By / Mar 21

Today, we’re talking about how Christians can wisely and compassionately think about in vitro fertilization.

The reproductive medical technology known as in vitro fertilization, or IVF, has been in the news lately because of a crucial decision by the Alabama Supreme Court that clearly affirmed the personhood of human embryos. IVF is the procedure through which a woman’s egg and a man’s sperm are harvested and then fertilized outside of the womb. An embryo is created and implanted into the woman’s womb in hopes of leading to a pregnancy. IVF has enabled many couples wrestling with infertility to realize their dream of bearing children. Many of us know people who have used this technology. Yet, because it can lead to the good gift of children, most of us have not given the procedure a second thought. 

On today’s episode, Herbie Newell, president and executive director of Lifeline Children’s Services and its ministry arms, is going to discuss a vital aspect of thinking carefully about IVF. Lifeline is located in Alabama and is intimately acquainted with helping couples grow their families through adoption and orphan care.

For more ERLC resources on this topic, visit:

By / Mar 10

Over the past decade, scientists have developed a technique called mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT), which allows for the creation of babies with three genetic parents. MRT was originally developed to prevent the transmission of certain genetic diseases from parent to child. Yet as MIT Technology Review notes, “new evidence suggests it doesn’t always work—and could create babies at risk of severe diseases.” It was also discovered that MRT has been used as a way to treat infertility.

Whether or not this technology has the potential to prevent the transmission of certain genetic diseases or to help overcome infertility, the technology raises serious and significant bioethical and theological concerns. Here is what Christians should know about this controversial IVF technique. 

What is mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT)?

The process of creating babies with three genetic parents involves replacing the faulty mitochondrial DNA of the egg with healthy mitochondrial DNA from a donor, a technique, known as mitochondrial replacement therapy (MRT). Mitochondria are the energy-producing organelles within cells, and their dysfunction can lead to serious health problems for the baby. By using MRT to replace the faulty mitochondria, the child could theoretically be protected from mitochondrial diseases.

But the techique is not as sucessful as it once appearred. MIT Technology Review found two cases in which babies conceived with the procedure have shown what scientists call “reversion.” In both cases, notes Jessica Hamzelou, the proportion of mitochondrial genes from the child’s mother has increased over time, from less than 1% in both embryos to around 50% in one baby and 72% in another. “These mitochondrial diseases have devastating consequences,” as Björn Heindryckx at Ghent University in Belgium told MIT Technology Review. “We should not continue with this.”

Where is the technique currently legal?

Australia and the United Kingdom are the only nations that have explicitly authorized MRT. However, it has been used in IVF clinics in other countries, such as Greece and Ukraine.

The procedure is currently disallowed in the U.S. because Congress has, since 2015, included a provision in the federal budget that forbids altering the genomes of human embryos intended for pregnancies.

What are the concerns about MRT?

While this technique may sound promising, it raises numerous ethical and medical concerns.

One of the most significant bioethical concerns about this technique is that MRT involves the manipulation of genetic material, which could alter and affect the genetic makeup of future generations. This could have dangerous consequences, particularly in cases where the genetic changes are passed down through multiple generations. The reason is that mitochondria are not merely energy-producing organelles; they also play a role in a wide range of cellular processes. By replacing a woman’s defective mitochondria with healthy mitochondria from a donor, there is a risk of disrupting these cellular processes and causing unintended health problems. The long-term effects of MRT are not yet fully understood, and the safety of the procedure has not yet been established.

However, the research needed to make the technique viable and safe is itself unethical. Christians believe in the inherent value and dignity of all human life at every stage of development—including the embryonic stage. MRT requires the creation and destruction of human beings in the embryonic stage solely for research purposes. This killing of human beings for the purposes of research is an unjustifiable violation of the sanctity of life. 

Genetic modification may also lead to an increased acceptance of eugenics. Eugenics is the idea of improving the genetic quality of the human population through selective breeding or genetic engineering. While MRT is not directly related to eugenics, it does involve selecting and manipulating genetic material to achieve a desired outcome. This could potentially lead to a slippery slope where parents feel pressure to select certain traits in their children, or where certain traits are seen as more desirable than others. This could lead to a further devaluation of human life and a focus on genetic perfection rather than the inherent value of every human being made in God’s image.

Finally, there are concerns about the impact of MRT on family relationships. The creation of a child with genetic material from three different individuals raises questions about parentage and identity. This could lead to legal and social issues, such as disputes over custody and inheritance rights. MRT could further undermine the traditional understanding of the biological family unit (i.e., one biological mother and one biological father) and could have negative consequences for the emotional and psychological well-being of children created through this technology.

