Few topics seem to elicit stronger emotions or more opinions than the decision of whether or not to vaccinate. Between the loudest extremes, people with honest questions often feel ignored, misunderstood, or even ridiculed.
Is it really that much of a risk to just opt out? How can we really know these vaccines are safe? And what about the ethical concerns regarding how they’re made? These are important questions—questions worth taking seriously. As a Bible-believing Christian nonprofit, we at BioLogos hold no financial stake in your vaccination decision. Our interest is to help Christians make wise decisions that are both true to our shared faith and based on accurate science. As you seek to learn more and make an informed decision, here’s why we think vaccination is a safe, ethical, and wise choice for Christians.
Vaccines boost the immune system
We can’t understand vaccines without first understanding the incredible power of our natural immune system. When disease-causing viruses and bacteria infect our bodies, they carry a sort of molecular “fingerprint” that our bodies can recognize as foreign. To defeat an infection, our immune system must generate an army of disease-fighting cells equipped to identify the invader by this particular fingerprint. Generating this defense can take days, but after an infection has passed, immune cells called “memory cells” (a type of white blood cell) remain circulating in the body long-term. This provides on-alert readiness for the immune system to defeat a future infection before it has an opportunity to gain a foothold and cause the disease again. The body, in short, is immune.
With the extraordinary tools of modern medicine, researchers are able to create tiny particles that mimic the molecular fingerprint of a virus or bacterium. These particles are the key ingredients of a vaccine, and they come in various forms. Some simply copy a piece of the infectious germ (like the vaccine for whooping cough) or its genetic material (like some COVID-19 vaccines) in order to prepare the body’s defenses. Others (like the polio vaccine) contain a deactivated (or “dead”) version of the virus, while still others (like MMR and chickenpox) contain a version of the germ that is attenuated, or weakened to the point that it won’t cause disease in a healthy patient. When injected into the body, these particles trigger a gentle but effective immune response, leaving the body equipped with the disease-fighting memory cells needed to prevent a real infection in the future.
People sometimes mistakenly assume they have to choose: Either get vaccinated, or boost your natural immune system and rely on its disease-fighting powers instead. But vaccines do not—and cannot—replace the work of our immune system. Vaccines are the ultimate immune-boosters, strengthening our immune system and equipping it to do the extraordinary work God created it to do. Like a military drill, vaccination ensures our defenses are fully prepared to fend off a dangerous disease.
Addressing the Risk
“Vaccines are 100% safe!” say some. “Vaccines are dangerous!” say others. Who is correct?
The reality is that no vaccine is 100% risk-free, just as no medical procedure is 100% without risk. At the same time, opting out carries risks too—to ourselves and to others. Making a wise decision depends on having an accurate understanding of these risks, and weighing them properly.
Pharmaceutical companies naturally have a profit incentive to bring a vaccine to market. Knowing this, the FDA’s approval process ensures corporations are not the decision-makers regarding the safety of their own product. Vaccine trials proceed in multiple stages, typically taking several years and involving thousands or tens of thousands of individuals. To gain approval, the evidence must show that adverse reactions are rare and strongly outweighed by effective protection from disease. Longstanding vaccines, like the childhood MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) vaccine have now been delivered to millions of individuals, with continual monitoring for safety. As a result, the risks and probabilities can be well understood. For MMR, the data reveals 97% effectiveness in protecting against measles, a serious and potentially life-threatening disease. On the other hand, the risk of a serious allergic reaction to the vaccine is less than one in a million.
Stringent standards are enforced, even for the recent vaccines developed relatively quickly to curtail the devastating COVID-19 epidemic. This particular vaccine timeline was accelerated in part by manufacturing doses concurrently with testing to prepare for rapid dissemination if approved. This created a financial risk (since if the vaccine failed to meet the standards, the prepared doses would be destroyed), but without cutting corners on safety testing.
Even after the multi-stage approval process, adverse vaccine reactions do still happen. These range from the minor and temporary (like aches and mild fevers) to severe and potentially long-lasting. In the US, these reactions—whether known to be caused by the vaccine or not—are tracked by the Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System (VAERS) and monitored by the CDC, FDA, and World Health Organization. VAERS data is freely available to anyone, and tracking reports apart from the pharmaceutical companies ensures there are no profit motives to skew reporting. Across the board, the risks of vaccination are substantially lower than the risks associated with getting the infection itself. For example, one very rare risk associated with the flu vaccine is the development of Guillain-Barré Syndrome. However, the flu itself causes Guillain-Barré Syndrome 17 times more frequently than does the flu vaccine.
Reading stories of adverse reactions, whether truly caused by vaccines or not, understandably is enough to give anyone pause. But the risks can be carefully minimized and understood, just like with many other activities we experience throughout our lives. For example, in rare circumstances seat belts can cause severe internal injury, or even death, in a car crash. But we accept this minimal risk, knowing it is far outweighed by the protection seat belts normally provide. Risks are unavoidable in any course of action, but keeping them in perspective can give us confidence in making a wise decision.
Despite their safety record, vaccination rates have dropped in various communities across the country. The result has been a stark look at the other half of the risk equation. Measles for example, previously eliminated from the US by the year 2000, has recently reemerged as a concern, with numerous outbreaks of the aggressively contagious disease in communities with low vaccination rates. A torrent of online misinformation and misunderstanding has obscured one essential fact: The risks of modern vaccination pale in comparison to the risks of being left vulnerable to the dangerous diseases vaccines protect us from.
The range of specific questions about vaccine safety are too numerous to address here, but thankfully there are excellent resources available online. For example, the Vaccine Education Center provides a wealth of accessible information on vaccination schedules, ingredients, risks, and more. Resources like these, written by credentialed scientific experts dedicated to public health, are helpful for anyone seeking trustworthy answers to their questions.
