There’s nothing particularly new about misinformation. For as long as people have been telling stories, they’ve been adding lies. For millennia, that was just a central fact of the world. You couldn’t check whether or not what someone said was true. You just had to go with your gut on whether or not you trusted them and that was that.
The Information Age has, ironically, brought us more or less full circle here. There are, in fact, so many avenues of information that it’s possible to verify almost anything you want. You want proof the moon landing was faked? Here’s a website for you. You want discourse on whether or not the earth is actually round? Knock yourself out. You want a historian who believes human history began in 800 AD? Check out Fomenko’s New Chronology.
In other words, having so much information has proved to have many of the same dangers as having almost none. There is, in fact, so much information out there that the truth can feel unknowable. We start feeling pulled by so many competing narratives that we throw up our hands and decide that life is simply unknowable. That’s not much of a problem if you’re just trying to research whether or not the Loch Ness Monster is real or if Avril Lavigne was replaced by a clone, but COVID-19 is a matter of life and a great deal of death. Not only for our own sakes but also for the wellbeing of our neighbors, it’s important that we get this right.
And the facts are out there. Finding them takes trust, humility and patience, but it’s hardly impossible. To start, here are some facts about one of the more common narratives that has been circulating online: that the COVID-19 vaccine was made with aborted fetuses.
For Christians morally opposed to abortion, this is a common and serious objection. It comes up a lot. Prominent evangelical leader Eric Metaxas accused Big Pharma of using “aborted baby parts to make their vaccines.” Getting vaccinated would seem to be lending implicit support to abortion, tantamount to an ethical betrayal of their deeply held beliefs. Some Christians have cited this as a reason to argue for a religious exemption to getting vaccinated.
The facts here are complicated, and worth exploring.
In 1973, a Dutch molecular biologist named Alex van der Eb had found success isolating certain genes that turned mammal cells into tumor cells in rats, and believed that doing the same thing for human cells could be a breakthrough. His lab only used human remains that had been explicitly donated for scientific research, and he selected the remains of a young girl who had been aborted at 18 weeks by an anonymous woman.
Van der Eb’s research on this girl’s fetal cell line, HEK293, led to several astounding medical discoveries, and has been used to study everything from common drugs like ibuprofen and aspirin to life-saving vaccines like the ones used to fight Ebola, tuberculosis and, yes, COVID-19. The creation and testing of the Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines all utilized the cell lining to varying degrees.
So, this is not “using aborted baby parts to make vaccines.” However, HEK293 is used in the study of a vast amount of modern pharmaceuticals, and for Christians opposed to abortion, that may still be a consideration when it comes to taking them.
It’s not just vaccines either. Modern life is full of these sorts of moral nuances to navigate. The food we eat comes from farms full of inhumane animal living conditions that would churn your stomach. Many of the clothes we wear are made by people scarcely paid enough to survive. The prisons we put people away in. The entertainment we consume. The cars we drive. The very screen you read this on. There’s a lot of evil in the world, and and being alive does invite a lot of cooperation with that evil. Even Christians who aren’t morally opposed to abortion would likely admit the pharmaceutical industry at large is rife with corruption and greedy profiteering.
This should not be taken as an invitation to give up and just accept that it’s impossible to be a good person. Instead, it should invite us to think carefully and strategically about how to navigate such moral complications. Many people strive to eat locally as much as possible or buy their clothes second hand as a way of minimizing the amount of support they lend to troubling industries. Other use bikes or fuel efficient cars to protect the environment as much as possible. In these cases and many others, we know that such actions don’t completely negate our support for things we don’t agree with (for example: even if you buy all your clothes second-hand, many of them probably were, at one point, made with cheap labor), but we ask God to help us live and grow in that tension nevertheless.
That may be the position Christians opposed to abortion find themselves in with the vaccine today. In 2005, the Vatican attempted to wade into these waters with nuanced judgment that may be instructive to all people who share the Catholic moral opposition to abortion. “As regards the diseases against which there are no alternative vaccines which are available and ethically acceptable, it is right to abstain from using these vaccines if it can be done without causing children, and indirectly the population as a whole, to undergo significant risks to their health. However, if the latter are exposed to considerable dangers to their health, vaccines with moral problems pertaining to them may also be used.”
In other words, Catholic teaching holds that vaccines that were tested using fetal cell linings are morally permissible if the disease is serious enough and there are no other options. So for Catholics, it’s a matter of knowing the facts. Is COVID-19 serious enough to warrant such an immunization? Pope Francis sure thinks so. He called getting vaccinated “an act of love.”
So we’re in the same place we’ve always been: doing the best can, with God’s help. Pope Francis is right about getting vaccinated being an act of love for others — a way to do your part to protect the people around you who can’t protect themselves. The ethical quandary for people morally opposed to abortion may be real, but it’s hardly the only ethical quandary we face every day. As we mature, we learn to live in that tension and perhaps even thrive in it, knowing we can show and accept love and grace in the midst of it.
It might not be possible to fully extricate ourselves from the various ethical entanglements being a human involves. When Jesus instructed his followers to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” he knew Caesar wasn’t exactly using all those tax dollars for morally upright ends. But he also knew what Joseph told his brothers in Genesis 50:20: “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.”
Tyler Huckabee is RELEVANT's senior editor. He lives in Nashville with his wife, dog and Twitter account.