While the technique has ​the remote potential to offer hope to some couples at risk of passing on genetic disorders, both the known ethical concerns and the unforeseeable and unmanageable effects on future generations make it a reproductive technology that Christians should reject and oppose. 

By / Sep 29

Pig-to-human transplants sounds like science fiction, but actual occurrences of this experimental treatment were in medical news earlier this year. The field is known as xenotransplantation and refers to any sort of cross-species transplant. While there have been documented attempts at xenotransplantation as far back as the 17th century, with advancements in medicine and science in the modern era, xenotransplantation has become a reality with clinical trials of solid organs (e.g., kidneys; hearts) likely to take place soon. Christians should think carefully through the ethical issues this aspect of the medical world brings to the forefront.  

Why are pigs being used in humans?

The demand for human organs for transplant always outpaces their supply. In the United States alone there are over 100,000 persons waiting on an organ. The vast majority of these are waiting on a kidney, where the median wait time is about 3.5 years. Many patients will die from end-stage organ failure or other complications before they ever receive a transplant. To help mitigate this disparity, alternative sources of organs have been experimented with for decades. 

One alternative source that has shown a lot of promise in pre-clinical trial studies is genetically-altering pigs in order to make their organs more compatible for human use. Other animals have been considered, and xenotransplants have been attempted with them. A famous case—known as Baby Fae—took place in 1984. An infant only days old with a severe heart abnormality received a baboon heart. The child would die three weeks post-transplant from organ rejection. Since then, the primary model for solid organ xenotransplantation has shifted from primates to pigs for several reasons, including the large litter size of pigs, the size of pig organs that are roughly compatible with humans, the lesser risk of infectious disease transfer, and many persons seem to have less issue with using pigs than primates—though the use of pigs is still contested.

What are the latest advancements in xenotransplantation? 

Xenotransplantation has been primarily in pre-clinical trial stages for years. Researchers have been doing genetic alterations on the pig genome to make the organs more compatible with humans. Without these modifications of the pig genome then, even with immunosuppressant medication, it is likely that hyperacute rejection would soon occur—a process in which the body thinks something is foreign and attacks it. In addition to genetic modifications, work has been ongoing on novel immunosuppressant therapy as well as experiments that place the genetically-altered pig organs into other mammals, such as baboons, to see how they respond. 

In the fall of 2021, New York University (NYU), under the leadership of Robert Montgomery, transplanted a pig kidney into a human recipient that had been declared deceased by brain death criteria. Then they did it again about two months later.1Montgomery RA, Stern JM, Lonze BE, et al. Results of Two Cases of Pig-to-Human Kidney Xenotransplantation. N Engl J Med. 2022;386(20):1889-1898. Shortly after the first transplant at NYU, Jayme Locke and her team at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) transplanted two kidneys from a genetically-altered pig into a brain-dead human.2Porrett PM, Orandi BJ, Kumar V, et al. First clinical-grade porcine kidney xenotransplant using a human decedent model. Am J Transplant. 2022;22(4):1037-1053. Both research teams reported that the kidneys seemed to function fairly well, and there was no sign of hyperacute rejection. 

While the kidney transplants in brain-dead humans were a step forward for xenotransplantation, a giant leap would follow. The University of Maryland Medical Center (UMMC) would stun the transplant community when they announced in early January 2022 that they had successfully transplanted a pig heart into a living human.3Kotz D. UM Medicine Performs Historic Xenotransplantation. https://www.umaryland.edu/news/archived-news/january-2022/um-medicine-performs-historic-xenotransplantation.php. Published 2022. Updated January 11, 2022. Accessed January 12, 2022. The patient—David Bennett, Sr.—was reportedly not a candidate for a human heart. UMMC had a longstanding research program into pig heart transplantation and researchers at UMMC asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for emergency authorization to allow them to transplant a pig heart into Bennett. He would live for over 8 weeks4Rothblatt M. Commentary on achievement of first life-saving xenoheart transplant. Xenotransplantation. 2022:e12746. before dying from what some have suspected to be a virus that was transferred to him from the pig heart.

What are the ethical issues involved in xenotransplantation for Christians to be aware of?

