Responding to the Ethics of the Covid Vaccine
Whilst we must respect our brothers and sisters who choose not to take the Covid vaccine for ethical or scientific reasons, as church leaders, we want to encourage people to decide on the basis of truth, and to have a robust theology of God’s common grace.
As I write, on 19th January 2021, more than 4 million people in the UK have been vaccinated against COVID-19. The government is on track to accomplish its objective of vaccinating everyone in the four most vulnerable groups by mid-February. Vaccination is seen as the strategy that will enable the eventual lifting of the lockdown and a return to normality, because the NHS will not then be at risk of being overwhelmed by Covid patients.
Most Christians have welcomed the provision of these vaccines, and the hope that they offer of a return to normality. We live in an ordered world created by God in which scientific research is possible. His purpose was for mankind to advance in culture and technology, and his common grace enables humanity to restrain many of the consequences of the fall in ways that we take for granted on a daily basis.
However, there are many who remain sceptical about the vaccines, and who say that they will refuse to be vaccinated. Recent research showed up to 72% of black people and 43% of Pakistani/Bangladeshi groups said they less likely to have a Covid vaccine. The average “vaccine hesitancy” across the UK is 24%.
There are a range of reasons why people might be hesitant to take the Covid jab.
Living by faith
Some argue that we should not take vaccines at all but rather ‘live by faith’ and trust God for personal protection from Covid. This seems spiritual but is not demanded by scripture and is a denial of the way that God works through the material world he created.
The Bible endorses medicine and the work of doctors. We trust that God will work through material means for our good. We are no more required to demonstrate faith by forgoing medical interventions than we are to refuse to shop for food and trust that the Lord will provide manna from heaven for our daily sustenance.
Some are influenced by the numerous conspiracy theories circulating online. These include the theory that the vaccine is part of a conspiracy to either control everyone (potentially led by Bill Gates) or create a political or economic reset (which to be fair might well happen anyway!). Some relate this to biblical prophecy that the vaccine is fulfilment of the “mark of the beast” from Revelation 13:15-17. This idea has been promoted by, amongst others, Kanye West.
It is just one of numerous eschatological speculations that have disturbed Christians over the years and is detached from a faithful exegesis of Revelation 13. The idea of the “mark of the beast” is symbolic rather than literal and refers to those who are known to have worshipped the beast rather than God. There is a sense in which all unbelievers bear the mark of the beast because they belong to the kingdom of Satan, whereas Christians have been redeemed into the kingdom of God and now bear Jesus’ name.
We should be mindful that there are a range of conspiracy views - some more credible than others - and that there are deeply held convictions about certain prophetic texts. We are also not to be naïve that there may well be ‘normal’ commercial forces at work in some aspects of dealing with the pandemic. However, as Christians we must stand for truth, which means rejecting false claims which are not backed up by evidence and as such are slanderous.
Others have legitimate concerns about the safety of the vaccines. They fear that the normal rigorous testing procedures have been foreshortened in the rush to develop a vaccine and that the risks of vaccination are not known. They fear side effects, and there is some evidence from Norway that the vaccination may cause death in patients who are frail, elderly and seriously ill. Some might have read that the new mRNA technique used might alter our DNA in some harmful way (a claim firmly refuted by the scientists).
This hesitancy requires a rational judgement to be made between risk and benefit. No medical intervention is risk-free and there are always potential side effects. Government and regulatory bodies have issued assurances that the testing process has not been less rigorous, but that the usual tests have been conducted in parallel rather than in sequence. These kinds of concerns can only be answered by data and evidence, and we must respect that individuals are free to make a judgement for themselves.
However, some Christians take the view that it would be ethically wrong to accept the Covid vaccination because it has been developed and tested using cells derived from historic abortions. Their strong pro-life convictions lead them to argue that Christians either should, or must, renounce the use of the vaccine.
John Piper, who has been a vocal advocate for the pro-life cause, has argued that Christians must renounce the vaccine because to accept it would make us “complicit in the desecration of dismembered human beings”. He argues that to accept the vaccine would be to “do evil that good may come” and that we should value Christ more highly than “any security or safety or health we might get through sin”. He sees renunciation as a positive opportunity to testify to the sanctity of life.
