Richard Doerflinger

The COVID-19 pandemic has killed hundreds of thousands of Americans and isolated us from each other as authorities struggle to prevent infections. As vaccinations increase, we see fewer new cases, and a welcome relaxation of some precautions — especially for those who are vaccinated. That raises its own issues.

Some predict a two-class society: the privileged who are vaccinated and can resume normal activities, and second-class citizens who must still wear masks and distance themselves from others. That is especially troubling to Catholics who refuse vaccines because of their connection with fetal tissue from abortion.

For decades, “immortalized” cell lines developed from the tissue of abortion victims have been used for medical research, including vaccine development. One cell line is HEK-293, apparently grown from “human embryonic kidney” tissue from an abortion performed in the Netherlands almost half a century ago.


The abortion was not done to obtain this tissue, but it was immoral to exploit the innocent and unconsenting victim for medical use.

Rebecca Skloot’s award-winning book “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” recounts a similar wrong. Shortly before a woman named Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in 1951, doctors removed some of her cancer cells and, without her knowledge or consent, developed an “immortal” cell line.

These “HeLa” cells revolutionized treatment of cancer and other illnesses and made a fortune for those distributing them — without the consent of, or any compensation to, her family. Mrs. Lacks was poor and Black, when racial segregation was common. The born and unborn have sometimes been treated as raw material for research.

Given that abortion is the unjust killing of the innocent, how far does the line of moral responsibility extend? Catholic authorities, including the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, have offered guidance.

The most egregious wrong is in performing the abortion itself. Those cooperating with the abortionist to obtain tissue also acted wrongly, followed by those who voluntarily chose to use it for research.

Over time, these cells were so widely used that they became a “gold standard,” pressuring researchers to use them so their studies could be published and compared with others.

The good news is that this is changing. Two major COVID-19 vaccines, from Moderna and Pfizer, were developed with new technology that does not use any cell line. Unfortunately, even these companies felt obliged to test their vaccines afterward on the HEK-293 line to show they are as effective as others.

This first step away from relying on fetal cell lines is due to pro-life Americans, including Catholic leaders, who urged the government and vaccine companies to take that step. These efforts must continue.

How to deal with vaccines in the meantime? The church says our receiving them bears a remote connection with past evil, and is justified for serious reasons — and it seems vaccination is the most effective way to protect ourselves and others.

The moral equation, then, includes this imperative to protect life. A recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association concludes that having COVID-19 symptoms increases a pregnant woman’s risk of dying during or immediately after pregnancy 20 times. (Admittedly, the risk for pregnant women generally is low.)

There are more complications for the unborn and newborn child, and even infected women without symptoms may have a higher risk of preeclampsia.

So we are talking not so much about two classes of people, as about a common search for the best way to respect human life. In seeking to honor the lives of unborn children who died in the past, we should try not to endanger them here and now.


Doerflinger worked for 36 years in the Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. He writes from Washington state.