to the second aspect of this discussion, the one I want to pursue here now.
I am talking about the argument from the fact that fetal remains are used in the production of certain vaccines.
Stating the Problem Carefully
There are two widely used vaccines that were cultivated in cell lines obtained from the bodies of children—as the result of elective abortions. The abortions occurred in 1964 and 1970. One was a baby girl who was aborted because the family felt they had too many children, and the other was a boy who was aborted for “psychiatric reasons.”
These vaccines are the WI-38 vaccine (for rubella) and the MRC-5 vaccine (for use in certain vaccines against hepatitis A, small pox, chicken pox, polio and rabies). To complicate matters further, as administered, these are frequently combined with other vaccines. The vaccine for rubella was obtained from fetal tissue, for example, and was then combined with other vaccines that were not obtained that way. This means that certain unproblematic vaccines are conjoined to problematic ones, making them all problematic.
In the reading I have done on this, the basic facts of the case do not appear to be disputed. It is not as though one side claims that an aborted child was used in the production of the vaccines while the other side denies that this was done. No. This part of it appears to be something everyone agrees on.
So the debate is over the significance of these facts, not the facts themselves. There is a need, therefore, for biblical casuistry—moral reasoning in the light of biblical law. We are not given revelation on such issues directly, and so we have to look at them carefully in order to see what might follow from biblical law “by good and necessary consequence.”
I am opening the comments on this post because this is something we really need to talk about. If anyone has better information than what I have posted here, then please comment, and feel free to provide links. If the feedback is not about the information so much as it is about my argumentation—as I am interacting with Al Mohler’s argument and with a statement from the Pontifical Academy—then please engage with that as well. Have at it. I am grateful to anyone who is trying to address this difficulty as a true difficulty, and I want to submit these thoughts of mine under correction as well. That said . . .
Summary of the Problem
So to state the process as carefully as possible, here is how such problematic vaccines are developed. Tissue was taken from the body of an abortion victim, and cell lines from that tissue were then cultivated. The cell lines are not directly part of the dead child’s body, but rather are cells descended from a part of the child’s body which was cultured in such a way as to replicate. Tissue from the original organism (i.e. the child) was duplicated and formed a cell line, and the weakened virus that would serve as the vaccine was then grown in that cell line.
The vaccine is not the dead child’s body, but was rather grown in a line of cells which was replicated from a cell taken from the dead child’s body. The vaccine is the harvested crop, the cell line is the soil, and dead child was the upstream source of that soil.
So, with all that in mind, here is the basic question:
Is it lawful for Christians knowingly to use vaccines that were grown in the cultivated remains of a murder victim?
Now to state the question in this way might almost seem to answer it. Stated that way, who would say, “Yes, go right ahead”? Who would say that we really should “use vaccines that were grown in the cultivated remains of a murder victim”?
Well, nobody would put it that way, of course, but my argument is that this is what we are doing amounts to. And this means I believe the burden of proof lies with those Christian ethicists who believe we are not doing that. They need either to show that we are not doing that or, that if we are, it does not incur the responsibility that it looks like it incurs.
And it is hard to come up with analogous situations to help us in our reasoning. Nothing fits exactly.
One false analogy is one of cannibalism. A number of years ago, there was a plane crash in the Andes, and the survivors only managed to survive because they finally resorted to eating those who had not survived. The analogy is a false one because, however horrific the cannibalism was, it was not murder followed by cannibalism. While some might be prepared to say that such a thing was lawful in extremis (as I would not say, incidentally), I would hope that everyone would agree that killing someone in order that you might eat them to survive would be appallingly selfish. A Christian should rather die.
Another analogy that doesn’t really work is the one that concerns illicit medical knowledge. Nazi doctors conducted grotesque medical experiments on many prisoners, and in order to keep our distance from such evil, we don’t have to deny the truth of what they might have discovered (or maintain that they didn’t really discover anything worth knowing). The truth of whatever they discovered was known by God before their experiments, and the truth itself is not sullied by the evil that men might do in their pursuit of it. Medical students used to rob graves in order to further their studies. Say that such a student repented of this particular sin years later, and in his repentance he repudiated his sinful pursuit of that knowledge. Good. He can repent of how he acquired his knowledge of anatomy, but he can’t repent of what he now knows about anatomy. The knee bone is still connected to the leg bone.
Something similar is going on in the case of knowledge about human sexual performance. A good bit of what we now know, and which even shows up in marriage books by Christians for Christians, was discovered by sex therapists in white coats and clipboards observing people having sex. Now it might be maintained that such therapists might not have the firmest grasp of what the word “normal” means, and so caveat emptor everybody, but at the same time only a blind pious dogmatism would feel bound to maintain that such therapists could never learn anything true, or even important. And if researchers put copulating couples into MRI machines, as they have in fact done, and they learn something interesting about the human brain during sex, is it lawful for a Christian counselor to utilize that knowledge fifty years from now? And can he do so without inquiring whether the subjects in that original landmark study were married to each other?
