James Sherley: Should Pro-Lifers Take the COVID Vaccines?

We disagree about the ethics of abortion. For those that believe any participation in abortion is wrong, should they take one of the COVID vaccines? Or should they abstain on ethical grounds?

The goal here is not to debate abortion, but to consider how those of use that are pro-life should think about the vaccines.

We will discuss this question with James L. Sherley, M.D., Ph.D., an African American scientist and pro-life advocate. He coauthored “An Ethics Assessment of COVID-19 Vaccine Programs” (An Ethics Assessment of COVID-19 Vaccine Programs | Charlotte Lozier Institute) for a Pro-Life think tank. They maintain an up-to-date listing of how fetal cells were and were not used COVID vaccines (Update: COVID-19 Vaccine Candidates and Abortion-Derived Cell Lines | Charlotte Lozier Institute).

Dispelling some fake news, we will discuss how fetal cells are and are not used in vaccines, and consider together the pro-life ethics of taking each of the COVID vaccines approved in the US.



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I emphasize that this thread is not for debating whether or not one should be ethically opposed to abortion. Rather, we recognize that society includes many people who are ethically opposed to abortion and those who are not?

So how should we think through the ethics of vaccine from the pro-life starting point, even if we personally do not hold that view.

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People might want to look up the HEK 293 cell line and see what other religious and ethics groups have said about treatments derived from those cells. Which is to say, the descriptors ‘pro-life’ and ‘opposed to abortion’, appear to not readily delineate stances in that area. Vegans or animals rights activists would also have legitimate & diverse ethical concerns about other vaccine formulations.


@thepalmhq might appreciate this conversation, given our past discussion on it: Should Pro-Lifers Take the COVID Vaccines?

Here in Canada, the public health campaign is “take the first vaccine available to you”, regardless of concerns over comparative efficacy, variation in complications, or distinctions in the role fetal cell lines play in production of alternative vaccines. Informed consent is being steamrolled. One does not have to be an anti-vaxxer or pro-life extremist to find that problematic.

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I’m not sure that’s right.

I had the Pfizer vaccine, because that was what the local medical center offered. But I could have chosen to wait until a different vaccine were available. If I was “steamrolled” then I was steamrolled by my own desire to be vaccinated as soon as possible.


The messaging here is that you do not have that choice, and to take what you are offered as soon as available.

The messaging intended, I am sure, is that all the vaccines are equally safe and effective, from a pragmatic point of view. So take the first one you can get your hands on.

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This is a really big deal in my family/faith community, with the potential link to abortion being a more significant reason to not get the vaccine than political or side-effect concerns.

Russell Moore (president of the Southern Baptist Conventions Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission) wrote a fairly lengthly blog post about the ethics of the vaccines.

The pro-life movement is not normally known for it’s nuance or “grey area”, but I would think that the use of cell lines derived form aborted fetus tissue in vaccine “production” would be significantly different ethically than use in “confirmatory lab tests”. In that case clearly, from the Charlotte Lozier Institute’s updated list, the mRNA vaccines (Pfizer and Moderna in the US) seem to be vastly superior ethically to the Johnson & Johnson and AstraZeneca vaccines.


But that’s ordinary life.

I go to the store to purchase some butter. But they are out of stock, so I make do with margarine instead.

Life is full of such choices.

That would be the most consistently pro-life position, if one’s pro-life stances are not limited to fetal life.


Unless you hear some of the stuff I’ve heard from friends & family about what they’re being told, i.e. that aborted babies are literally being ground up to make the vaccine. The would rather take the risk with COVID.

The level of misinformation is staggering, which is why I think it takes pro-life leaders (in science and ethics especially) to be able to articulate the ethical questions and validate pro-life concerns in a way that allows pro-life folks to enter into a conversation about really what’s going on.

From a personal health point of view, I have conditions which accentuate the concern over clotting. But even given a more general perspective, from a research point of view, all vaccines are not equally safe and effective, are they? That they are not is evident in policy. In Canada, the Astrazeneca vaccine is only approved for those over the age of 55. The rational is not that you are less likely to react with a blood clot when you are over 55, but you are more likely to die of COVID if you are not vaccinated at all. From a public health perspective, that makes sense and I understand the push back, but in absolute terms it means that you are assuming more personal risk compared to alternatives.

Let me turn the question around then. To what degree should informed consent play a role in vaccination policy?

Pfizer and Moderna seem to be essentially equivalent. J&J has some distinctions, but in the vast majority of those cases there is no practical differences. In all three cases of the approved vaccines, the right decision for 99.99% of people is to take the vaccine.

Other vaccines in general can be different. In context of this particular set of vaccines, not so much.

There is no indication that informed consent is being violated.


I was vaguely aware that the mRNA vaccines are more pro-life friendly, and was happy that I was able to sign up for Pfizer among other things: I believe I had read that thousands of pregnant women who work in health care had gotten that vaccine with no problems, and that the wait is only 3 weeks between doses, rather than 4 with Moderna.

Here, I feel like the messaging is the same, but maybe without the negative push regardless of concerns. Perhaps that is the part more prominent in Canada? Where I live I feel like it’s really clear which vaccine you’re signing up for, as I looked for appointments, which is helpful if someone wanted to choose.

James Sherley, based on his wikipedia entry, seems like a fascinating guy, so I’m interested to hear what he has to say.


In British Columbia, the official government vaccination website is explicit in terms of vaccine choice. There is none. You get what you get, and you do not know what that will be until you show up. I would not consider that to meet the spirit of informed consent, even if nobody is going to strap you to a gurney and poke you as you helplessly struggle.

The US situation is likely a very different experience. Canada has no domestic production capability. Whereas the US has over 17% of citizens fully vaccinated, Canada has less than 2%. The vaccination interval is being stretched far far past supplier guidelines. If you think it bad down there, it is a gong show here.


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This is not a violation of informed consent, unless they refuse to tell you what vaccine you are getting before they inject it. Instead, they are telling you, but only after you show up. At that time, after showing up to learn which vaccine you are offered, you could refuse the vaccine. Unless they refuse to tell you when you show up at the site, or if they force you take the vaccine over your protests, there is no

Most likely, this policy:

  1. reflects uncertainties at each site about which vaccine they will have,
  2. is meant to discourage choosy-ness between the vaccines, because there is no good scientific reason for that choice at this time and it adds cost and delays, and
  3. gives them an opportunity to talk to reticent patients before they really pass on the vaccine.

None of this is a violation of informed consent. If you are choosy about the vaccine, it is an inconvenient lack of transparency till that last moment, but it is not a violation of informed consent.


We don’t have enough data to indicate whether the vaccine is causing clotting.

They definitely are not. The point you’re missing is that from a benefit/risk point of view, we can’t distinguish between the top four of them!

In absolute terms we really don’t know if you would be assuming more personal risk.

The only distinction I see is the cherry-picking that was done for determining the efficacy the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine. That unethical behavior concerns me more than clotting risks.

To the nth degree, certainly far more than misinformed consent.

Look, Ron, you’re giving this vaccine to millions of old people. Really bad things are going to happen to measurable numbers of them with or without it.

Sounds good to me.

As someone who has been deeply diving into the primary literature on this, it does meet the spirit. I’m far more concerned about the CDC’s notion of being “fully” vaccinated.

And that vaccine is not approved in the US, and it is restricted in Canada:

I want to point out that there currently are about 250 vaccine programs on COVID right now. Most certainly they are not all the same, which is why only a precious few are approved. The good news now is that there are multiple that are approved and do not have problems with the data.

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