Vaccines, abortions and loving your neighbour

Let me say, as a faith leader: GO GET VACCINATED.  Gloucestershire NHS have made a flying start with their vaccination programme.  It seems that our excellent network of GPs surgeries has used local centres rather than mass vaccination centres to get ahead of the rest of the UK.  This is great news as far as I’m concerned.

I haven’t come across any COVID denial in the Christian circles I mix in.  Most of those circles include Christian doctors, nurses and scientists who have seen COVID-19 up close and personal.  They also include folk who have spent time in hospital or in isolation at home and know that coronavirus is no joke.    Nor have I come across much resistance to the vaccine programme.  One genuine Christian concern which has been brought to my attention however is the use of cell lines derived from aborted human foetuses in the production and testing of the vaccines.  As you would expect, the online conspiracy theory mill has spun this into ‘foetuses used in vaccine production’ and ‘vaccines will change your DNA’ etc, which are ignorant untruths.  However, it is true that all three of the vaccines currently approved for use in the UK were developed using cell lines derived from specific historical human abortions. 

Broadly speaking, Christians are opposed to abortion – this is an ethical stance which is strongly held by Catholic and conservative believers around the world.  Christians have various views and stances on how and whether this should be enforced by the state, but the sanctity of human life and the protection of the vulnerable are core Christian values.  We are deeply troubled by pain of the thousands of UK women whose pregnancies have been terminated to save their own lives, as a result of medical emergencies or due to rape since the 1967 abortion act.  The loss the other six million fetuses and premature babies and the pain of their mothers is a national tragedy far greater than the unspeakably dreadful mother and baby home scandal recently exposed in Ireland.  Christians should be filled with compassion for the mothers facing such dire circumstances that they should consider an abortion.  We should also be ashamed that this ill-formed legislation slipped through with barely a whimper from the churches and has held sway for so long.    

So how come I’m saying go get vaccinated?

Avoiding food previously offered to idols was a big issue for the first Christians.  Part of any offering  to the gods was burned, part was kept by the offerer and the priests ended up with far more than they could eat.  Consequently, Roman markets were flooded with idolatry-tainted meat.  Which was a problem for Christians who had turned their back on idolatry as a sin against the person of God and the dignity of human beings.  When St Paul addresses idolatry, he’s crystal clear – you can’t worship idols and inherit the kingdom of God any more than you can be greedy or a murderer and do so.  But when he talks about food derived from idolatrous offerings he leaves it to the conscience of the believer – in the same category as which day you worship on.  Not an issue of personal sin – just a matter in which to make informed choices and have regard for those around you.

I have no idea of the circumstances which led to the specific 1970s abortion from which the HEK293 cell line was derived.  One of my own generation snuffed out within the bounds of the law.  I also have no idea of the personal trauma, ethical weighing and social pressure which brought their mother to the point of that termination.  It seems highly unlikely that that the potential use of the fetus for medical research was a consideration.  As far as I am concerned we all bear responsibility for that fateful moment – father, mother, legislators, influencers.  The derived cell line is not a human life, nor does it have the potential to become a human life.  It seems to me that the testing of the vaccine on these tissues, or their use in vaccine production is not a participation in the sins surrounding the original abortion but a wise use of a derivative of that tragedy.  So, like the consumption of food offered to idols in the early church, this is a matter of conscience.   Receiving the vaccine could not only save your own life, but the lives of those who need hospital beds for Covid treatment and other life saving surgeries or interventions.  I would suggest Christian conscience points us in the direction of getting vaccinated for love of our neighbour.  

If Christians are concerned to minimise their dependence on the HEK293 cell line, then the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines which only used HEK293 in design and development might be considered better than the Oxford AstraZeneca one which used HEK293 which also uses it in production.  That said, the transportability of the Oxford vaccine makes it the best bet for the developing world at present & for me love of neighbour and care for the poor and marginalised outweigh my concerns about the derivation of the cell line.  Other vaccines in various stages of production have not used cells derived from aborted foetal tissue, so there may be a less bio-ethically muddied option in future.  

We live in a globalised economy in a fallen world.  Even a bio-ethically pure vaccine is likely to depend on a financial system geared to benefit venture capitalists and shareholders or tied to some nationalist regime.   Christian ethics is bound up with the incarnation of Jesus – the word became flesh and dwelt among us.  When he did so, he entered a blood line with some messed up stories.  But the personified love of God entered the history of blood and filth and gave himself up for us nonetheless.  For me, that self-giving love in the now overrides the sins of generations past.  So I’m in agreement with the pope and Justin Welby on this: love your neighbour, wear your mask and support the vaccination programme by participation if you’re vulnerable and however you can if you’re not.    If you’re in Glos, you’ll be able to get it done sooner rather than later.