While allotransplantation (human-to-human transplants) has been written on from a Christian perspective for decades (Helmut Thielicke, Paul Ramsey, and Gilbert Meilaender to name a few), Christian writings on xenotransplantation are sparse. The Catholic Church’s Pontifical Academy for Life has developed perhaps the most comprehensive theological viewpoint on the subject that would likely resonate with many Protestant Christians. Additional symposia and focus groups have been conducted with academic theologians and clergypersons alike,5Hurst DJ, Padilla LA, Cooper DKC, Paris W. Factors influencing attitudes toward xenotransplantation clinical trials: a report of focus group studies. Xenotransplantation. 2021:e12684. 6Paris W, Seidler RJH, FitzGerald K, Padela AI, Cozzi E, Cooper DKC. Jewish, Christian and Muslim theological perspectives about xenotransplantation. Xenotransplantation. 2018;25(3):e12400.and there has been a small number of empirical studies looking at how religious persons view xenotransplantation. 

From my perspective, the most glaring ethical issues with xenotransplantation that we need to think through from a theological perspective are 1) the use of animals as a supply of organs, and 2) the potential risk of infectious disease and how this may impact those who receive a pig organ and the wider public. Each of these two items has many subpoints that will be explained.

The proper use of animals for the benefit of humans has long been the subject of deliberation. In the Genesis creation account, God states, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth” (Gen. 1:26, ESV). From this account, it seems unquestionable that God gives humankind dominion over other living things, yet what this dominion entails has been subject to interpretation. 

Scripture reveals that God allows animals to be used for the benefit of humans in a variety of ways, including as food (Gen. 9:3), clothing (Gen. 3:21), and for labor that benefits humankind (Exo. 23:12). The term stewardship is often used when Christians think through their relationship to the created world, including animals (i.e., God has appointed humans as stewards over his creation). While in the garden of Eden prior to sin entering the human realm, Adam’s role in the garden is “to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15). A conventional interpretation of this implies that humans (Adam, in particular) are given a leadership role over God’s created role to prepare it, guard it, and protect it. King David tells us that all of creation is God’s: “The earth is the LORD’s and the fullness thereof, the world and those who dwell therein” (Psa. 24:1). All of creation is the Lord’s, and he has given a leadership role over his creation to humans, a delegation of authority to steward the world, its resources, and the living creatures within. 

How should we think about xenotransplantation? 

With these items in mind, how then do we regard xenotransplantation? I will emphatically note that Christian liberty instructs that we can disagree over the conclusions we draw from what it means to be stewards of God’s created world. Yet, I think there is a convincing argument that as God has granted dominion over the created world to humans, and as humans are meant to steward those resources well, then xenotransplantation may fit within this framework if we maintain certain parameters.

First, Christian doctrine affirms that humans are the only beings created in God’s image and, by bearing that image, they occupy a place of importance in the created order that animals do not. Humans are the ultimate work of creation. As the pinnacle of creation, some have taken this to mean that humankind can do anything they please with other created entities (e.g., the environment, animals). This would be a misinterpretation of what it means to be a steward of the resources God has given to humankind. Surely abuses have occurred in the past and present in the name of so-called exercising dominion, but acting in God’s image means—in part—that we are to mirror his goodness for creation. Christians can differ in how we apply certain aspects of dominion, such as what sound environmental policy might entail, but seeing the created world as merely at the disposal of humans and to be used in any conceivable way would be mistaken. 

While we must not make the mistake of seeing the created as ours to be exploited, one purpose of the created world is for the use—even the flourishing—of humanity. I am sensitive to those who have hesitations about explicitly breeding a genetically altered species of pigs solely for the purpose of using their organs to meet human needs. Yet, we similarly breed species of animals for other purposes: for sport, for work, for food, for companionship. These activities, it could be argued, are for human flourishing. Hence, if we deem it acceptable to promote the use of animals for these purposes, then it does not seem that using an animal for xenotransplantation is entirely dissimilar. This is not to say we still do not try to promote such activities within the confines of what is ethical (e.g., try to reduce animal suffering; reduce the number of animals needed if possible), but there does not seem to be anything explicitly unethical about the use of animals for the purpose of xenotransplantation if we accept the use of animals for certain other purposes. 

Second, one risk of xenotransplantation that has been known for decades is xenozoonotic infection. That is, the risk that the nonhuman organ may contain an infectious disease, such as a virus, that could infect the human that receives the nonhuman organ. It is then plausible that such an infection could spread to other close contacts and become a public health concern. As it was recently reported that the pig heart transplanted into the patient at UMMC was infected with a pig virus, this is a serious issue. Steps have been taken to reduce the risk of a xenozoonotic infection being transferred from a pig to a human, such as research protocols aimed at supplying pathogen-free porcine specimens (i.e., in how they’re raised/prepared), as well as developing highly sensitive molecular diagnostic panels to screen xenotransplant material for a wide range of infectious agents immediately prior to the transplant procedure. 