In the UK, Dave Brennan, who leads the ministry Brephos which seeks to equip the church to confront the evil of abortion, has similarly advocated renunciation of the vaccine. His arguments are slightly different to Piper’s. He does not argue that Christians would be complicit in the historic abortion from which the cell lines derived by accepting the vaccine, but that they would thereby be endorsing and supporting the ongoing practice of abortion, and therefore complicit in that continuing evil.
He therefore argues that Christians should choose to boycott the vaccine as an act of social protest against abortion and to further the campaign for an end to abortion. He sees this as a unique moment of opportunity for the pro-life voice to be heard by an act of public protest at a time when the nation is looking to this vaccine for salvation from Covid.
In a later piece he takes his case a step further, arguing that obedience to Christ requires Christians to refuse to accept the vaccine, arguing that to do so would be contrary to the principles of 1 Corinthians 10:29, where the context was eating meat sacrifices to idols that was subsequently sold in the public market, as it would damage the “conscience” of the secular world that is offering this vaccine.
Both these brothers therefore regard it as a matter of Christian duty to refuse the vaccine, and by implication as a sin to accept the vaccine.
How are Christians to respond to these arguments, and should they listen to them or to other evangelicals who have taken a different view?
Responding to the arguments
Here are my responses to their arguments:
Abortion is a wicked evil
The arguments that Piper and Brennan make for rejecting the COVID vaccines flow from a passionate commitment to opposing the evil of abortion. Despite the ravages of the Covid pandemic, it is shocking and appalling that the biggest single cause of death by far in 2020 was abortion. The World Health Organisation estimates that there were 73.3m abortions in 2020, accounting for 55% of total global deaths. It is absolutely right for Christians to fight against this immense evil, which is a violation of human rights far greater in scale than slavery or the holocaust.
However, even when Christians are agreed on the wickedness of abortion, and the desire to see this murder of babies ended, this does not mean that they have to be agreed on the ethics of the use of the Covid vaccine, nor on the best tactics by which to bring about the reduction, and ultimately end, of abortion.
There is danger in making the renunciation of the Covid vaccine a touchstone of pro-life commitment, and of binding the consciences of believers by teaching them that to receive the vaccine would be a sinful disobedience of Christ. Whether this is the case ultimately depends on the exegesis and application of the key biblical passages, and it is patent that there is not unanimity on this amongst those who hold equally to the doctrine of biblical authority.
The development of COVID vaccines used a cell line derived from abortions
There is no doubt that the development of the various Covid vaccines did require or involve the use of cell lines from historic abortions. However, no contemporary abortions were used and the vaccines are not manufactured from foetal tissue. The vaccine development process utilised a cell line (HEK-293) derived from an abortion performed in 1972. The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were not directly developed using this cell-line, but it was used in the testing phase.
It ought to be noted that the ethical issues raised by the use of the foetal cell lines is nothing new. Foetal cell lines have been used to develop other common vaccines, including against Hepatitis A and Rubella. Vaccines developed in this way are included within the MMR vaccine, which will have been received by the children of many Christians over the years. The hesitancy over MMR has concerned the discredited claims by Dr Andrew Wakefield that the vaccine led to autism in children, but there has been very little focus in the evangelical community on the use of foetal cell lines in its production. Over 90% of UK children received MMR vaccines in 2019.
Receiving the COVID vaccine does not mean you are complicit in abortion
Both Piper and Brennan argue that accepting the Covid vaccine renders an individual complicit in either the historic abortion from which the foetal cell line was developed, or in continued contemporary abortion by failing to take the stand of renunciation.
In response to this, others would argue - and I would be more persuaded by their arguments - that accepting the vaccine does not render an individual complicit. No new abortion was performed or utilised to develop the vaccine. The developers of the vaccine did not actively choose to “do evil so that good may come” but rather utilised a long existing cell line that has been used in medical research for almost half a century.
The issue is ultimately one of whether as individuals we are complicit in taking advantage of benefits that derive from past acts of sin, even if the past sin was not committed to achieve the immediate current benefit. This is a daily dilemma that is a result of living in a fallen world. Many of the good things we enjoy at an individual level are an indirect result of unethical and sinful behaviour in the past. We generally take advantage of them without a second thought.
