COVID Vaccines and Fetal Cells: What’s Ethical and What Isn’t?

In this blog, our goal is to provide biblically relevant information and resources to examine related to the COVID-19 vaccines.

Because of the long history of fetal tissue research that I believe is entirely unethical, I approach this subject with great seriousness. Earlier in the fall some prolife groups warned that the then upcoming COVID vaccines, at least some of them, would use tissue derived from at least one aborted child. However, some of these reports also claimed that the first vaccines to be approved, which would likely be used by the most people, would be among those utilizing aborted fetal tissue. Believing outdated and/or false information, some are embracing or spreading confusion.

I and others at EPM have spent many hours reading many articles and studies and listening to podcasts and videos on this issue. Some aren’t based on solid information, while others involve qualified scientists and credible sources quoting them. Some of these scientists, believers and unbelievers alike who are on the forefront of vaccine production, say that two vaccines, now available, are not derived from aborted children. (As I’ll note later, there is one source that has doubts about one of those vaccines, but not the other.)

More on that below but let me make clear that even if—as I’m convinced—some COVID vaccines are ethically acceptable to prolifers, that does not mean everyone should take them. People should make their decisions based upon their own consciences and beliefs about these vaccines. Paul says in a vitally important passage that applies to far more to one’s chosen day of worship, “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind” (Romans 14:5, NIV).

Some could believe a vaccine may be a wise choice for at risk adults, but not children. That’s for their parents to decide, not the rest of us. There are also adults with certain conditions or personal reservations who may legitimately choose not to take the vaccine. Again, my focus in this blog is on the ethics of the vaccines, not to suggest everyone should take them.

Pastors and ministries like ours naturally condemn the use of fetal tissue research. But we are not medically qualified to advise people in the more subjective questions about the safety of vaccines. I appreciate the position of Jeff Schultz, pastor of preaching and community at Faith Church in Indianapolis:

Our church has been praying for vaccine research and development, but taking a vaccine is not something we would direct people on.

Our congregation has a number of doctors, nurses, medical researchers, and people in pharmaceutical development. We believe that God works through miraculous intervention, but more commonly through our work, gifts, and wisdom applied in service to others. We’ve encouraged people to wear masks and practice social distancing. We have members who won’t return to in-person worship until a vaccine is available. But I don’t think we would say anything formally about taking a vaccine (except to give thanks for their existence).

At an individual level, I will encourage people to consult with their physician on making that decision. I see masks and social distancing as extremely low-risk interventions that help us love our neighbors. A COVID-19 vaccine is another important way to stop the spread of a deadly disease, but I don’t believe that as a pastor I have the medical qualifications to direct people on medical treatments that may have side effects or long-term health impact. I want to help people see the good of a vaccine while asking us all to respect others’ decisions.

Godly people may come to different conclusions related to the vaccines. As I share in my blog (and the accompanying message) When Christians Disagree about Beliefs and Actions, true love and unity are never achieved at the expense of primary biblical truths. But they are achieved at the expense of personal pride and preferences on second and third level issues. We need to recognize legitimate Christian freedom.

Though there are believers and Christian leaders who believe treatment of the COVID pandemic justifies the use of aborted fetal cells, I do not. Years ago when I first heard of promising research that could help insulin-dependent diabetics, then discovered they were utilizing tissue from aborted babies, it was a no-brainer. I could not in good conscience benefit from the violent deaths of children. Similarly, Nanci told me that as vulnerable as she is, having had 30% of her lungs removed due to the cancer that spread there from her colon, she certainly would not take any vaccine that contained fetal cells from the unborn. That’s a complete deal breaker for us. In my mind, that’s not what’s morally debatable. We’ll deal with that in a soon upcoming blog.  

We want to point readers to some of the resources we’ve read and watched and let them decide before God what’s right for them. I will focus on what to me is the central issue—what vaccines do and do not utilize cells from aborted babies.

Some Helpful Videos

Here’s a three-minute television news report which asks, “Are Fetal Cell Lines Used in the COVID-19 Vaccine?” The expert who answers is Dr. Meredith Wadman, the author of The Vaccine Race and a reporter with Science Magazine. It’s definitely worth watching, but the bottom line is, some vaccinations being developed do use fetal cell lines, and others do not. Those that do not include Pfizer and Moderna, the two that were the first to be approved and are now being administered.  

(Update July 2021: that list of vaccines not using fetal cells in production now includes Novavax, which may be available in the U.S. later this year. Writing about Novavax, which has now completed their phase 3 trials, The Atlantic says, “The recent results confirm that it has roughly the same efficacy as the two authorized mRNA vaccines, with the added benefit of being based on an older, more familiar science. The protein-subunit approach used by Novavax was first implemented for the hepatitis B vaccine, which has been used in the U.S. since 1986. The pertussis vaccine, which is required for almost all children in U.S. public schools, is also made this way. Some of those people who have been wary of getting the mRNA vaccines may find Novavax more appealing.”)

