Stem cells and COVID-19 Vaccines

Question

It’s reported that the COVID-19 vaccine and many of the treatments for the same are being manufactured by using stem cells from aborted fetuses. How is a Christian to consider such matters?

Answer

Thanks for your question. It’s an important one. All human life not only should be, but must be respected. As the psalmist wrote:

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes saw my unformed substance; in your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them (Psalm 139:14-16).

All life – especially within the womb – is very precious. Why especially? Because it’s a gift and a privilege to become pregnant and to become a mother. The little person inside a mother’s womb is dependent on its mother for both love and protection. While it’s a huge responsibility, it’s also a great honor to be trusted with such delicate life.

To address your question, we need to first understand some basic definitions. I’m not a scientist, so these definitions are from a layman’s perspective. This said, at a minimum, we need to understand what stem cells are and what type of aborted stem cells are used to make vaccines. We should also consider how this may be cooperating with evil, and, as best we can come to grips with what we should do.

What are Stem Cells?

From science class in middle school, I learned cells are essentially the primary building blocks of all living things. The average human body consists of trillions of cells. Cells are the body's raw materials.

Stem cells are unspecialized cells that give rise to specialized cells. Under the right conditions, stem cells divide to form other cells which are called daughter cells. These new daughter cells may become either specialized cells (blood, organ, etc.) or new stem cells.

There are two types of human stem cells: adult and embryonic. Adult stem cells are just that – obtained from adult humans. But the question we are considering is regarding embryonic stem cells obtained from unborn babies that have been aborted.

Stem Cells, Embryos and Fetuses

Some stem cells come from four- to five-day-old embryos and are called embryonic stem cells. For simplicity's sake let’s call these “new” aborted stem cells. These are left over from a procedure called in vitro fertilization, or what is more commonly referred to as IVF. In an IVF procedure, a woman's eggs and a man's sperm are mixed together in a laboratory dish whereupon some of the eggs are fertilized and become embryos. And this is the point of conception or the beginning of a human life.

There is another type of embryonic stem cell used in stem cell research which we'll call "old" aborted stem cells. These come from aborted fetuses, which are embryos that have had time to develop. A human baby is considered a fetus from the 9th week after conception until birth.

The first "old" human stem cell lines prepared from tissues of aborted fetuses are WI-38, begun in 1962, and MRC-5 in 1966. WI-38 (Winstar Institute-38) was from a human baby that was aborted because the family felt they already had too many children. [2] “Vaccines produced in WI-38 include those made against adenoviruses, rubella, measles, mumps, varicella zoster, poliovirus, hepatitis A and rabies.” [3] The second "old" human cell line is MRC-5 (Medical Research Council 5). [4] “The MRC-5 cell line was developed in September 1966 from lung tissue taken from a 14 week fetus aborted for psychiatric reason from a 27 year old physically healthy woman.” [5] “MRC-5 cells are currently used to produce several vaccines including for Hepatitis A, varicella and polio.” [6] There are others such as HEK-293 (1972) and PER.C6 (1985), but it is very clear that two different types of stem cells (new and old) from aborted human beings are used to make various vaccines.

Philosopher and theologian Dr. John Frame says this about IVF:

IVF is good in itself. There is no scriptural reason why a human egg should not be fertilized outside the mother's body and later implanted in her womb. However, in the usual practice, several eggs are fertilized, and after some observation one is chosen for implantation. The others are destroyed. On a biblical view of the personhood of the unborn child from conception, this procedure is the destruction of human life. [1]

Not only does life begin at conception but so does personhood. The indifferent scientific language used to describe such life is rather suspect – it’s just an embryo. It’s also disarming. The implication is that embryos and fetuses are not human beings or a developing person. But changing a word doesn’t change the reality of what Psalm 139 describes – a frame made in secret (known), an unformed substance, intricately woven.

John the Baptist, "before he was born" (Luke 1:41, 44) was responding to God, which means that he was already a living soul. In Exodus 21:22-23, the life within a pregnant woman is valued as life with the law requiring “life for life” if damaged. The unborn are persons, not things. Embryos are not "its." They are "whos!" So when creating embryonic stem cell lines, in most cases, the embryo is destroyed. A human life is actually taken. This is immoral and unethical.

