In 1956, too few teenagers and young adults were getting the new polio vaccine, so officials turned to Elvis Presley. The entertainer got a polio vaccine on the Ed Sullivan Show, an endorsement that helped vaccination rates go up and eliminate the disease from the country.
Six decades later, history seems to be repeating itself.
The death of Charley Pride
The first batches of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine began distribution yesterday. Vaccinations will begin at 145 sites this morning, with another 425 sites on Tuesday and 66 on Wednesday. “V-Day” has already occurred in the UK, where a ninety-year-old woman became the first person to receive an approved COVID-19 vaccine in the Western world.
Help against the pandemic cannot come soon enough. The singer Charley Pride, once called “the Jackie Robinson of country,” died of coronavirus-related complications Saturday. I once shared a program with him and could not have been more impressed with his humility and grace. His death reminds us that this virus is a threat to every one of us, regardless of our wealth or status.
However, as with the polio vaccine decades ago, many are reluctant to take a COVID-19 vaccine. According to a recent survey, about a quarter of US adults say they will not get such a vaccine; another quarter are not sure if they want to be vaccinated. And 50 percent of white evangelicals and 59 percent of Black Protestants say they won’t get the vaccine.
Black Americans are especially unsure about the vaccine. This is due in part to the continuing impact of the horrific Tuskegee Syphilis Study (in which Black males were refused treatment for syphilis), the use of Henrietta Lacks’ cancer cells without her permission, and the legacy of J. Marion Sims, called the founding father of gynecology, who experimented on enslaved women without anesthesia or their consent.
So, should you take a COVID-19 vaccine when one becomes available to you?
Please note that in what follows, I am not a physician or offering medical advice. Rather, I will explore two ethical issues today: abortion and the love of neighbor. Along the way, I will share with you my personal conclusions while urging you to determine your own.
Do the vaccines use aborted fetuses?
A California bishop recently claimed that some researchers producing the various vaccines made use of cells from an aborted fetus and stated that Catholics should therefore not avail themselves of such vaccines. However, many ethicists disagree with this conclusion and state that taking a vaccine does not promote or endorse abortion.
Joe Carter’s article on this issue is especially helpful. He notes that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines used cells from the HEK293T fetal cell line in the testing process, though neither includes such cells in the vaccines themselves.
This tissue was acquired in the Netherlands in the 1970s but records pertaining to its origins were lost. As a result, it is not known whether the tissue came from a spontaneous miscarriage or an elective abortion.
However, the cell line developed from it no longer contains fetal tissue cells. In addition, since it is completely unnecessary to create new cell lines from aborted children today, vaccines made from existing cell lines do not promote abortion.
Baptist theologian Albert Mohler notes that the use of fetal tissue obtained from abortion in medical research is immoral, but “there is no activity related to abortion in the present that is in any way associated with the use of these vaccines.” Dr. Mohler adds that the seminary he leads would distribute the vaccine if the school is given access to it.
Using Roman roads for the gospel
Even if we assume that the original fetus was aborted, using cells developed from it today is akin to the use of organs from a person who was murdered. Transplanting such an organ into a recipient’s body does not mean the recipient participated in the murder of the donor.
By way of analogy, living at peace with another nation even if that peace was brought about by unjust means (targeting of civilians or using illicit weapons, for instance) does not endorse these means. Nor does riding on a train line originally built by slaves endorse slavery. Dr. Russell Moore adds that Christians in the Book of Acts used Roman roads to carry the gospel without determining whether the taxes that paid for them were raised ethically.
Scripture teaches that life begins at conception (cf. Psalm 139:15–16), making abortion clearly unethical. (For more, see my whitepaper “What does the Bible say about abortion?“) However, for the reasons argued above, I agree with pro-life ethicists who believe that receiving the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine is moral with regard to abortion.
“The saddest aspect of life”
Biblical Christians should consider a second mandate as well: loving our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:39). Evangelical ethicists Matthew Arbo, C. Ben Mitchell, and Andrew T. Walker write: “Loving another person can involve many things, but it at least involves seeking their good, a good that includes their health and vitality.”
They add: “It is not possible to properly love a person and to act unnecessarily to jeopardize their health. By this, we mean displaying wanton disregard for the health of others. . . . If by being vaccinated we can protect others from illness, then we have a corresponding obligation, given our Lord’s command to love neighbors, to be vaccinated. Vaccinations not only protect me, but also protect other vulnerable members of society.”
I agree. For this reason, I intend to take the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine as soon as it is available to me.
As you make your decision, I encourage you to seek not only medical knowledge but also biblical wisdom. Science writer Isaac Asimov observed: “The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.” Let’s evaluate the former in light of the latter, to the glory of God.
NOTE: For more, see my latest video, “What does the Bible say about medicine?“