I have a bad habit of reading things which I know will make me angry. That's most of the reason I read David French's writing; I disagree vehemently with most takes he's published in the last several months. So his recent vaccine apologetic, falsely ascribing to Christians a moral duty to get a Covid shot, fit the bill nicely. (I mean, for Heaven's sake, he called Luther (!) a church father!)
But French's piece mostly hit the usual, smarmy establishment Evangelical notes. He's right about some things (the Covid vaccine isn't really a religious liberty question) and wrong about others (the former parenthetical can be true, but there's still ethical grounds for exemption based on deeply held beliefs, such as opposition to the use of aborted cell lines). What really triggered me, though, was a piece on the site he linked to entitled "Christians and the Vaccine."
Before I go any further: I don't have a dog in the vaccine fight. Make your own health decisions, but take steps to be informed if you do. (There are no microchips. It's not the mark of the Beast.) I just care about ensuring that true, accurate information and reasoning is presented for people making their decisions. I also take it as a premise that abortion is wrong; if we disagree on that, you're not going to find much of what I say here compelling, though I would counter that aborted cell lines still constitute non-consensual scientific research.
The piece I'm scrutinizing is "Should Pro-[L]ifers be Pro-Vaccine?" The author, Curtis Chang, is apparently a name in certain Evangelical circles: professor at Duke, fellow at Fuller, has his own website and consultancy. That puts me in the awkward position of having to confront a super-apostle. However, his ethical reasoning in this piece (I didn't read the others), however well-intentioned, is evil and perpetuates evil.
Aborted Fetal Cell Lines and Participation in Evil
First, let's start off with the cell-line shaped elephant in the room. Yes, every Covid vaccine currently available in the United States is tainted in some way by participation in cell lines derived from aborted fetuses, whether in production (Johnson & Johnson, the company who brought you carcinogenic baby powder) or in testing (Moderna and Pfizer, the latter of which wins the award for dumbest vaccine name; Moderna's is legitimately cool).
Worth considering: if you're Catholic, your church has made a statement on the Covid vaccine which is in harmony with its earlier teachings. If you're Southern Baptist, your church copy-pasted from the Catholics yet again; but unlike the Catholics, you can just ignore your institutions willy-nilly.
The crux of the issue for both is that you can have licit participation in evil, particularly evil which is causally and temporally removed from your participation. In other words, the abortions happened in the 60s, they were evil, but the cell lines derived from them have been around for over 50 years, you're not responsible for the abortions and your use of derivations of the cell lines decades later doesn't involve moral participation in the evil act. Chang invokes this line of reasoning with his formulation, "[i]mpact does not equal guilt."
Is this convincing? I don't think so. I deny that we can have licit participation in evil. Actions taken now which legitimate past evils by appropriating benefits derived solely as a result of those evil actions are a meaningful participation. It's not like meat being offered to idols; it's like finding out before you eat Caesar also killed the chef so he could never duplicate the dish.
Nor is it interesting that my participation is remote; does a wrong action become less wrong because of the passage of time? Is morality susceptible to adverse possession? To be sure, you're not guilty of the original sin (pun intended); but, to the extent that you participate in it and sustain the demand for it, we are guilty.
Imagine someone killed Jeff Bezos because he's obscenely wealthy and they wanted to redistribute his wealth to the masses. A mob comes and pillages his home (let's say the one in DC). The following week, your friend gives you a small piece of artwork. You ask where he got it, and he replies, "well, I bought it off a guy who took it from Bezos' place." You didn't kill Bezos, you didn't rob his house, and you didn't buy the stolen artwork, but it would be morally wrong for you to accept the gift because you're participating in murder-enabled looting. If you took it and hung it on your wall, the cops would eventually confiscate it (at a minimum).
Chang gives three reasons why I'm wrong:
"None of the vaccines contain any fetal tissue or offshoot"
It's unclear what he means by this. If he means you're not shooting up stem cells, I guess he's right. If he means no unethical stem cell lines were used to produce the vaccine, he's wrong. J&J uses PER.C6 in production, and AstraZeneca uses HEK-293, to name two high-profile examples.
Several others, such as Moderna and Pfizer, use the cell lines only in testing. To the extent that you're participating in evil, it's better to participate more remotely than more proximally. That said: is it all that much better to utilize the cell lines for testing? Leaving aside the question of degree, everyone should pretty much agree that it would be unethical to take J&J if Moderna or Pfizer are available.