With knowledge, while the knowledge of a particular truth is itself uncorrupted, you want to make sure that you never use such knowledge in a way that incentivizes researchers to go get more of it in that way. That is a tricky part, but I think it is where the line must be drawn.
And so it is that I believe that knowledge acquired illicitly is still knowledge, and we cannot “unknow it” for the sake of purity. We can refuse to take a particular vaccine while we cannot “not know” something that sinners in a previous generation learned.
Knowledge and Ignorance
Another factor that needs to be remembered is that culpability is affected by our awareness of what is going on, but not entirely determined by what is going on. Someone who just buys a jar of skin cream that contains fetal remains, not knowing the ingredients, is not to be blamed in the same way the cosmetics engineers are—the ghouls who first came up with that idea as a good thing to try.
“Scrubb’s eyes opened wide with horror and he said, ‘So we’ve been eating a Talking stag.’”
This discovery didn’t have exactly the same effect on all of them. Jill, who was new to that world, was sorry for the poor stag and thought it rotten of the giants to have killed him. Scrubb, who had been in that world before and had at least one Talking beast as his dear friend, felt horrified, as you might feel about a murder. But Puddleglum, who was Narnian born, was sick and faint, and felt as you would feel if you found you had eaten a baby.”
The Silver Chair, Loc. 12938
But equally important is the theology of the thing, and we should not rush to assume that ignorance of such things is entirely possible. No society could ever get to soylent green levels (as we are in danger of doing) in a state of entire innocence.
“We’ve brought the anger of Aslan on us,” he said. “That’s what comes of not attending to the signs. We’re under a curse, I expect. If it was allowed, it would be the best thing we could do, to take these knives and drive them into our own hearts.”
“Fated. Fated to be Pole’s death, just as I was fated to eat Talking Stag at Harfang. Not that it isn’t my own fault as well, of course.”
It is true that a lot of Christians really don’t know these facts about their vaccines. But it is also true that many of them would really rather not be told about it. Because, at some point, the fact that this would require radical action would then become patently obvious.
Some Inadequate Solutions
In the reasoning supplied by the Pontifical Academy, links below, they distinguish between a formal cause and a material cause. The formal cause of a particular evil would be the person who devises the sin, and who intends to commit it with sinful intent. He is the one who thought up the bank robbery. A material cause could be someone who was threatened by the bank robber, and who was coerced into driving the getaway car. He was a material part of the bank robbery, but his culpability is small or non-existent, depending.
We all understand that coercion does have an impact on culpability. To continue with this example, if someone has a gun pointed at him, to drive the getaway car is not the same as deciding to join the heist of his own free will.
But isn’t the situation quite different when we are talking about vaccines? If you don’t drive the getaway car, you get shot. The coercive element is easy to see. If you don’t get the rubella vaccine, you run a distant risk of contracting the sickness. You are playing Russian roulette, but the revolver has ten thousand chambers and just one bullet.
If these same vaccines had been grown in cell lines donated by the deceased person himself, it would be the same kind of thing as an organ donation. But because it was a murder victim, the situation is significantly altered. If you were visiting China and had a medical crisis there, one that required a kidney transplant, would you agree to receive one if you knew that the donated kidney was taken from a political prisoner who was executed for the sake of the kidney? The murder has already happened, and you can’t undo that. Water under the bridge. All you can do is say yes or no to the offered kidney. What do you say?
What kind of material cause would you be contributing in that instance? So perhaps the issue is not so much material causation as it is material participation. You didn’t cause anything. But are you participating? And is there any culpability in that participation? It seems to me there is.
In Al Mohler’s treatment of this issue, he distinguished between “primary effect” and “secondary effect.” I take him to be saying something similar to what the Pontifical Academy was arguing. We all understand why the director of the primary effect is guilty, as Mohler rightly acknowledges.
But what is it precisely about the secondary effect that makes it not guilty? The only thing that I can see that might affect culpability downstream is ignorance. As you go from primary effect to secondary, and then to tertiary, knowledge of what is going on can decrease. And that affects culpability—although, as mentioned above, perhaps not as much as we might think.
Before interacting more with Mohler’s argument, I would like to see him develop it further. The Pontifical Academy ran theirs out to the edges, which Mohler did not do. I would like to see the question addressed in this way. Given what we know about the sources of these problematic vaccines, shouldn’t the posture of Christians be to apply as much pressure as we can to get these corporations, and our government, to supply us with ethically sourced vaccines?
Cost and Benefit
This means we have to do a cost/benefit analysis. I don’t mean to sound cold, but I am actually trying to keep us from becoming cold. This really boils down to a cost/benefit analysis, and it does not appear to me that we have thought the issue all the way through.
