To whom it may concern,
The COVID-19 pandemic has yet again put biomedical ethics in the public square, and many eyes are eagerly watching the remarkable biomedical innovation that has come out of it; we have gone from assembling a sequence for SARS-CoV-2 to developing, testing, and seeing mass distribution of vaccines around the world inside of a year and a half. Just a few months later, the case load in the United States has dropped to where it was in the first weeks of the pandemic in the US. That is an incredible accomplishment.
As much as I wish to give praise for the remarkable innovation coming from biotech companies, notably with the introduction to the world of mRNA-based therapeutics, I must also speak admonishment as to how we got there. The mRNA vaccines—mRNA therapeutics in general—are made by biochemical processes in machines; production is entirely removed from human or animal cells. For those wary of the biomedical use of human embryonic stem cells, this is a huge accomplishment. Despite this, testing of the two mRNA vaccines currently being distributed—those by Moderna and BioNTech/Pfizer—was done using HEK293 cells which were obtained from the kidneys of an aborted child. This, unfortunately, will lead many pro-life people to conscientiously object to taking these vaccines due to the moral gravity of the act by which these cells were made available. Actually, that is already happening now, and as a result we continue to struggle to reach our vaccination target.
This should not be surprising: As of 2020, 46% of Americans consider themselves to be pro-life, a proportion that has been relatively stable for over 20 years. 70% of Americans believe that there should be at least some legal restrictions on abortion. 47% of Americans consider abortion to be morally wrong. 74% of registered voters consider abortion to be an important issue in elections, 24% of whom insist that a candidate share his or her views to secure their vote. 65% of Americans think abortion should be illegal in the second trimester, 85% in the third trimester. This is not a minor issue that can be swept aside or ignored.
“Between culturable somatic cell lines and induced pluripotency, the “need” for human embryonic stem cells is fading, and in the case of synthetic therapeutics like mRNA vaccines the “need” is gone.”
The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has issued a statement allowing Catholics to conscientiously take the vaccine, but that same document notes on several occasions that the act of abortion is evil and it allows for conscientious objection of taking the vaccine. This is meaningful given the estimated 72 million Catholics in the United States. Despite reductionist rhetoric, the issue is one that transcends stereotypical religious and political divides. There are several groups of secularists and atheists, feminists, and political liberals who are pro-life. In response to those who claim that abortion is a personal matter on the basis of “bodily autonomy,” Christopher Hitchens – one of the famed “four horsemen of atheism” – often quipped, “this is an extremely grave social issue. It’s everybody’s business.”
As I noted, I see a great deal of promise from the work that has been done in the past year. Synthesis and delivery technologies are rapidly improving, matched by computational and predictive tools, an example being the remarkable ability demonstrated by AlphaFold 2 recently. We will see medical marvels improving the human condition in the years to come. But this cannot be done at the expense of morality. Abortion is a rejection of human dignity, and as we devalue human dignity in the short term we undermine the scientific and medical fields in the long run. Between culturable somatic cell lines and induced pluripotency, the “need” for human embryonic stem cells is fading, and in the case of synthetic therapeutics like mRNA vaccines the “need” is gone. Please take these thoughts into consideration going forward.
[We encourage you to download and repurpose this letter to mail to your favorite – or least favorite – biotech company of your choice]
Albert Gerard is the pen name for a graduate student studying biomedical research in Massachusetts. He is interested in how things work and thinking about how science can instill wonder and (ethically) benefit humanity.
James G Hanink
Daniel, thanks for this important and helpful contribution. A few thoughts… I understand that the vaccine used in Israel has no abortion link whatever. Do you think the relatively few conscientious objectors are actually affecting herd immunity? In the background we have good reason to think that the use of fetal stem cells in ongoing research in many areas is increasing. Godspeed, Jim
Hello Dr. Hanink, sorry I haven’t gotten back to you sooner. Far as I know, the vaccines in use in Israel currently are Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, both of which used human embryonic cells (HEK293) in preclinical testing, but not in production. A third vaccine currently in development in Israel, IIBR-100, appears to be produced in hamster and monkey cells, which is a good sign, but I’d need to dive deeper to see how the pre-clinical tests were done. Similarly, the vaccine being developed by Novavax is produced in duck cells, so I eagerly await that one’s approval and distribution. I hope when that one is out we will see the concerns those individuals who are objecting to the current vaccines available on the grounds of connection to abortion soothed with regard to being vaccinated, but we will need much more than that to heal as a nation going forward in building institutional trust and mutual respect within the polity.
As to how herd immunity is being affected, I think that is difficult to address. With novel variants cropping up that appear to spread more effectively, we are seeing spikes in cases and deaths in the US among unvaccinated individuals and a noteworthy, but still low, rate of breakthrough infections in those who have been vaccinated. I hesitate to predict how things will move going forward given that the vaccines out there are still very effective and that surviving individuals who have been infected have a natural immunity to reinfection. I am optimistic that our case loads will decrease and stay low going into the winter, but I’m not an epidemiologist nor am I a virologist.
Best of luck to you in the election this week! I look forward to seeing how you will lead California.
James G Hanink
Thanks, Albert. I was mistaken about Israel, but I’m pleased that there is work on an alternative. Ditto for Novavax. Have you looked into the University of California San Francisco’s heavy use of tissues from recent abortions? Any insights most welcome. And thanks for the encouragement on the election. But beware of unbridled optimism. I’m predicting 252 votes for the ASP candidate!