The pandemic has disrupted life in the States for nearly a year. And I know this disorder is felt by many of you around the world too. We are told vaccines are the key. They will end the pandemic and return us all to some sense of normalcy. But the current offering of vaccines has raised key ethical questions and prompted many emails to us from listeners like Callum, Benjamin, Anna, Heather, Megan, Michelle, Krista, Tenesha, Matt, Caroline, Candice, Daniel, James, and Franco — just to name a few!
The listeners share one dilemma. Several coronavirus vaccines developed in the States and globally were made from the cell lines of aborted children — healthy children who were murdered. Most notably, this includes a fetal cell line called HEK-293, from the kidney of a healthy girl aborted in 1972, and PER.C6, from the retina of a healthy boy aborted in 1985. Apparently, these and similar cell lines have been used since the 1960s to manufacture vaccines against rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis A, shingles, hemophilia, rheumatoid arthritis, and cystic fibrosis.
In June, Science magazine reported that at least five coronavirus vaccines under development in the States were created using one of the two human fetal cell lines. But by the Fall it became clear that the two leading vaccines here in the States, those from Moderna and Pfizer — the vaccines currently being shipped — do not contain these fetal cell lines.
In the case of Moderna, this claim has since been called into question. But in either case, it was later reported that both Moderna and Pfizer used the HEK-293 cell line in the testing phase of their vaccines’ effectiveness.
So while there appears to be less of an ethical dilemma concerning the composition of the Pfizer vaccine, and possibly the Moderna vaccine, both raise yet another ethical dilemma for some pro-life people over the use of fetal cell lines in the testing phase.
As we record, ethically derived and ethically tested coronavirus vaccines are in process, but they are much slower in development and will likely be more expensive, rarer, and more difficult to get. That’s the prediction at least. So should committed pro-lifers get the fast, available, free vaccines? Or should they wait? Pastor John, how do you think through these ethical dilemmas?
Let me make four kinds of observations, and hope and pray that these will give some guidance to our thinking and our feeling and our acting. And I think all three of those really matter, particularly in regard to the use of human organs or human tissue harvested from the killing of unborn children. And we need to say it with words like that; otherwise, we will conceal from ourselves what’s happened.
1. We should never do evil that good may come.
First observation: in Romans 3:8, some of Paul’s adversaries accused him of “do[ing] evil that good may come.” Paul responded to this, that it was a slanderous charge. In other words, he distanced himself from that kind of ethical stance. And I think we should too. We shouldn’t do evil that good may come.
“God alone has the infinite wisdom to manage an entire world of sin in which he can turn horrible things for good.”
God alone has the infinite wisdom to manage an entire world of sin in which he can turn horrible things for wise and good purposes. He never tells us that we have such wisdom; we don’t. We are to live our lives guided by the principles he reveals in his word, not by our calculations about how much evil we can join in for some greater good.
So, if we really believe that the killing of unborn children is abhorrent to God and falls into the category of the shedding of innocent blood, for which God’s judgment fell, we should not think of turning this wickedness into a wonder drug to save our lives. We should not do evil that good may come. That’s my first observation.
2. We value Christ and his kingdom more than security or health.
Second, God frequently, in the Bible, calls us to do things and avoid things that are very costly to us personally, in order to demonstrate that Christ and his ways are more precious to us than safety or security or comfort, and that we sacrifice in order to do what’s right. When we are told not to return evil for evil (Matthew 5:38–39), or that we should love our enemies (Matthew 5:43–44), or turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39), or go the extra mile (Matthew 5:41), or do good to those who hate us (Luke 6:27), all of those kinds of commands are designed to show that we are not in bondage to this world, and that the deepest contentment of our lives does not flow from needing to avoid risk or show vengeance.
By denying ourselves comfort or satisfaction or safety for the sake of testifying to Christ’s value to us, and testifying to the sanctity of another person’s life, or testifying to our hope for another person’s well-being, or testifying to our confidence in God’s reward beyond the grave, when we deny ourselves in that way, we aim to exalt Christ and his ways over mere self-preservation.
So, if a scientist avoids using tissue and organs harvested from babies killed in abortion, or if an ordinary citizen avoids using a medication that they know has been developed specifically through such harvesting and research, the aim is that the Christian conscience is preserved and Christ is made much of as more valuable than any security or safety or health we might get through sin.
3. We testify to the sanctity of life.
Third, avoiding such research and avoiding the use of the products of such research is only one way of testifying to the truth and value of Christ in the sanctity of the unborn persons. But another way that should be added is the proactive engagement in whatever way we can to speak and act against the taking of innocent human life in the womb and the use of those children for research and experimentation.
So, I’m saying renunciation (that is, the avoidance part of our ethics), which is being asked about — Do we avoid the medication? — the renunciation of the use of such drugs has value. Yes, it does. And supplementing that value should also be the proactive engagement of resisting and discouraging abortion and the use of aborted babies in research.
4. God blesses principled action in his name.
And the final observation, the fourth one that I would make, is the one that’s most difficult to articulate, but may be the most important. The observation is that acting on principle — in this case, the principle that we do not want to be complicit in the desecration of dismembered human beings — acting on principle often does not look like the most obvious way to be a blessing to the greatest number people.
“God honors integrity and principled action that is rooted in his truth and his beauty and his worth.”
For example, if you try to act on the principle of not participating in the desecration of these children by avoiding medicines developed from their dead bodies, someone will say, “But look, look at all the good that is coming through the medication.” And they will say that they can’t see the good that may be coming from your principled action. So, what I’m saying here is this: God has ways of honoring and blessing and multiplying the effectiveness of principled action in his name, which, to the human calculation, may appear futile.
This is certainly the case with many martyrdoms in history, for example, or other kinds of sacrificial principled actions, which didn’t look like they were going to have any payoff at all for the suffering person or their family, or for the cause of Christ — just a dead-end street at the stake of suffering. The sufferers simply acted because their consciences wouldn’t let them do otherwise, while the world sees that as futile and foolish. “Just save yourself and your family and others, and stop denying yourself the privilege of life or health or prosperity.”
And my point again is this: God is God. He honors integrity and principled action that is rooted in his truth and his beauty and his worth, even where the world cannot see the point. We have no idea what explosive effects, in the depths of God’s providence and purposes, our principled action might unleash by God’s grace.
So, I’m saying, let’s not act as researchers or as ordinary consumers in a way that desecrates the bodies of unborn victims and treats those children as though they can be killed and their tissue harvested for our benefit.
[Medical details in this episode were updated on January 17, 2021.]