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Stepankowsky column: The pro-life objection doesn't hold up

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Sunshine filtered through the branches of giant spruce trees and dappled an underbrush of ferns, salal, blackberries and wood sorrel. A fresh, moist foresty scent filled the marine air. In the distance, the Pacific Ocean crashed and sprayed onto Sea Lion Rock and other coastal remnants of 20 million-year-old lava flows.

On the beach, the surf churned and clattered over cobbles and pebbles, part of the chorus of sounds that make up the eternal roar of the sea.

Andre Stepankowsky

ANDRE STEPANKOWSKY

My hike Monday at Ecola State Park north of Cannon Beach was idyllic, even if the gooey mix of mud and fallen needles made footing precarious. Yet even this was a treat, because the route was a path through history — an old native American trail that Lewis and Clark used in 1806 to visit a dead whale beached at Cannon Beach.

But wait a minute. Should I have tread on this trail in the first place? Was I not, in a sense, condoning and benefitting from the destruction of native people, which the expedition of Lewis and Clark ultimately assisted through the encouragement of European American migration westward?

Of course not. But a similar logic is at play among some COVID-19 vaccine resistors, who object that the vaccines were developed using cell lines derived from two abortions that took place decades ago.

This moral dilemma involves an ends-and-means analysis. Is it medically ethical to accept a vaccine tainted by a connection to an abortion, even if the connection is tenuous and remote and the vaccines are helping to saving thousands, if not millions, of lives? Does accepting the vaccine make one morally complicit in the abortion?

As much as I abhor abortion, I cannot accept this line of reasoning. First, however, the facts:

Neither the Pfizer nor the Moderna vaccine contains any fetal material or cells. In the development stage, those vaccines were tested using fetal cells drawn from a fetus aborted in 1972 or 1973, apparently that of a boy. It is not clear whether the abortion was medically necessary or elective, though abortion was illegal in The Netherlands at that time unless it was needed to save the mother’s life.

Fetal cell lines developed from a 1985 abortion, also in The Netherlands, were used in the production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The finished vaccine does not contain any cells derived directly from an abortion, because the cells are filtered out during the production process, according to the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

A COVID vaccine by Maryland-based based Novavax has no connection to abortive fetal cells whatsoever. Novavax has just ended stage 3 trials and a company spokeswoman told me it will submit the product for federal approval late this year. If it is cleared, the vaccine could remove pro-lifers’ hesitancy to becoming immunized.

However, fetal cell lines from elective abortions have been used to develop and manufacture vaccines, including those used today against rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis A, and shingles, for decades. They also have been used to make drugs to treat hemophilia, rheumatoid arthritis and cystic fibrosis, according to Science magazine.

Medical ethicists who deem the vaccines morally acceptable base their conclusions on several factors:

  • Cells in use in the vaccines are thousands of generations removed from those derived in the abortions, having been grown and preserved in laboratories
  • Vaccines are intended for a good purpose in preventing disease and contributing to herd immunity
  • Saving hundreds of thousands of lives is clearly better than the bad effect of an abortion that occurred decades ago
  • Vaccine recipients and those who administer them are separated from the abortion — an alleged immoral act —by decades and have no first-hand knowledge or complicity in it.

Church leaders from multiple faiths — Catholic, Muslim, Protestant and Evangelical Christianity — support vaccination.

“Indeed, the vaccines are a cause for Christians to rejoice and to give glory to God. The Bible, after all, speaks of medicine as a common grace, discovered by human beings but given by God,” Evangelicals Russell Moore and Walter Kim wrote in The Washington Post in February.

Pro-lifers say there is absolutely no justification for killing an unborn child. One writer for the conservative American Enterprise Institute accepted the morality of vaccines, despite acknowledging that it is like justifying the hire of a hit man to kill your wife if you saved multiple lives by donating her organs.

What, however, would the potential organ recipient have to say? Pro-life objections avoid the fact that COVID has orphaned 140,000 U.S. children by killing their parents, grandparents or caregivers, (according to a Pediatrics journal study). The virus has killed 700,000 Americans and disrupted human lives, culture and economies on a planetary scale. To me, the morality of vaccines is a no-brainer.

Arguing against the ethical standing of COVID vaccines is like refusing to drive on roads built with slave labor in the South, or refusing to use railroads or buy products shipped on them because they were built by Chinese laborers who were underpaid and subject to life-threatening conditions.

History is replete with examples of modern success built on the bones and backs of the unfortunate. Building St. Petersburg, Russia, claimed the lives of thousands of Russian serfs, so should you not visit to see the city’s beauty? Should people of European descent return the land to descendants of the first Americans, who perished by the millions as colonists expanded westward, to the very trail I was on Monday?

I, for one, will hike that marvelous Ecola trail again — just as I will, without any moral reservation, get a vaccine booster when I become eligible.

Andre Stepankowsky retired in August 2020 after a 41-year career as a reporter and city editor at The Daily News. He has won or shared in many prestigious journalism awards, including the staff’s 1981 Pulitzer Prize for coverage of Mount St. Helens. His column will appear on the editorial page every other Wednesday.

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Michael Paul Williams — a columnist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch — won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Commentary "for penetrating and historically insightful columns that guided Richmond, a former capital of the Confederacy, through the painful and complicated process of dismantling the city's monuments to white supremacy."

(The Conversation is an independent and nonprofit source of news, analysis and commentary from academic experts.)

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