This six-minute video interviews two knowledgeable Catholic physicians related to the vaccines, and states their view of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. It also encourages our concern related to fetal tissue research.

Infectious disease specialist Dr. Daniel Hinthorn and pediatric disease specialist Dr. Scott James were featured on a thirty-minute interview with Focus on the Family. They helpfully address a number of issues related to vaccinations. It’s all worth listening to, but I will focus on the issue of fetal tissue.

Around the 16:40 mark, Dr. Hinthorn states,

I think people should be aware of the fact that the messenger RNA vaccines, neither one of them, are made in cells from aborted fetuses. They are not even made in cells. They are made in vats, these are chemicals that are brought together…they are not created from fetal cell lines.

He clarifies, “However, often these kinds of cells are checked in fetal cell lines, that’s just to see if they work, but that’s not making them that way.”

Dr. Hinthorn goes on to say, “So if you ever get the either the Pfizer vaccine or the Moderna vaccine, neither one of these is made in fetal cell line so we don’t have to worry about that.” He goes on to clarify that there are other vaccines, a half dozen or so, that are indeed being made from fetal cell lines, and many prolife people would naturally want to avoid them.

Dr. James follows by affirming the same, that neither the Pfizer nor Moderna vaccinations contain fetal cells. He also says there is a high degree of transparency about the origins of all the different vaccines, so there really shouldn’t be any confusion.

Some Helpful Articles

The Catholic prolife Charlotte Lozier Institute has great info on the vaccines, which was updated January 4. Note that on the table on that page comparing the vaccines, under the production column some say human cells; some use cells from monkeys, hamsters, or insects;  and others say either PER.C6 cells or HEK293 cells, both of which originated from an aborted child. Notice that both Pfizer and Moderna specifically say “No cells” used.

Their excellent article “What you need to know about the COVID-19 vaccines,” features an easy-to-read color-coded chart:  

Vaccine Chart from Charlotte Lozier

Note the color-coded markings for these four different categories: “DOES USE abortion-derived cell line” “Does not use abortion-derived cell line,” “Some tests DO NOT use abortion-derived cells, SOME DO,” and “Currently undetermined.”  

I appreciate the tone of this article from Michigan Right to Life. They say:

For decades, prolife people have opposed developing new cell lines or using the tissue of aborted babies. Many people will try to justify abortion and the further trafficking of fetal tissue with the “promise” of saved lives. However, whether it is with stem cells or vaccines, there is always an ethical alternative or the ability to create one. There is no need to take the life of one person to save the life of another.

However, the fact remains that some vaccines exist that use fetal cell lines and have no current ethical alternatives. Is it ethical to use those vaccines? Prolife people disagree. The cell lines were derived decades ago, and though their source is unethical, we can’t unkill those children. On the other hand, taking advantage of unethical methods promotes further abuses, in this case with the development of new cell lines. There’s a meaningful difference between a vaccine requiring use of fetal cells and one that only uses them for testing, but how meaningful is that difference? The risks are another ethical consideration, balancing the risk of the disease vs. the vaccine, and ways you fit into that balance.

…If informed consent is supposed to be a cornerstone of the practice of medicine, then it is past time for the entire healthcare industry to only use tissue donated with the informed consent of every person involved.

As they point out, it is impossible to unkill aborted babies. And then the question becomes if it was from cloning of tissue from a baby aborted 50 years ago, where does that leave us? What is being used is not fetal tissue harvested from aborted babies but something derived from a tragically aborted child five decades ago. A huge question is does it or does it not serve as a basis of argumentation for further uses of aborted babies, and end up justifying abortions in people’s minds, since they are appearing to do good in the form of a vaccine?

The National Review is historically Catholic and pro-life. Here is their evaluation of the existing and in-process COVID vaccinations in relation to the use of aborted fetal tissue in their development. Here’s one pertinent quote from it:

There are no HEK 293 kidney cells [originating in a 1973 abortion] in either the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. Dr. Lee told National Review that HEK 293s were involved only in the “post-production” process of the “final vaccine product”: that is, they are not part of the vaccine but rather were test subjects used to help determine how effective it was. This is not the case for all the vaccine candidates. Some of the higher-profile products under development — by Janssen Research and Johnson & Johnson, as well as AstraZeneca and Oxford University, for example — are using fetal cells in the production process. In these vaccines, there is a “direct line” between the vaccine and abortion; that line does not exist in the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.