Historical moral purism is an impossibility. This is true of many medical and scientific advances which had their origins in warfare or appalling human rights abuse. At the end of the Second World War, the victorious allies took advantage of the data obtained by Nazi and Japanese experiments on their prisoners. The researchers in the notorious Japanese Unit 731 were given immunity from prosecution for war crimes by the Americans in return for the data they had gathered. In the past, medical research - including the testing of vaccines - was conducted unethically on prisoners and the poor.
This is not to justify such wicked actions, but rather to make the point that it becomes impossible in a fallen world to be insulated from all the benefits that might derive from evil that has been done in the past. There is a difference between the direct benefit of doing evil and the indirect results of evil having been done.
The Bible recognises this dilemma in the very fact that God is able to bring good results that benefit his world or his people from wicked actions. The wickedness of the past action does not negate the good that he in his sovereign providence is able to bring from it, nor require his people to renounce the benefit for themselves.
The complicity of individuals with the evil done by others is therefore complex rather than simple. Are those who buy goods manufactured in China, like the iPad I am now using, complicit in the appalling use of abortion in China, or the oppression of the Uyghur people? Does the fact that a Bible publisher prints their Bibles in China make them complicit in the repression of the church in China? Does it mean that I am complicit by reading such a Bible in my personal devotions?
It is important that we debate such issues, and seek to understand what Scripture says, but we need to be extremely cautious before binding the consciences of others if Scripture is not absolutely clear. The implication of arguing that those who receive the Covid vaccine are complicit with abortion is presumably that anyone who receives the vaccine ought to be subject to church discipline for their sin and lack of repentance. The same would be true for those who have had their children vaccinated with MMR (as I have). It is not a conclusion that I would be willing to draw or support.
Renouncing the Covid vaccine is not an effective protest against continued abortion
Even if receiving the COVID vaccine does not render the recipient complicit in historic abortion, Piper and Brennan make the argument that renouncing or boycotting it is an effective and necessary protest against current abortion.
Brennan argues this most strongly, using 1 Corinthians 10:27-30 to argue that receiving or refusing the vaccine is not a matter of individual conscience. He draws a parallel with meat sacrificed to idols but sold in the meat market, and to Paul’s command that a Christians should not eat meat at a meal with a person who points out to the believer that it has been sacrificed to idols. The most likely scenario is a private meal in the home of a pagan unbeliever who knows that their guest is a Christian who no longer participates in idol feasts at the temple for ethical reasons. Brennan believes that Christians should reject the vaccine on the grounds of the conscience of the secular world that has produced it.
However, I am not convinced that the parallel works. The offer of a vaccine to the public at large is hardly the same as an intimate meal and the personal relationship between a guest and their host. I am unaware of anyone attending for a COVID vaccination who has been told or warned by staff administering it that ‘this vaccine has been produced using abortions’, nor is the state that is providing this vaccine forcing this issue of conscience on believers.
More pertinently, the argument about complicity above means that the situation is not the same. The meat served at the meal in 1 Corinthians 10:26 had been sacrificed to an idol, and the host was a worshipper of such idols. In the case of the Covid vaccine, the Christian might legitimately respond that the vaccine has not in fact been produced or developed from an abortion in any way that would either violate their own conscience, or that of the person providing it.
A highly unlikely scenario - an individual making an issue of conscience for a believer over the development of the vaccine - which is itself based on weak arguments of complicity, is a shallow basis for demanding that Christians reject the vaccine. Again, take the parallel of the appropriate Christian response to an unbelieving friend who points out that the iPad they are using was manufactured in China, or that the Bible they are reading was printed in China. Does that require the believer to renounce iPads and Chinese printed Bibles?
I am not, therefore, persuaded by Brennan’s case from 1 Corinthians 10 that Christians are under a duty to renounce the vaccine for the sake of the conscience of the unbelieving world. I think it is then a matter of pragmatics, or better prudential judgment, as to whether the renunciation of the Covid vaccine would advance the pro-life cause.
Both Piper and Brennan believe that it would. Piper argues that it would be a costly sacrifice that would contribute to fighting for the sanctity of the unborn persons. For Brennan, the current Covid crisis offers a unique “once in a lifetime” opportunity to send a strong message to the government and society that would declare “that we care more about ending this injustice than all the values that the culture around us would press us to adopt.”
