The COVID-19 vaccine rollout in the UK on 8 December has been widely cheered as marking the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

However, questions around ethics have been raised, with different groups, including Christian communities, sharing concerns around development, testing and distribution and the implications on human life. With contrasting perspectives to navigate, it can be difficult to know what to think. 

The Evangelical Alliance recently hosted a webinar to explore the ethics of the vaccine. John Wyatt, professor of ethics and perinatology at University College London, Jennie Pollock, associate head of public policy at Christian Medical Fellowship and Dr Mary Neal, head of the School of Law at University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, offered an informed perspective on the development, testing and roll out of the vaccine, using illustrations to help Christians engage biblically.

The webinar covered a number of topics including:

Use of fetal cell lines in vaccine development and considerations for human life

One of the most significant discussions surrounding the vaccine is the use of immortal cell lines, as they are associated with abortion. However, the cell lines that have been used were from one abortion in the 1970s. These cell lines have been used for a number of vaccines since, so COVID-19 vaccines do not exist in isolation. 

It is important to acknowledge that the ends do not justify the means, so the lives saved do not justify this abortion. However, it was also suggested that not taking this vaccine would not be the most effective way to advocate for pro-life causes, as no further abortions occur in the development, testing or administering of the vaccine. More effective ways to advocate include supporting organisations that offer alternatives to abortions. A way to engage in this policy area right now is by responding to consultations in Scotland and England and Wales on in-home abortion, which was introduced as a temporary measure for the lockdown but is now being proposed as a permanent option.

Safety of the vaccine 

Due to how quickly vaccines have been developed, the safety of the vaccines has been questioned. The medical professionals who took part in the webinar stressed that in the medical field there are multiple safeguards to ensure vaccines are as safe as possible for the public. It is crucial to have the highest levels of scrutiny, supervision and transparency to ensure there is no fraud or malpractice, but most importantly this needs to be a rigorous process because there are lives on the line. This involves the use of independent academic experts, to avoid conflicts of interest, and hundreds of medical professionals are involved to ensure safety and efficacy so that the general public can be confident in new medications. 

The panel also highlighted a double standard in attitudes towards these vaccines and other medications, as they all undergo the same scrutiny; however, we often do not question, for instance, the rate of development of cancer treatments. It is impossible for a medication to be completely safe; 23 per cent of in-patients have an adverse reaction to prescribed drugs. However, less than 1 in 20,000 people had an adverse reaction to Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine. 

Since vaccinations are given to healthy people, they are under even more scrutiny than most medications. Due to the widespread nature of these vaccines, it means that any problems can be spotted very quickly. There has also been confusion and misunderstanding relating to RNA vaccinations and retroviruses; on the webinar it was clarified that this vaccine has no impact on DNA. Pregnant women not receiving the vaccine is standard practice and is not unique to these vaccines. 

As we consider the issues involved and what we read and hear, it’s vital we understand where our news is coming from and the authority of the sources we read. The reality is that many of our daily activities carry risk, but it is not a reason to not do them. At the moment it is also crucial to recognise that hundreds of people are dying every day in the UK because of this virus, and it is important to remember our social responsibility and solidarity.

Cooperation with evil and moral conscience

One of the realities of our world is our inadvertent cooperation with evil. This has been highlighted with the use of immortal cells in the development and testing of vaccines. Because there is a lot of nuance involved, it is perhaps unwise to have a blanket reaction to associating with evil’. There are certain issues in the Bible where it is not black and white and is up to the discretion of the person. For example, the issue of eating food sacrificed to idols which Paul addresses in his letters to the Corinthian church. Paul stated it was up to each person’s conscience on whether this was a practice they would participate in or not.

Important questions to think about include: how close we are to that evil or if we are actively encouraging or perpetuating evil. This covers a range of topics in day-to-day life, such as paying taxes and buying clothing that uses slave labour. With the vaccine, we can be sure that it does not require more abortions, but it is good for Christians to consider if there are any alternatives, and if so whether they can be used any time soon. Even raising those questions is a form of engaging. The fact these questions have been raised about the development of the vaccine will hopefully encourage the use of alternative methods in future.

The prioritisation of the vaccine

Given the current discussions about the prioritisation of ventilators in dire circumstances, there have been concerns that the administering of the vaccine would follow suit. However, the proposed stages of administration emphasises preventing further morbidity and mortality. It emphasises human life above all else and values human life equally (as the vulnerable are prioritised). Therefore, as Christians we should be encouraged that this approach is being taken.

Autonomy and compulsion

The discussion of our autonomy in taking the vaccine was the most abstract. It is difficult to tell how this will play out as we have no precedent. The law isn’t designed to compel people to behave in a morally ideal way, and no one should be vaccinated against their will. There is also a big difference between persuasion and coercion. The current suggestions mean that there may be travel restrictions or even fines for those who do not get vaccinated, which raises questions about human rights. It also raises questions about privilege as those with more money can afford fines while this may limit the choices of poorer people as they need to travel to work. This will be an ongoing discussion moving forward, but it is important to consider those around us as well as ourselves. 

Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the man who loves God is known by God.” (I Corinthians 8:1b-3)

Ultimately, let’s respect each other’s decisions, being able to disagree well; and even when we disagree, we should still place love above all else.