Vaccine Production and Christian Ethics
While recognizing the overall safety of modern vaccines, some Christians still have questions about how they’re produced. Aren’t some vaccines produced using fetal cells derived from abortions? Wouldn’t that make them off-limits for us as Christians? This is a valid concern, and it’s important to understand the connection between fetal cells and some modern vaccines.
Like plants need soil, viruses and certain vaccines need a biological substrate to be tested on, and sometimes to be grown in. Chicken eggs often serve this purpose for flu vaccines. But for various reasons, certain other vaccines may depend on human cells for their initial development or ongoing production (though alternative means are likely to become more common as research develops). Cells drawn from a human adult present various roadblocks and are difficult to maintain in a laboratory. This led researchers in the mid-20th century to look for alternatives.
One solution currently in place involves cells derived from fetal tissue. It’s important to state this clearly: The individual human cells used for some vaccines’ development today are not, and have never been, part of an actual human body or fetus. How does this work? The original cells in question were isolated from one of several fetuses aborted in the 1960s and 1970s. Those cells were kept alive in a lab, for a brief period, to generate what’s called an “immortalized” cell line. Decades after the death of the original fetal cells, cells that descended from the original (fetal) cells are the ones used in the development of certain vaccines. These lab-grown cells are therefore not properly considered fetal tissue at all.
The circumstances of the original abortions are often unknown (in fact, some cell lines may have been derived from a miscarriage). But abortions were not performed in order to supply these cells, nor do the resulting vaccines contain human cells or fetal material in any way. Furthermore, ongoing vaccine research does not incentivize the establishment of new cell lines from recent abortions. (Research with new cell lines would require starting from scratch with costly regulatory approval, a pointless hurdle since the longstanding immortalized cell lines are already available.)
The question for pro-life Christians, then, is whether accepting a vaccine developed in this manner is objectionable, or would in any way make us morally complicit in the original decisions to abort decades ago. While the association with abortion gives many Christians pause, there is substantial agreement among Christian theologians and ethicists that the connection to fetal cell lines should not make these vaccines off-limits for Christians. BioLogos’ founder Francis Collins, an outspoken Christian and leading medical researcher, often gives an analogy that many find helpful. Imagine you’re in urgent need of a heart transplant, and a heart from an organ donor becomes available. But it turns out the organ donor was murdered. By accepting the transplant would you be complicit in his murder? Would you feel compelled to reject the transplant given the circumstances of the donor’s death? The Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission echoes this analogy in concluding that pro-life Christians can accept these vaccines, even while urging the development of alternative methods. Similar conclusions are drawn by the evangelical Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, and ethical guidance from the Roman Catholic Church.
Even if you’ve never received a vaccine, medical research based on these cell lines is so ubiquitous that “chances are if you have had a medical intervention in this country or pretty much any other country, you have benefited from the use of these cell lines in some way,” as one bioethicist reminds us. While discomfort with that reality may drive some Christians to press for alternative methods in the future, we should not feel compelled to forego the life-saving value of these vaccines in the present.
Loving—and Protecting—One Another
In Philippians 2:5-7, God commands us to, “In your relationships with another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” by “taking the very nature of a servant” and “not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” We, of course, need to make wise decisions for ourselves, recognizing that our “bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 6:19). But we also need to recognize that we were created to be in community with others, loving and serving them as Christ would.
Until we consider the effect our vaccination decisions have on others, we have not addressed the question from a fully Christian perspective. Before we close, let’s take a moment to consider just that.
Just as doctors look at the health of us as individuals, public health experts look at the health of our communities. In any community there are those particularly vulnerable to a disease, or who are medically unable or too young to be safely vaccinated. But if enough individuals in the community have immunity, they provide an umbrella of protection to those unable to be vaccinated. The threshold is different for each disease. In the case of measles for example, as long as 93-95% of the community is immunized, the virus will be unable to get a foothold in the community. Some communities in the US have recently dipped below that threshold. In 2015, a measles outbreak in California forced seven-year old Rhett Krawitt to speak out on his own behalf, making headlines as he advocated for consistent vaccination. Rhett had battled leukemia since he was two, and the cancer and a thousand doses of chemotherapy left his immune system weakened. Because of this, Rhett could not be vaccinated and could only depend on the vaccination of kids around him for protection. This protective shield is sometimes called “community immunity,” and is a powerful way we can be part of caring for the vulnerable and enriching the health of our communities every day.
This is an important aspect to keep in mind for milder diseases too, like the flu. If you’re young and healthy, you might feel little reason to worry about catching the flu in the winter months. But the flu kills tens of thousands of Americans each year, especially the elderly and young children with pre-existing conditions. You yourself may have little to fear if you reject a vaccine, but you’ll have little control over whom you infect in turn.
All Christians should praise and thank God for the awe-inspiring power of our bodily immune system. Yet we can also thank God for insights of doctors and researchers who have developed vaccines to strengthen our immune system, preventing countless early deaths and needless suffering. As we roll up our sleeves for a vaccine, we can be confident we are making an ethical and wise decision for the health of ourselves and our communities.
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In the escalating vitriol in our culture, “science” and “faith” have found each other on opposite sides of a polarized divide. Truth and community are under attack.
If there is one thing the pandemic has shown us, it is what science can and cannot do. Scientists and doctors have done amazing things during the pandemic—identified the virus, treated the disease, and developed safe vaccines that work.
But in these polarized times, science can’t reduce anger, forgive sins, build mutual respect, or fill us with compassion for others.
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Last updated on May 07, 2021