Cooperation in Evil

I suggest two questions as parameters for making a decision about receiving vaccinations that come from stem cells: (1) Am I cooperating with evil? (2) Is what I’m about to do scriptural?" To assist in understanding the many principles involved, I suggest taking the Thirdmill free lesson series below entitled, “Making Biblical Decisions.”

We live in a fallen world. If we trace something back far enough we sooner or later locate something evil. Think about companies and manufacturers who knowingly use harmful poisons to make a product (e.g. cigarettes that contain arsenic, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, hydrogen cyanide, etc.). Perhaps we'll find evidence of forced child labor. Or maybe people have even been killed, as in the case of "blood diamonds." There is nothing necessarily wrong with owning a diamond, however “Blood diamonds (also called conflict diamonds, brown diamonds, hot diamonds, or red diamonds) are diamonds mined in a war zone and sold to finance an insurgency, an invading army's war efforts, or a warlord's activity.” [7] Since we live in a fallen world, the possibilities are endless. Shouldn't we consider these issues before we decide what we'll participate in?

According to Meredith Wadman in an article entitled “Abortion opponents protest COVID-19 vaccines’ use of fetal cells,” some people are genuinely concerned that a viable safe COVID-19 vaccine may be developed from aborted stem cells. She points out that at least five of the COVID-19 vaccines candidates use one of two human fetal cell lines, [8] and refers to the HEK-293 and PER.C6 mentioned above.

This presents a real ethical dilemma. Do I increase the probability of death (not only mine but possibly other people's too) by not taking a safe vaccine that is knowingly developed from an aborted fetus? Put another way, if my life is cut short I can no longer share the gospel with others, but what kind of gospel am I sharing if a murdered baby's stem cells are part of the cost? This line of reasoning applies to all vaccines, not just COVID-19. These are important ethical questions and Christians should consider them when making decisions.

What Should I Do?

There is some good news because there are "currently more than 100 COVID-19 vaccine candidates under development.” [9] Hopefully, an effective vaccine will be developed by a lab not using aborted fetal cells. In the meantime, however, if you are older with some serious health conditions and the first or only viable vaccine ends up being one developed from aborted fetal cells, as a Christian, what should you do?

I can only answer this question for myself and no one else. I should not and do not desire to bind your conscience on such a matter. However, I don’t mind sharing my current thoughts on the issue:

Personally I don't think enough study has been done yet on adult stem cells. If successful this would do away - even from a non-Christian scientific viewpoint - with the use of embryonic stem cells in their entirety. According to the Mayo Clinic, "Scientists have successfully transformed regular adult cells into stem cells using genetic reprogramming. By altering the genes in the adult cells, researchers can reprogram the cells to act similarly to embryonic stem cells." [10] So, I think a solution to this issue may rest here!

Back to embryonic stems cells:

(1) The use of “new” stem cells developed using IVF is absolutely immoral. The procedure knowingly and purposely destroys human life. I personally can’t take a vaccine made in this way. To do so would condone continuous murder.

The remainder of my thoughts regards the use of what we referred to above as aborted “old” stem cells.

(2) Some in the Southern Baptist Church and the Catholic Church, while acknowledging its sinful history, agree with taking safe immunizations using “old” stem cells from aborted fetuses. At first, this seems rather hypocritical, but they essentially are asserting that the use of older fetal cell lines doesn’t cause any additional harm. “As the Catholic church concluded for vaccines: Beneficiaries of the drug are not culpable in the original sin of the abortion.” [11] What is done is done and they can’t do anything about the past abortions.

Consider here the Lord's Supper. Christ was murdered (Acts 2:23; 4:27-28) yet his one-time life and death ("old") is used over and over for the common good of all his people throughout redemptive history (Matt. 1:21). This celebration is even commanded (1 Cor. 11:23-26). There is spiritual nourishment in this meal. However, this comparative argument won’t work for “new” IVF stem cells, as Christ was only crucified once and not continuously (cf. Heb. 6:6; 7:27; 9:12, 26).