It is in our personal interest not to get rubella, and the use of this problematic vaccine would help us toward that end. But it is also in the interest of the civil authorities to not have a rubella outbreak, and to make the vaccines as unproblematic as possible would be helpful toward that end. Now if the reason the society is running the risk of a rubella outbreak is because a large number of conscientious Christians, who have no complaint about vaccines generally, began to refuse this vaccine because it is being manufactured in an ungodly way, then that puts pressure on them to act in accordance with what they say is their actual interest in this—which is public health.
But I don’t believe it to be the case that their only interest is public health. If it were, they would mandate that all vaccines be produced in an ethical way. They would not want any stumbling blocks to be put in the way of widespread vaccination. So perhaps it is worth considering that one of the things they want to do is make the entire population, ardent pro-lifers included, complicit in the abortion travesty.
As it stands now, we are not acting in accordance with what we say we believe. They are being consistent, and we are not being consistent.
Consider the “costs” from another angle. If you examine the resources I have listed at the end of this post, you will see that fetal remains have not just been used in the manufacturing of vaccines. They have also been used by taste engineers as they have developed artificial flavors. Take, for example, refrigerated coffee creamers produced by Nestle. They have also been used in certain cosmetics and skin care products (not all, just some). And in this latter case, the fetal remains were not just used in the testing and development of the products, but are also used in the product itself.
So with regard to the taste experiments, the food products do not contain fetal remains. But with regard to certain cosmetics and skin care products, they do contain fetal remains. What better way to get at that elusive anti-aging solution than to use the life of a baby? The Christian way of life says my life for yours. The unbelieving way of life says your life for mine.
Now apply the moral reasoning referenced earlier to the taste of your coffee creamer, or the skin cream you use. Does the distinction between formal cause and material cause apply here? If so, how? How about primary effect and secondary effect? Or does our relatively trivial need for better-tasting coffee creamers allow us to boycott them over this? Does the relatively trivial need for fewer wrinkles allow us to say that we will not use that compromised product? But doesn’t that mean we are arguing that we will certainly take a stand when taking a stand costs us almost nothing? If it costs . . . well, that’s another issue.
I trust you see the difficulty. If we boycott the coffee creamers and do not boycott the rubella vaccine, we are doing our cost/benefit analysis selfishly. We are saying, in effect, that we will not support a murder going into taste research but we will (reluctantly) support a murder that supports a smaller health risk for us. Now I grant that rubella, when contracted, is a much bigger deal than wrinkles or sub-par coffee. But rubella, when not contracted, which is what happens most of the time, is not a problem at all.
Suppose movies were invented in the first century. So isn’t this like an early Christian boycotting movies that harmed animals in the making of the film while continuing to attend the gladiatorial games where people and animals are maimed and killed? He is a Christian so there is a small risk that he will eventually be thrown to the lions, but he still attends. But when it comes to the movies, he takes a firm stand on an issue of much smaller consequence. How is this not schizophrenic?
This means that there is an unacceptable cost/benefit line that has somehow been crossed.
And we have all agreed that there is a point where pressure becomes coercion, and when it becomes coercion all the fine shades of moral reasoning are no longer necessary. It is no sin to be raped or robbed. It is not a sin to be kidnapped or murdered. But, taking the issue of rape, to use a far-fetched example, if a man were to say to a woman that if she doesn’t have sex with him he will put her name in a lottery of 100,000 potential victims, and if he draws her name, he will track her down and make her life miserable for a week, does that count as coercion?
To a really fearful woman, it might. And to a really fearful Christian population, the threat of particular diseases might be considered as coercion, the kind of coercion that forces our hand. But it really is not.
So perhaps we ought to figure out a way to play some chicken with the magistrate. We don’t want rubella and they don’t want a rubella outbreak. They say to us that we have a duty as citizens to inoculate ourselves, for our own sake and for the sake of our fellow citizens. And we should actually accept that responsibility, everything else being equal. But I also think we ought to say to them in reply that they have a responsibility to cease being ghouls in the way they allow vaccines to be manufactured. And when they fulfill their responsibility in this, we will think about fulfilling ours.
For Further Research
N.B. I am not in a position to vouch for the accuracy of the following claims. They are submitted for the inspection of those who care deeply about this issue, and who are prepared to pursue it further. The mere fact of their inclusion here does not mean that I would agree with everything—some of the posted links do not even agree with each other.
Here is a breakdown of products that used a cell line for an aborted child in the testing of their products, followed by products that contain fetal material.
Here is an article from a Catholic website called Children of God for Life. The main thrust of this article concerns the origin of the rubella vaccine.
This is an article that breaks the issues down
And here is a statement from the Pontifical Academy, the one I interacted with above.
This is a statement on vaccination generally from the City Reformed Presbyterian Church, but it has a section on the unlawful origins of some of the vaccines.
Al Mohler addressed it in this edition of The Briefing, second segment.
Here is an article for you.
And another one.