"No actual cell taken directly from fetuses were used in research"
This one deserves a direct quote to try and explain it:
When we talk about how the HEK 293 or other cell line were used in vaccine development, remember that we are not talking about the actual cells from an abortion that happened decades ago. The HEK 293 cells used today in labs are not the original cells. Those original cells are long gone. The cell line are descendants (usually modified at that) of those original cells.
Again, taken hyper-literally, Chang is correct. The problem is, the metaphysical premises required to think that it's ethically interesting that the cells aren't literally the ones taken from the fetus are ridiculous.
The cells in the various cell lines, like HEK-293, stand in some kind of identity relationship to those taken from the aborted child. For someone who appeals to original sin in his defense of participation in evil, Chang is quick to abandon genealogical linkages when it comes to fetal cell lines. To state that because they're replicated from the original cells but aren't the originals themselves there's no ethical problem is like saying it would be bad to use the original images from murdered prisoners in the Nazi anatomy textbook, but it's okay to use the textbook because they're photocopies of the original. No. They're metaphysically identical if the word "identity" is to have any meaning at all.
"None of the vaccines encourage more abortions for medical research"
Finally, it is important to emphasize that none of the COVID vaccines encourage more abortions for medical research.
In fact, the fact that HEK 293 has been so widely studied and used for decades means that most researchers rely on it and other long established cell lines. They are not motivated to obtain new cell lines from new fetuses.
As always, "half the truth is often a great lie." It's true that researchers have come to rely on HEK-293 and its friends. It's patently false that there's no interest in new cell lines.
Exhibit A: Walvax-2, a cell line derived from an aborted fetus in 2015 in order to replace aging stem cell lines.
Exhibit B: Embryonic stem cell lines. There are thousands of pluripotent stem cell lines (the linked article plays around with "pluripotent" vs "embryonic", likely to obscure the proportion of the latter). Lest anyone wonder where a human embryonic stem cell line comes from, it's—surprise!—a human embryo killed for the purpose of turning its cells into research fodder. Because pro-lifers maintain that humans are valuable persons from conception, it makes no moral difference if the child is aborted by a physician at 12 weeks or by a researcher at 12 days: it is immoral killing either way.
There is clearly a demand for new cell lines which require for their development the death of prenatal humans. Continuing to use products made from such compromised resources does, indeed, seem to perpetuate that demand.
Evil Is Everywhere: The One Thing Chang Got Right
Before I uncork on the worst of Chang's piece, I'm going to give him credit for one area where he hit the nail on the head.
The HEK 293 cell line has been used not just in vaccine research, but in most advanced medical treatments today. The biggest recent breakthroughs in treatment for diabetes, heart conditions, hepatitis, arthritis, lung disease, cancer and many other diseases all drew upon the HEK 293 cell line. In fact, if someone today did not want to touch the impact of the HEK 293 cell line at all, that person would almost have to disconnect from modern medicine entirely. If you have received any meaningful medical treatment in the past ten years, you most likely have already been impacted by the HEK 293 cell line. None of us can avoid this impact.
Yep, he's right. A blogger at Patheos (who, I'm sure, is just interested in our corporate sanctification) compiled a list to rub it in the face of pro-life Christians. One notable inclusion: recent tests on acetominophen, the prototypical over-the-counter painkiller. Now, whether that recent test is indicative of original tests in the development of the drug is unclear, as is whether acetominophen and other medications become compromised after unethical testing if they did not receive unethical testing before and the formulation didn't change.
Where Chang is wrong is his decision to throw his hands up in surrender. Yes, we're surrounded by evil, and it would be devastatingly hard to avoid participating. That doesn't get us off the hook. Here's a couple verses to chew on:
Pure and undefiled religion before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world. (Jas. 1:27)
Therefore you shall be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect. (Matt. 5:48)
Being perfect, keeping unstained from the world: these are the ethical imperatives of the Christian life. They do not lose their imperative force because of our inadequacy in living up to them. The near-impossibility of living undefiled by the world—as seen in the ubiquity of unethical cell lines—illustrates that Christians need to create ethical alternatives in order to render obedience to Christ. But that's a bigger topic that I hope to write more about later.
My agreement with Chang is limited to this: pro-lifers don't need to make the Covid vaccines that utilize cell lines in testing the hill to die on if they use other unethical medicines. We don't have a better option; we ought to create one, but right now it's just all bad.
Utilitarian Lies Masquerading as the Gospel
Most of Chang's article parrots the usual pro-vaccine talking points designed to assuage pro-lifers. His final section, however, is a cruel innovation: he claims that we should view the non-consensual use of cells derived from victims of killing as a picture of the Gospel.
I quote his final section in full so that he may condemn himself by his own words.