These are noble goals, but I do question whether such a stand would in fact advance the pro-life cause in society, or simply further erode any sympathy for the pro-life movement. If accepting the Covid vaccine is not in itself complicit with abortion, as I have argued, then I cannot see that it would be a sensible option to choose to boycott it to make a point that will almost certainly not be heard positively. The result of such a boycott would very likely be more deaths and a slower exit from lockdown for the whole of society.
Given the small number of evangelical believers in the UK, and the fact that many of them do not share the same conviction that receiving the vaccine would be sinful, the impact would in any event be small. You can imagine the media coverage that would ensue. I doubt that such a protest would be regarded as ‘pro-life’ by the watching world but would likely be characterised as ‘pro-death’ because it would leave more people susceptible to the virus.
We face a massive challenge if we are to reverse the current acceptance of abortion in the UK and replace it with a public and governmental commitment to the sanctity of life. The reality is that the vast majority of our population support the provision of abortion, and so there is a need to change millions of hearts and minds before there is any prospect of change.
The attempts to restrict abortion in Poland have simply had the effect of speeding up the secularisation of that society, as was the case in Ireland. The recent legalisation of abortion in Argentina is a result of the fact that there are already an estimated 500,000 abortions a year.
The pro-life case involves massive changes of public policy, not just restricting or outlawing abortion but providing the financial and emotional support needed for parents, and mothers in particular, including the willingness of the state on behalf of society to bear the additional costs of single-parenthood and of caring for disabled children. Without such a holistic approach, the pro-life case is a non-starter in contemporary culture.
Evangelicals have focused too narrowly on legal restriction and too little on the wider societal change needed to remove the incentives to abort. The costly sacrifice that is needed to challenge abortion is more likely to be that of the willingness to pay higher taxes so as to support the care and raising of children, and the continued elimination of stigma against single-mothers who choose to keep their children.
As an adopted baby who was born to a 15-year-old mother in 1968, I have skin in this game. Ultimately the evil of abortion is unlikely to be ended unless and until the Lord mercifully sends revival and a very much larger percentage of the population hold to a biblical view of the value of human life created in the image of God. Only when, for example, Psalms 51 and 139 are widely believed will abortion be unthinkable. Pursuing evangelism and church growth is the most effective long-term pro-life strategy.
I agree, therefore, with Piper and Brennan that we need to undertake “proactive engagement...against the taking of innocent human life in the womb and the use of those children for research and experimentation”. I don’t, however, agree with their arguments that the way we must do this is by renouncing the use of the Covid vaccines.
Like numerous medical advances, the vaccines offer hope to mitigate the impact of this virus and enable a return to more normal life. I don’t think our society will be persuaded by our arguments if we choose to renounce them, but more fundamentally - as much as I respect these Christian brothers and others who agree with them - I don’t think there is a solid biblical case that to accept vaccinations would be sinful.
In the past fortnight both my mother (83 and in a care home that has been affected by Covid) and my mother-in-law (90 and living alone) have been vaccinated, making the prospect of visiting more likely. I am thankful for this provision. For the sake of my family and children I look forward to being protected from Covid myself in due course.
I am pro-life but, in this situation, also pro-vaccine. I don’t think those convictions are incompatible.
This was first posted on affinity.org.uk, reposted with permission.
- Can I Take a Vaccine Made from Aborted Babies?, John Piper, desiringgod.org;
- My response to the EA’s Webinar on the Ethics of Covid-19 Vaccines, Dave Brennan, brephos.org;
- Why the Mainstream Christian Approach to Covid-19 Vaccine Ethics is Mistaken, Dave Brennan, brephos.org;
- A Fresh Approach to Vaccine Ethics: From Consumers to Activists, Dave Brennan, brephos.org;
- Vaccine Ethics: Black or White, or a Conscience Issue? What Does the Bible Say?, Dave Brennan, brephos.org;
- I Stand Corrected: Revisiting 1 Corinthians 10, Dave Brennan, brephos.org;
- Coronavirus vaccines and Christian Ethics’, Professor John Wyatt, johnwyatt.com;
- Corona Vaccines?, Dr John Ling, affinity.org;
- Are COVID-19 vaccines made from aborted babies? What is HEK293?, Dr Adrian Warnock, patheos.com;
- The COVID Vaccine and Christian Unity, Keith Kauffman, thegospelcoalition.org.