FIRST PERSON: How should pro-life Christians think about this newest vaccine?

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Federal authorities have now given approval to a third COVID-19 vaccine in the United States. We already had the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines. Now you have a third vaccine approved, this one by Johnson & Johnson.

It had been in stage three trials in recent weeks, but now it has been given provisional approval, like the previous two vaccines. And Johnson & Johnson's vaccine has the advantage of not having to be stored under the same conditions as the Pfizer and the Moderna vaccines, especially Pfizer. And it also requires only one shot, which is also an advance in terms of getting vaccines effectively into the arms of more Americans. But as you're looking at this, and we've discussed the worldview issues that are implied and are deeply involved in the vaccine question, when it comes to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, we now face a new issue.

When we discussed the two earlier approvals, the approvals for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, we discussed the fact that both of them were based upon a new technology known as mRNA. They were genetically derived, and the actual production of those vaccines did not require any contribution of fetal tissue, and in particular fetal tissue obtained by abortion.

But when it comes to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, we are looking at that complication. And I feel morally obligated on The Briefing to discuss this, having discussed the two previous vaccines, and doing my best to think about the larger vaccine question in the Christian worldview.

When you're looking at the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, it becomes very clear that the vaccines were based upon cell lines that were derived, back in the 1970s, at least indirectly from the tissues of aborted fetuses, one aborted fetus in particular, one cell line that has become very much interwoven with modern medicine. And we'll have to talk about that. That's a big part of the background to this issue. This is not just about one vaccine. It is about much of modern medicine that has come as a result of experimentation and developments from cell lines that were actually derived from at least two aborted fetuses back in the 1970s.

Now, we're not talking about medical inevitabilities. That didn't have to happen this way, but it did happen this way. It happened this way because medical researchers in the 1960s and in particular in the 1970s and beyond believe that the only way that productive cell lines could be derived was from fetal cells, and the only fetuses from which they had access to those cells were those that had been aborted. And thus abortion is a part of the story of modern American medicine. We just have to face that. And we're going to need to think for a few minutes about this. Can a Christian, a pro-life Christian committed to the sanctity of human life and to avoiding complicity and evil, take the Johnson & Johnson vaccine?

Now, most Christian ethicists would answer yes. It is interesting that the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans has now given official notification to the Catholics in that diocese that they cannot take the Johnson & Johnson vaccine without becoming morally complicit.

Now, that's one archdiocese in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. The larger body of Roman Catholics in the United States and Roman Catholic moral theologians have not given the same advice. But almost all of them, and especially those that are consistent with the Catholic moral teaching on abortion, have to offer a warning about any kind of medical treatment or drug that is derived in any way from the use of fetal tissues taken by abortion.

Now, we can't rewrite history. That's just one fact. And it is true that much of modern medicine, including many drugs and medical treatments, have at least some dependence upon the cell lines, so-called immortal cell lines because they reproduce and keep on reproducing cells, that go back to the tissues taken from aborted fetuses. It could have been different, but it wasn't.

But just looking at the Johnson & Johnson vaccine and the involvement of abortion, we're actually looking at the fact that the cells that were used were cloned from the cells of aborted fetuses. So they are not absolutely direct, but still, we have to recognize that morally there is an indirect, which is not unimportant direction here, or a link between the aborted tissues and the eventual Johnson & Johnson vaccine. And it's not just in the derivation of the cells that were used in the development of the vaccine, but also the cells that were used in the testing of the vaccine.

Now, when it comes to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines using the mRNA technology, the fact is that there were no fetal cells involved of any kind. When it came to testing those, there may have been some involvement in the cloned fetal cells at some point, not in the vaccine itself, but in the testing of those two vaccines.

But of course, we are looking at the fact that we're often given trade-offs in modern medicine, a trade-off between two vaccines, both require more effort and two shots, also special conditions. We're looking at one vaccine, the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine, that comes to us with promise one shot, no particular deep freezing requirements that are out of the ordinary. But you are looking at the fact that this vaccine comes with two red marks, one for the derivation of the cells and the other for the explicit use of the cells in testing.

In both cases, the Charlotte Lozier Institute, which I considered to be just about the most authoritative research body in this field, it puts a red diamond beside the Johnson & Johnson vaccine under the development, production of the vaccine and lab testing. Now, how do Christians think about this? Well, the Roman Catholic Church has had a tradition of thinking through these issues. Evangelical Christians have not thought seriously about issues for so long. And we're not Roman Catholics. We don't operate from exactly the same theological or moral logic. For one thing, the Roman Catholic Church has a certain latitude, by its own claims of magisterial authority, to reason through some of these issues on its own.

Evangelical Christians, operating by Sola Scriptura, the scripture principle, dependent upon biblical teaching and biblical logic, do not have as much room for negotiating or thinking through some of these issues. We don't have some of the alternatives that other groups might have.

ALBERT MOHLER is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.


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