The Christian Medical and Dental Association offers their similar assessment here. They say:

It is important to note that fetal cell lines can be used in three different stages of vaccine development: design, confirmation and ongoing production. Many ethicists, including those at the Charlotte Lozier Institute, believe that using a fetal cell line for ongoing vaccine production is more ethically problematic than using a fetal cell line for design or confirmation. The design and confirmation steps use a limited number of fetal cells while the production stage is continuous.

The Roman Catholic prolife group Children of God for Life has put together a chart comparing the different vaccines, noting which ones used fetal cells for production and testing. 

I asked two prolife advocates, a married couple, to view the documents and videos recommended and this was their response:

My husband and I read through and discussed these documents. At first we were very reticent to come even close to a vaccination that was remotely associated with abortion. But after thinking it through from the sources of information we read, we do feel like we could in good conscience support the vaccine for those who wish to take it. We may be vaccinated ourselves, though haven’t made that final decision yet. The reason we believe we can is because of the following:

  1. No new aborted fetal tissue is needed or used to continue to reproduce the vaccine, so this doesn’t add to the abortion industry’s incentives.
  2. Neither Pfizer nor Moderna use any aborted fetal tissue in the manufacturing or sustaining of the vaccine. [Again, though many sources state no fetal cells are used to produce Moderna, at least one researcher cited above believes otherwise.]
  3. The culture used only for testing of the vaccine (not producing it) has none of the original material obtained from the fetus (just like yeast, it grows and develops on its own and over time is a completely different culture from the original).

Whatever our conclusions, we should give people the freedom to follow their conscience and respect that there may be many other matters of conscience in play, so we are not to judge others.

Vaccines with No Connection to Fetal Cells

There are some COVID vaccines in development that not only don’t come from fetal cells but also have not been tested by them. See these excellent resources:

  • Some groups are working to avoid fetal cells not only in vaccine development but in testing.
  • The use of umbilical cords and stem cells sounds promising. Hopefully many people who have babies would be willing to donate the umbilical cords if it could be used to save lives!
  • If you want to take the vaccine but believe the testing makes the fetal-cell-free vaccine itself unethical, or even if you have doubts about that, then by all means wait until a vaccine is produced where the testing isn’t an issue. Ask for the Holy Spirit’s leading and listen to your conscience! Speaking of the controversy about whether it’s right to eat food offered to idols, Scripture says is right for some and not right for others depending upon their consciences before God. Under inspiration, Paul says, “But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).
  • The John Paul II Medical Research Institute (JP2MRI) seeks to find cures and therapies exclusively using a variety of adult stem cells and induced pluripotent stem cells. The Institute does not engage in embryonic stem cell research of any kind. JP2MRI develops preclinical research technologies that will broadly advance drug discovery and regenerative medicine for many diseases. In addition, the Institute will engage in educational outreach to increase the number of scientists and future medical practitioners who will work with adult stem cells, always with an emphasis on medical bioethics that is consistent with the dignity of human life.”

Dr. Trasancos writes, “The good news is that there are ethical COVID-19 vaccines in production, lots of them. We must support those and keep our eyes on the long-term goal. We have a chance in this moment in history to demand ethical vaccines as the norm not the alternative if we stay vigilant.”

A Difference Between Production and Testing?

Is there a significant difference between using a vaccine produced with aborted fetal cells, and using an ethically produced vaccine (with no fetal cells) that at one point was tested by aborted fetal cells? I think there is. I certainly wish that kind of testing would never be done.

From a statement by the Catholic church: “The cell lines under consideration [regarding their use in vaccines] were begun using cells taken from one or more fetuses aborted almost 40 years ago. Since that time the cell lines have grown independently. It is important to note that descendant cells are not the cells of the aborted child. They never, themselves, formed a part of the victim's body.”

In the case of the cell line connected to the testing of the Pfizer, Moderna, and Novavax COVID vaccines, the abortion that has resulted in the ongoing production of millions of fetal cells (called HEK-293) was not motivated by wanting to use cells produced from it to test the effectiveness of vaccines. Presumably the same vaccines would still have been produced and administered without the use of fetal cells in the testing. Had the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, for instance, never been tested by fetal cells, it would have been exactly what it is, devoid of fetal cells with an existence totally independent of abortion.

The tests were not part of the production. That doesn’t make the testing right, of course. Neither does the fact that the line of testing came from an aborted baby decades ago, and is self-sustaining or “immortal,” so no more aborted babies have been involved. However, it’s still a question for some of whether utilizing a product from a company that does such testing is unethical.