Indeed, I suggest that the COVID vaccine can serve as an image of God’s redemption. Redemption is God’s ultimate answer to the problem of original sin. Redemption is taking something that originated in a wrongful state, and reworking that thing into something good. The Bible tells us that in his death and resurrection, Jesus redeemed human sin.
1 Corinthians 15:22 puts it this way:
“For as all die in Adam, so also all shall be made alive in Christ.”
In other words, Adam’s original sin had an impact on us all. We are descendants of his spiritual cell line, so to speak. But the origins of that spiritual cell line, that began in death, is not the final verdict. The spiritual line of Adam has been reworked by Jesus. What began as a story of sin and death has been reworked into a story of forgiveness and life. That is what it means to be “made alive in Christ.” That is redemption.
The idea that what began in death could be reworked into life is hard for the human mind to grasp. This is why we need images of redemption in the world. We need examples that can serve as metaphors of what Jesus accomplished, that show us, “Jesus’ redemption is kind of like that…”
I propose that the COVID vaccine is an image of redemption. Yes, the vaccine may have a distant origin story in abortion. But that past has been reworked and redeemed into something that saves life. We can point to the vaccine and say, “Jesus redemption is kind of like that.” And indeed, the production of a vaccine in less than a year is really a miracle. Something like this has never happened this quickly. I personally believe God’s redemptive power was present in the process.
My invitation to Pro-life Christians who distrust the COVID vaccine is this: please remember that the Christian story is the story of redemption. Every one of us has a origin story in sin. None of us can avoid this. Yet each one of us has had our story reworked by Jesus into new life. That’s what it ultimately means to be pro-life. To be pro life is to be pro redemption. And to be pro redemption, in my view, means being pro vaccine.
The vaccine is ultimately a redemption story. Let’s be part of that story.
Phew, where to start? First of all, being pro-life is not about being pro-new-life-in-Christ; it's about not killing people. That's why people from many religions (including atheism) are pro-life, and many who identify as Christian are not.
Furthermore, redemption does not apply to something which "originated in a wrongful state"; it's restoring something which fell from a wonderful state. Similarly, Jesus did not redeem human sin; He destroyed sin and death, and redeemed humans from their sin.
But to proceed to the worst problem, and let's put this as bluntly as I know how: killing an innocent, unwilling victim and profiteering off of their death has nothing to do with the Gospel, and any "gospel" which resembles that is rank blasphemy.
Primer for those unaware or forgetful: our salvation as Christians is rooted in the fact that, contra Chang, Jesus was not an unwilling victim killed by the power of others. From John 10:17–18:
“Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.”
Jesus' sacrifice only works because He, the second Person of the Trinity, did it willingly. God coopted the plans of evil men for His own ends, and chose to sacrifice Himself while allowing those evil men to believe they had succeeded by their own power. That is not like a person who is "sacrificed" without consent by other people for their own ends.
If what Chang is talking about has nothing to do with Gospel redemption, what does it look like?
If you had the misfortune of taking an introductory philosophy class in undergrad, you may remember some of the thought experiments used to show why true utilitarianism (often termed "act utilitarianism") is evil. These include classics like killing a homeless man to provide organs to save five other people, or hanging an innocent man to prevent a mob from leaving twenty dead in their wake. The utilitarian says, "kill the one for the good of the many." The utilitarian says, "sacrifice the unwilling victim, it's in everyone's (well, everyone else's) best interest."
Chang is echoing Caiaphas, not Jesus (John 11:49–51). Caiaphas was right, but not in the way he thought he was. He meant to sacrifice an unwilling victim; Caiaphas' intended sacrifice is what Chang pictures, not Christ's actual sacrifice.
The Gospel is anti-utilitarian. Paul expressly forbids the commission of evil that good may come of it (Rom. 6:1–3). It fares no better for a Christian to justify evil by the good which has come of it, and so to justify his participation and exhort others to do the same.
Nor is there an apt analogy between someone killed who stays dead, but whose stolen cells live on, and new life given by a resurrected Christ. Turning someone's dead body into a medical treatment has a lot more in common with Soylent Green than with Christian eschatology.
I know this has been a ferociously negative article. Negativity abounds, and we consume too much of it to the detriment of our souls.
However, the errors propounded by Chang and promoted by mainstream Evangelicals are too serious to leave alone. If we can say that participating in benefits due to a murder victim's death is a picture of the Gospel, people should recoil in horror from that picture.
Yes, the Gospel is a "stumbling block" (1 Cor. 1:23), but people should stumble for the right reasons. They shouldn't stumble because Christian teachers blaspheme.