However, even with this mitigation the risk still exists, and the true level of this risk is uncertain. Every day, we accept some level of risk for ourselves and those around us. We drive our cars and are accepting risk. If we have passengers—children, especially—we are accepting a risk for them, as they cannot consent to that risk. I bring up the aspect of “risk” because as Christians we are called to love our neighbors. Jesus speaks of the greatest commandments being to love him and love our neighbor. Accepting a nonhuman organ carries the risk of becoming infected with a pig virus and then possibly exposing others (our neighbor) to that risk—a risk they did not consent to accept. From an ethical perspective, even apart from the question of how Christians might view xenotransplantation, the risk of infectious disease is likely the most looming ethics issue facing this new therapy. In one sense, putting our neighbor at some risk is unavoidable in this world. More work certainly needs to be done to ensure that the pigs used for xenotransplantation are pathogen-free, which would undoubtedly ease the minds of many.  

In short, xenotransplantation does present ethical challenges, but none seem outright insurmountable. The largest ethical issue facing xenotransplantation is the risk of potential infectious disease and what this may entail. For instance, some proposals call for xenograft recipients to be monitored for infectious diseases for the remainder of their lives. This seems difficult for both the study sponsor and the graft recipient to realize. The constant risk of spreading an infectious disease to loved ones (at least until the scientific community can be certain their source pigs are indeed pathogen-free) is a glaring issue and one that Christians may not want to assume currently. 

Acknowledgment: I want to thank long-time friend Scott James, MD for reading an early draft of this article and offering many helpful comments. 

Potential conflicts of interest: DJH is a paid consultant to a working group on ethical and social viewpoints of xenotransplantation at NYU. 

  • 1
    Montgomery RA, Stern JM, Lonze BE, et al. Results of Two Cases of Pig-to-Human Kidney Xenotransplantation. N Engl J Med. 2022;386(20):1889-1898.
  • 2
    Porrett PM, Orandi BJ, Kumar V, et al. First clinical-grade porcine kidney xenotransplant using a human decedent model. Am J Transplant. 2022;22(4):1037-1053.
  • 3
    Kotz D. UM Medicine Performs Historic Xenotransplantation. https://www.umaryland.edu/news/archived-news/january-2022/um-medicine-performs-historic-xenotransplantation.php. Published 2022. Updated January 11, 2022. Accessed January 12, 2022.
  • 4
    Rothblatt M. Commentary on achievement of first life-saving xenoheart transplant. Xenotransplantation. 2022:e12746.
  • 5
    Hurst DJ, Padilla LA, Cooper DKC, Paris W. Factors influencing attitudes toward xenotransplantation clinical trials: a report of focus group studies. Xenotransplantation. 2021:e12684.
  • 6
    Paris W, Seidler RJH, FitzGerald K, Padela AI, Cozzi E, Cooper DKC. Jewish, Christian and Muslim theological perspectives about xenotransplantation. Xenotransplantation. 2018;25(3):e12400.
By / Feb 9

Jason Thacker talks about ethics of prenatal testing and bioethics on World’s “The World and Everything In It” podcast.

Full interview here.

By / Apr 13

The International Society for Stem Cell Research (ISSCR) will recommend abolishing a longstanding ethical limitation on human embryo research. For decades the scientific community has observed the so-call 14-day rule. This ethical guideline—first formulated in the United Kingdom under the Warnock Commission in the mid-1980s—requires that embryos may only be gestated for 14 days after conception in the lab. The ISSCR wants the rule lifted so that human embryos can be developed to a more mature stage.

The 14-day rule was issued in the aftermath of the first successful IVF birth in the U.K. in 1978. The rationale for the rule is that at 14 days post-conception the developmental marker of the “primitive streak” appears, along which the central nervous system develops. Admittedly arbitrary, this marker has been an important benchmark for embryo research.

Acknowledging the plurality of views on the moral status of the human embryo even back then, the Warnock Commission recognized that some limits were necessary.  

. . . as we have said, it would be idle to pretend that there is not a wide diversity in moral feelings, whether these arise from religious, philosophical or humanist beliefs. What is common (and this too we have discovered from the evidence) is that people generally want some principles or other to govern the development and use of the new techniques. There must be some barriers that are not to be crossed, some limits fixed, beyond which people must not be allowed to go. Nor is such a wish for containment a mere whim or fancy. The very existence of morality depends on it. A society which had no inhibiting limits, especially in the areas with which we have been concerned, questions of birth and death, of the setting up of families, and the valuing of human life, would be a society without moral scruples. And this nobody wants. (Warnock Report, p. 2)

Well, at least nobody wanted the barriers to be crossed until now. According to Antonio Regalado, writing in MIT Technology Review, the ISSCR “is not going to set a specific new time limit, like 28 or 36 days . . . the society wants to move to a more flexible approach.” 