(This does not mean that new cell lines have not been or will never be developed. For example, this article published in 2015 explains about a new cell line developed by scientists, called Walvax-2. It was taken “from a 3-month old female fetus aborted because of the presence of a uterine scar from a previous caesarean birth by a 27-year old healthy woman.” The introduction to the article shows that unfortunately developing fetal cells from aborted children is not completely a thing of the past, especially as some of the “immortal” cell lines become less useful. Walvax-2 was developed to emulate MRC-5.)

Other Resources to Consider

If you are a researcher and want to know what’s out there before you make your decision about the COVID vaccines, here are some final links to help you thoughtfully and prayerfully evaluate the ethical issues:

Final Thoughts

I mentioned earlier what Scripture says about being convinced in your own mind and not doubting, even when you come to a different conclusion than other believers. In the same context, Paul issues a warning to those who believe everyone else is ethically bound to have the same convictions they do: “The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand” (Romans 14:3-4).

God warns us to not set up our own judgment seats as if we were omniscient and qualified to judge, and as if our fellow believers ultimately answer to us, instead of their Creator.

It is entirely possible for two equally spiritual people to come to different conclusions, even contrary ones. Consider that eating meat offered to idols was highly controversial among Christians—easily as controversial as vaccines are in today’s church—but Paul says, “Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Romans 14:15). Just prior to that he says, “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. …I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean” (Romans 14:13-14).

Notice that Paul is convinced from his understanding of Scripture that it’s fine to eat meat offered to idols (since they aren’t real gods), but he knows some believe otherwise, and he accepts that, and encourages them to live consistently with those beliefs. Likewise, some believers may be free before God to take a vaccine, provided it doesn’t contain fetal cells. Others will not be free to do so. And still others will not take the COVID vaccine because of their reservations about vaccines in general. It’s our job to be informed, to pray, and seek guidance from God. It’s not our job to act as if we are more godly because we believe differently and make another choice.

Having read through the first 100 comments about this article on my Facebook page, and seeing the accusations and hostility some people are bringing, let me end by saying this: do your research, but go to credible sources and please don’t believe everything you read. Sadly, believers can be as gullible as anyone. Keep your focus on the sanctity of human life and the desire to honor God and also respect fellow Christians. Realize even then that God leaves room for different convictions and consciences and says of people coming to opposite conclusions: “Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind” (Romans 14:5).

Update July 2021: In the months since they were first made available to the public, some scientists and doctors have presented serious concerns about the currently available COVID-19 vaccines, especially as they become available for children (while many others vigorously disagree and continue to believe they are safe). If you’d like to read more, see this brief summary  from Dr. Byram Bridle, a Canadian associate professor of viral immunology and vaccine developer, presenting concerns for children and their parents, as well as his full document. And in this article, a pediatrician explores the debate over vaccinating children for COVID-19. Finally, here’s a video from a Christian cardiologist, Dr. Marcum, discussing informed consent and adverse reports. I share these links simply so you can research arguments on this side of the safety debate before making decisions for you and your family.

Update October 2021: Several readers have emailed us to ask about the Project Veritas video with the Pfizer whistleblower. We appreciate her concerns and desire to push for transparency in the areas where she sees red flags. 

In watching the video and reading the article and the leaked emails, it appears we’re not being told new information that the fetal cells were used in the vaccine, but that they were used in testing it, which is what I explain above:

In the case of the cell line connected to the testing of the Pfizer, Moderna, and Novavax COVID vaccines, the abortion that has resulted in the ongoing production of millions of fetal cells (called HEK-293) was not motivated by wanting to use cells produced from it to test the effectiveness of vaccines. Presumably the same vaccines would still have been produced and administered without the use of fetal cells in the testing. Had the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine, for instance, never been tested by fetal cells, it would have been exactly what it is, devoid of fetal cells with an existence totally independent of abortion.

The tests were not part of the production. That doesn’t make the testing right, of course. Neither does the fact that the line of testing came from an aborted baby decades ago, and is self-sustaining or “immortal,” so no more aborted babies have been involved. However, it’s still a question for some of whether utilizing a product from a company that does such testing is unethical.

Of course, as prolifers, certainly our desire should be to see the use of fetal cell lines ended completely, including in testing. The good news is, there are groups working to provide ethical alternatives to these unethical cell lines, such as the John Paul II Medical Research Institute. This is “putting our money where our mouth is,” so to speak. It would be wonderful for Christians to be able to have alternatives to offer the scientific community.

May the Lord give His people wisdom, grace, and guidance as we navigate these complex and challenging ethical issues.

For more on prolife issues, see Randy's books ProLife Answers to ProChoice Arguments and Pro-Choice or Pro-Life: Examining 15 Pro-Choice Claims—What Do Facts & Common Sense Tell Us? 

Photo by Hakan Nural on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries