COVID-19 Vaccines and Conscientious Objection

Sarah Chia

Within the pro-life community, differing views exist regarding the application of pro-life principles to issues other than abortion. Among these is the question of whether to take vaccines developed from or tested using cell lines derived from aborted fetuses, including the oft-used HEK293 cells. This is especially relevant today, with the emergence of several COVID vaccines.

HEK293 cells were created when Canadian biologist Frank Graham genetically modified human embryonic kidney (HEK) cells that were cultured by Dutch biologist Alex van de Eb. The cell lines used today were the result of Graham’s 293rd HEK experiment, hence the name HEK293. There is little known about the child from whom the cells derived, but according to Dr. van de Eb, the child was “completely normal” and the mother may have requested an abortion because she did not know who the father was. 1 HEK293 cells have since been used for experimentation and research, including development and testing of vaccines.

There are over 35 different COVID-19 vaccines in development and testing across the globe, but only two of these are set for approval in the United States by the end of the year (2020). Both Pfizer and Moderna are American pharmaceutical companies who have applied for Emergency Use Authorization from the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Neither Pfizer nor Moderna used fetal cells to develop their vaccines, but both report that fetal cell lines from HEK293 cell line may be used in their testing of the vaccines. 2

Because other vaccines have been developed using aborted fetal cells and because both Pfizer and Moderna may use fetal cell lines to test their vaccines, some pro-lifers may wish to opt out of the vaccine altogether. One reason for this is that using vaccines that involve exploiting unborn children at any stage of the vaccine’s development sends the wrong message about the so-called benefits of abortion to society. In other words, regardless of the positive ends medical researchers have arrived at, the means to those ends must be ethical. In the case of past vaccines that use cell lines originating from aborted babies, an evil process cannot result in a good outcome. Moreover, use of the vaccine may be interpreted as approval of the evil of abortion and may encourage future abortions.

Other pro-lifers weigh the scales a bit differently and consider several factors when deciding whether it is ethically or morally permissible to receive a vaccine that uses aborted fetal cells. Among these considerations are whether the cells are in the vaccine itself or used only in testing; whether other alternatives to the cell lines exist; whether there is a proportionally strong reason to use the vaccine; and whether use of the vaccine is likely to encourage further unethical practices. After weighing these considerations, bioethicists, including the National Catholic Bioethics Center, and some Catholic physicians have determined that it is ethically and morally permissible to take the vaccine. 3,3

Beyond concerns related directly to the use of aborted fetal cells, those charged with administering the vaccine may run into additional issues. Even though the vaccines are currently authorized for emergency use, they are not yet FDA approved.

The difference here is notable: FDA approval acts as an official statement that the FDA determined the drug to be effective and safe; Emergency Use Authorization only indicates that the FDA believes the benefit of using an unapproved drug in an emergency situation outweighs the risks known from the limited available evidence.4 Nevertheless, distribution of the vaccines is already underway, with a focus on front-line health care workers and vulnerable individuals, such as nursing home residents.
But the vaccines haven’t been tested on the vulnerable elderly and we do not yet know the effects of the “Operation Warp Speed” vaccines on elderly people with underlying conditions. The very ailments that make nursing home residents susceptible to serious or deadly COVID infections may also put them at risk for negative side effects from the vaccine. Because there has not been testing for this group of people, some health care workers may find themselves in a moral dilemma as to whether they should administer the vaccine to nursing home residents.

Elderly individuals are not the only people that may have unknown side effects. Because of the quick pace under which these vaccines were developed and tested, long-term effects of the vaccine are unknown. As vaccine distribution ramps up in Europe, new information is trickling out about negative effects for individuals with certain medical histories. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advises people not to take the vaccine if they have had allergic reactions to the ingredients in the past. The CDC also requires vaccine providers to have “appropriate medications and equipment,” e.g., a “crash cart,” at all COVID vaccination sites.

Life Legal has received calls from health care workers who have been told they must take the vaccine or lose their jobs, as well as from individuals who are concerned that they may be forced to administer the vaccine, which they view as a violation of conscience.

While guidelines released by the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) have authorized particular health care professionals to administer the vaccine,5 they have failed to give guidance to employers about respecting the ethical decisions of health care workers who wish to not participate in vaccine administration. With this gap in official guidance, it will be increasingly important for such health care workers to understand their perspectives and their rights at work in order to advocate for themselves if they face pressure from employers.
Physicians in the U.S. can refer to both the American Medical Association’s tradition and Code of Ethics which give them freedom to object to providing certain treatments based on their conscience.6 However, this tradition and Code does not necessarily extend to other health care professionals—such as pharmacists or nurses—who may be expected to administer the vaccine. Individuals in these categories, therefore, may face a conflict with their employer if they wish to forgo the vaccine or reject participation in administering the vaccine.

Employees also have conscience protections under state and federal law. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act (the Equal Employment Opportunity Act) protects employees from harassment or other discrimination by employers based on their religious beliefs. Pro-lifers whose moral beliefs about the vaccines are directly related to their religious convictions may be able to rely on Title VII if they choose to opt out of the vaccine.
In a case involving the flu vaccine, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has ruled that “Title VII requires employers to make a real effort to provide reasonable religious accommodations to employees who notify the company that their sincerely held religious beliefs conflict with a company’s employment policy.”7

Pro-lifers whose objections are based in their religious beliefs may not have as clear a case if they choose not to receive the vaccination. Still, healthcare workers who refuse to receive or administer the vaccine may be able to turn to their state law, as many states have conscience clauses in their laws that apply not only to doctors, but also to other health care workers. Some of these clauses have specific limitations, and not all state laws will apply to vaccinations, so it is important for health care workers to know the law in their states.

If you are an employee interested in conscientious objection to receiving or administering the COVID-19 vaccines, you can take the following steps to protect your rights.

1. Document your Objections and all Communications.

Keep track of any work assignments that violate your beliefs and keep copies of any correspondence with your employer. If your employer talks with you, make sure to follow up with a written summary of your conversation.

2. Request Accommodation.

In writing, ask to be excused from the job duty or duties that violate your beliefs. Describe your belief and what you need as far as accommodation. Be respectful of your employers’ legitimate business concerns—try to find a way to do your job well without violating your beliefs.

3. Contact Life Legal.

You can reach out to Life Legal Defense Foundation for any questions you may have regarding your pro-life beliefs. If your employer chooses not to accommodate your belief, you should seek legal advice as to what next steps you can take. Call (707) 224-6675 or email.

Author: Life Legal

The Life Legal Defense Foundation is a non-profit law firm that specializes in the defense of vulnerable human life, especially life in the womb.

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