Is the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 Vaccine Unethical?

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After half a million of our fellow Americans have died to the COVID-19 pandemic, the country seems almost right on the verge of hope. Vaccines were developed with record-setting speed, and have proven both safe and effective. After the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been on the field now for a while, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) just authorized a third—by pharmaceutical company Johnson & Johnson. This vaccine has made news—both in terms of the images of trucks headed for parcel distribution hubs for delivery and, less noticed, a denunciation from the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans, later joined by the Catholic bishops nationwide, arguing that Catholics, when possible, should take one of the first two vaccines but not the Johnson & Johnson version because, they argue, it is linked to cloned stem cells derived from abortions that took place decades ago. 

The bishops’ recommendation was not quite as fiery as many headlines reported. They did not argue that taking the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was morally sinful or that no one should take it, just that Catholics should choose the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines over Johnson & Johnson, when such a choice is possible. The Vatican has already announced that COVID-19 vaccines are not only morally acceptable but to be commended in the fight against this dread disease. 

Some have wondered, seeing these headlines, whether taking a COVID-19 vaccine would cause them to be involved, somehow, in abortion or embryonic stem-cell research or in any way the taking of a human life.

Asking the right questions

The intuitions behind this question are good and sound. The question assumes a foundational biblical truth that is often pushed aside in these times: namely, that a Christian may not do evil that good may come out of it (Rom. 12:21). In a day when “lesser of two evils” ethics and “whataboutism” have upended Christian witness, with Christians affirming much that they previously denied in order to justify remaining loyal to their temporal tribes, we should be thankful, at least, when the right questions are asked. 

The issue is the use of cell lines, which were originally derived from abortions, in either the development stage (Moderna and Pfizer) or production stage (Johnson & Johnson) of the vaccines. It is important to note that although the cell lines potentially originated from abortions, no cells remain from the original fetal tissue in these cloned cells, and the cell lines no longer contain fetal tissue or body parts. 

We should always work to prevent authorization or funding of embryonic research derived from abortions—both because of reverence for the body and because such research incentivizes further attempts to see vulnerable human life as a means to an end. That’s why I’ve worked with coalitions of Roman Catholics and others to do away with such research and, in more recent days, in petitioning the FDA to ensure ethical means of vaccine production. This kind of advocacy has led to several positive developments, such as an unethically-produced polio vaccine being replaced by those without such concerns and the National Institutes of Health approving a new study that will develop ethical cell lines for future use to avoid these ethical conflicts.

The ethics of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine

Still, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is already developed. Does taking it involve moral cooperation with abortion? 

Most people asking me this question aren’t asking me if they should violate their conscientious objection to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. To them, I would turn to Romans 14:23 and say, with the bishops, seek out one of the other vaccines. But most people asking me this question don’t have conscience objections to taking the Johnson & Johnson, but wonder if they should have such objections. Short answer: no. 

Opposing unethical means of research does not mean that people must shun medical treatments that are discovered through these means.

A few analogies

Consider a few analogies. Catholic philosopher Christopher Tollefsen, making the case for the ethical rightness of taking the vaccine, argues, rightly, that discerning such questions requires asking whether one—in doing any act—is participating in or cooperating with evil. If we are cooperating in an evil, we cannot do the act—no matter the “greater good.” He argues, though, that, even if a vaccine were to come about through some illicit means, one taking the vaccine is not thereby endorsing or empowering those illicit means. 

“Consider peace between two countries that has been brought about by past unjust means (such as the targeting of civilians or the use of illicit weapons),” he writes. “Must the peace and its benefits be rejected by current leaders whose responsibilities would be threatened by their loss?” The answer is no. 

We should not do away with our peace treaties with Japan because those treaties were the result, at least in part, of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Nor should we say that—because the bombing of non-combatants resulted in an end to World War II—we would be right to use such weapons on future civilian populations. That would not be true either. 

Or, as evangelical writer Joe Carter argues, a patient receiving an organ transplant from a murder victim would not, in any way, be morally responsible for murder. Withholding the life-saving transplant because of the murder would be itself a wrong. But so would suggesting that, because lives were saved by a morally-wrong murder we should therefore open up murder camps to provide organs for those who need them. That would be an atrocity. 

Torture is wrong, no matter how many lives are saved by the information yielded from such torture. We should work to end it. That does not mean, though, that a security guard who receives a call that his building is about to be attacked by terrorists needs to investigate whether that information came from torture before he evacuates the building. 

At the Jordan River, John the Baptist directed against the sins of tax collectors or soldiers of the Roman Empire in defrauding or extorting people (Lk. 3:12-14). They could not justify such things by pointing to all the good things that came about from the Empire as a result of taxes—such as the peace between nations or the road system. At the same time, Christians in the Book of Acts, using Roman roads to carry the gospel, would not need to ascertain whether the taxes that paid for a particular road came from a pre- or post-sycamore tree Zacchaeus (Lk. 19:1-10).

Morally right 

We should—as people committed to the dignity and sanctity of human life—continue to work to make sure that unjust means are never used, even for good purposes. That does not mean, though, that whenever knowledge is found by such means that we should pretend that we do not know it or that we should refuse to safeguard future lives with such knowledge. 

Again, I am not suggesting that every vaccine necessarily might involve unethical aspects of research, but simply that, even if some do, that fact does not mean that a Christian inoculated from disease by such a vaccine would be sinning to do so. Taking the COVID vaccine is morally right. 

The work of our medical experts, the pharmaceutical industry, government authorities, and research institutes is astounding, to have come up with a vaccine so quickly. That does not mean that we would necessarily endorse every step of the process in discovering the knowledge to find it. But it does mean that, when it comes to a way to protect ourselves, our neighbors, and our mission field from a disease that has killed far too many, we are right, in a time of thanksgiving, to give thanks where thanksgiving is due.

Photo Attribution: DeFodi Images / Getty

Only when we see how lost we are, we can find our way again. Only when we bury what’s dead can we experience life again. Only when we lose our religion can we be amazed by grace again.


About Russell Moore

Russell Moore is Editor in Chief of Christianity Today and is the author of the forthcoming book Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America (Penguin Random House).