About 48 years ago, a baby in the Netherlands was killed before he or she could be born. It was reportedly a healthy baby, but nobody seems to know the reason or nature of the abortion. We do know that the baby’s kidney was preserved for months or a couple of years and that a scientist used cells from the kidney to create immortal cells — cells that could divide endlessly, thus reproducing themselves indefinitely.
This cell line was named HEK-293. HEK stands for “human embryonic kidney,” and the successful line of cells was developed on the 293rd try.
Today, 48 years after the baby’s demise, the cells carrying his or her DNA and replicated from his or her kidney were used by the drug companies making vaccines against the coronavirus.
This creates discomfort for pro-lifers, and it ought to. You cannot point to good consequences to justify the killing of an unborn baby. Assuming that Dutch baby was killed in an elective abortion, nothing done with HEK-293 (and scientists and drug companies have done plenty of good things with HEK-293) can make the abortion OK. You wouldn’t argue that it mitigated the evil of a man hiring a hitman to kill his wife if the hitman then saved multiple lives by donating her organs.
But how would you feel about the hospital that took the organs — or the families that gratefully accepted the donations? What if the victim’s cells were somehow turned into a pluripotent cell line?
This is similar to the ethical quandary of the coronavirus vaccines. Pro-life activists, theologians, bioethicists, Catholic bishops, and even the Vatican have weighed in. The Catholic Church and most pro-life bioethicists have concluded that it is morally fine to take the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, given the remoteness between the abortion decades ago and the drug administered today. (And to be clear, nobody is injecting the baby’s cells into anyone. The cells are used in the manufacture, development, or testing of the vaccines but are not an ingredient.)
Even if all the vaccines in development are a few steps removed from an abortion, some are more removed than others.
The short story is this: The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are morally imperfect, but according to most Catholic bishops, they are fine to take in the absence of a morally perfect vaccine. The forthcoming vaccine from AstraZeneca, however, is more tainted because the abortion-derived cells were more central to its development. Meanwhile, other potential vaccines in the pipeline actually have no connection to abortion at all.
The origins of the vaccines
After developing their vaccines, Pfizer and Moderna, to test the effects on human cells, used HEK-239 cells. Those cells were reproduced from a cell, reproduced from a cell that way back in a long line of cell divisions was taken from the Dutch baby who never made it to term.
How did that Dutch baby’s kidney end up in a laboratory? There’s a bit of a dispute over that.
Father Nic Austriaco, a pro-life priest and biology professor, wrote this year, “I received an e-mail a few months ago from Professor Frank Graham, who established this cell line. He tells me that to the best of his knowledge, the exact origin of the HEK293 fetal cells is unclear. They could have come from either a spontaneous miscarriage or an elective abortion.”
But that account isn’t corroborated. Graham, the scientist in the Dutch lab, told AFP this year, "Abortion was illegal in the Netherlands until 1984 except to save the life of the mother. Consequently I have always assumed that the HEK cells used by the Leiden lab must have derived from a therapeutic abortion."
That argument doesn’t hold up, either. Abortion, while technically illegal in the Netherlands in 1971 and 1972, was not uncommon. The most thorough study I could find of Dutch abortion history estimates that in 1971 and 1972, there were 37,000 abortions in the Netherlands, which is about half the United States' current abortion rate per population.
When I pressed Graham on the history, he pleaded ignorance. This was 50 years ago, and the kidney cells were prepared in the lab before he used them. His uncertainty on the provenance of the cells may be frustrating to a pro-life ethicist, but it also bears moral weight: Graham doesn’t know because he wasn’t involved in the abortion.
That is, if this child was killed by an elective abortion, Graham did not formally cooperate with that evil.
Again, if it was an elective abortion — the mother simply decided she didn’t want this child — that abortion was evil, even if Graham made something good come of it. You can’t justify killing an innocent person because you might be able to do something good with her corpse.
The laboratory where Graham worked also has a moral accounting to provide. Did they enter a partnership with abortionists similar to the partnerships drug companies enter with Planned Parenthood in the U.S. today? If so, the lab could be seen as supporting abortion.
The questions of moral culpability downstream from the decision to abort the baby are difficult. The Catholic Church has chimed in, in a nearly uniform voice, to say this much: At the source is the evil act of abortion; at the end of the line, it is morally acceptable for someone to take the vaccine.
The teachings of the church are very nuanced and thus not always easy to navigate. But they are grounded in solid, logical moral reason and the principle that taking an innocent human life — even a not-yet-born life — is an evil.
If you benefit from an abortion, but you played no role in the abortion, didn’t cause it, and didn’t even decide, hey, I could benefit from the body parts of this aborted baby, then you have a pretty remote connection to the abortion. The church calls this “passive material cooperation in evil.”
Such remote cooperation in evil is not a great thing, but it’s not the sort of thing one must avoid at all costs. Unlike deliberately killing an innocent person, you can weigh passive material cooperation in evil against other goods in making your ethical choice.
In this case, taking the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine has the benefit of protecting you and everyone you might possibly infect from the coronavirus. If you take the vaccine, you contribute a tiny bit to ending this pandemic, and thus all the destructive shutdowns associated with it.
The AstraZeneca vaccine is more morally problematic, U.S. bishops argue, because the company used HEK-239 cells not only for confirmatory tests but also for developing the vaccine. Part of the vaccine’s delivery system into the patient’s cells a virus called an adenovirus. AstraZeneca manufactured its adenovirus by infecting a HEK-293 cell with the adenovirus. HEK-293, sitting in a petri dish, acts as an adenovirus bio-factory. Thus this abortion-derived cell line is more implicated in AstraZeneca’s drug, according to Catholic leaders, than it is in Pfizer’s or Moderna’s.
Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine involves a different cell line (PER.C6), derived from a different Dutch child who was aborted. Like AstraZeneca, J&J used the cell line in its manufacturing.
Live Action, a pro-life group, reports that Novavax is developing a vaccine that doesn’t involve abortion-derived cells at all, and that this is true of one of the two vaccines Sanofi Pasteur is developing.
The bottom line is that any remote connection to a decades-ago abortion is outweighed by the good of being vaccinated, but that given the choice, individuals and governments ought to choose the vaccines developed without connection to abortion.