(3) Still remaining are other serious ethical questions such as: Isn’t knowingly using that which one knows comes from an aborted fetus make one complicit in the abortive act itself? Isn’t this saying murder is okay when it benefits the many at the expense of the defenseless few? Is helping a murderer make money ethical? In legal terms, isn’t this somewhat like becoming an accessory after the fact? [12]

(4) On the other hand, if one doesn’t take a safe vaccine and then gets ill and infects another and this other person dies, aren’t they also then complicit in someone else’s death?

(5) Doesn't having the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16) when making decisions mean we are to love our neighbors (Matt. 22:36-40) and to seek common good (Jer. 29:7)?

These are all important questions to consider when making a biblical decision regarding COVID-19 and other vaccines. As one may observe, all the above appear to want to do the right thing but may end up on complete opposite sides of the question. [13]

In the end, it is an individual's decision before God, and we each have the freedom to make it. [14]

Footnote

[1] John Frame. The New Reproduction. (https://thirdmill.org/magazine/article.asp/link/joh_frame^Frame.Ethics2005.TheNewReproduction.html/at/The New Reproduction). Last Accessed 28 October 2020.

[2] Vaccines, Abortion & Fetal Tissue. (https://www.ohiolife.org/vaccines_abortion_fetal_tissue). Last Accessed 28 October 2020.

[3] Wikipedia. “WI-38.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/WI-38). Last Accessed 28 October 2020.

[4] CDC. Vaccine Excipient Summary. (https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/pubs/pinkbook/downloads/appendices/b/excipient-table-2.pdf). Last Accessed 29 October 2020.

[5] Coriell Institute for Medical Research. “MRC-5 - Normal Human Fetal Lung Fibroblast.” (https://www.coriell.org/0/Sections/Search/Sample_Detail.aspx?Ref=AG05965-C). Last Accessed 29 October 2020.

[6] Wikipedia. “MRC-5.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MRC-5#cite_note-5). Last Accessed 29 October 2020.

[7] Wikipedia. “Blood diamond.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_diamond). Last Accessed 29 October 2020.

[8] Meredith Wadman. "Abortion opponents protest COVID-19 vaccines’ use of fetal cells." (https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/06/abortion-opponents-protest-covid-19-vaccines-use-fetal-cells). Last Accessed 29 October 2020.

[9] W.H.O. “The push for a COVID-19 vaccine” (https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/covid-19-vaccines). Last Accessed 29 October 2020.

[10] Mayo Clinic Staff. "Stem cells: What they are and what they do." (https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/bone-marrow-transplant/in-depth/stem-cells/art-20048117). Last Accessed 06 November 2020.

[11] Rebecca Randall. Amid COVID-19, Pro-Lifers Push to Avoid Abortive Fetal Cells in Medicine. (https://www.christianitytoday.com/news/2020/october/trump-covid-fetal-cell-lines-regeneron-vaccines-pro-life.html). Last Accessed 29 October 2020.

[12] "An accessory-after-the-fact is someone who assists 1) someone who has committed a crime [abortion], 2) after the person has committed the crime [abortion], 3) with knowledge that the person committed the crime [abortion], and 4) with the intent to help the person avoid arrest or punishment [make money from an abortion to finance even more murders for the common good]. An accessory after the fact may be held liable for, among other things, obstruction of justice." Cornell Law School. “Accessory After The Fact.” (https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/accessory_after_the_fact). Last Accessed 29 October 2020.

[13] Some within Dutch Reformed Congregations decline vaccinations on the basis that it interferes with divine providence. But in my opinion, this isn’t interfering with providence. God himself told Jonah to go preach in Nineveh. Otherwise, in God’s providence, the city would have been destroyed. As the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 5.3 states, “God, in His ordinary providence, maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above, and against them, at His pleasure” (Acts 27:31, 44; Isa 55:10, 11; Hos 2:21, 22; Hos 1:7; Matt. 4:4; Job 34:10; Rom. 4:19, 20, 21; 2 Kings 6:6; Dan. 3:27). Vaccines may be considered one of God’s means of prolonging life.

[14] See the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter 20 - Of Christian Liberty, and Liberty of Conscience.

Related Topics

Is Abortion Murder?
Making Biblical Decisions

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).