For those who are pro-life, the 14-day rule is already a bridge too far. This rule permits the generation of human embryos in the lab and requires researchers to destroy them by the 14th day. So, in fact, the 14-day rule is in essence a mandate to kill human embryos. 

And, if members of the ISSCR are honest, they must agree that human life begins at conception. That is, after all, why they want the 14-day limit abolished. They want a policy that will allow them to perform research on living members of the species Homo sapiens from conception onward. They want permission to research using living human embryos, not mouse embryos, dog embryos, or other species. 

Currently, in the United States, human embryo research may not be done with tax payer dollars. Since 1996, the Dickey-Wicker Amendment, attached to the appropriations bills for the Departments of Health and Human Services, Labor, and Education, restricts the use of federal funds for creating, destroying, or knowingly injuring human embryos. Each year the amendment faces challenges to overturn it. The jury is out on what the stance of the Biden administration will be.

To make matters yet more complicated, two different research teams have developed “embryo-like entities” called human blastoids, which resemble human embryos at the blastocyst stage. According to the scientists, these blastoids behave like early-stage embryos at about the 2-3 week stage of development. 

If these human blastoids behave like early-stage human embryos, including attaching themselves to the petri dish in a way similar to the way the embryo attaches to the uterine wall, how are they to be distinguished from human embryos?  Case Western Reserve and Harvard University bioethicist, Insoo Hyun, observed in a recent NPR interview that these experiments raise “a very interesting question of, at what point does an embryo model become a real embryo.” Indeed!

Are these really human embryos or does calling them “blastoids” only obscure the facts?  As, Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, staff ethicist for the National Catholic Bioethics Center has said, “Scientists face the perennial temptation to depersonalize early human life, and to treat embryos as objects. Human beings are so sacred, that we must particularly reverence them in their origins, in the way they come into the world.”

Research using human subjects, whether at the embryonic stage or at the end of life, requires utmost respect for the nature and sanctity of human life. Until researchers can be sure that they are not crossing the line by trampling on the sanctity of human embryos, they should resist those experiments. The end does not always justify the means to get there.

By / Mar 31

Mary has been a resident of West Valley Assisted Living Center for three years. She has a new caregiver named Harvey. Harvey visits Mary’s room every morning at 8:30 a.m. sharp. He says, “Hellllooo!” and slowly pushes open her door. Harvey brings Mary her morning medication, takes her blood pressure, and asks, “How are you feeling today, Mary?” Mary responds, “Just fine,” and Harvey gives her a big wink and replies with a very happy, “That’s what we like to hear.” 

Mary and Harvey always talk about her children who live in different states. Harvey always seems interested. Then Mary gets updates from Harvey on the weather forecast and a reminder of the day of the week. After a few minutes, Harvey pivots, offers a snappy, “Well, off to my next client!” and motors himself out of the room, carefully pushing the door closed behind him and exclaiming, “Toodle-oo Mary!” Harvey is West Valley’s newest technology, a service robot.

Robots and health care 

Although the story is fictional for the moment, robots are increasingly being called on to assist in health care. According to industry magazine, HealthTech, Adventist Health White Memorial in Los Angeles employs seven LightStrike robots from Xenex Disinfection Services to decontaminate rooms after patients leave. Each robot can emit multiple wavelengths of UV rays, sanitizing the room in as little as 10 to 15 minutes without human contact. 

A fleet of six Aethon TUG robots deliver linens and medicine across the 912-bed facility at MedStar Washington Hospital Center in Washington, D.C. Each robot can execute hundreds of tasks daily (collectively, they traveled 2,974 miles and completed 26,574 stops last year, according to the hospital). At Hutchinson Health, a Level IV Trauma Center in Hutchinson, Minnesota, a Savioke Relay robot delivers blood samples between the main hospital lab and its onsite clinics. Named Spencer (as in dispenser), the robot can work 24/7 and averages nearly 400 in-house deliveries per month. The machine is more efficient and cost-effective than a human employee and never needs paid family leave.

Soon other aspects of caregiving will be delegated to medical robots. In a September 2020 story in the British newspaper, The Guardian, Robert Booth reported that robots will be deployed in British care homes (nursing homes) to help boost the residents’ mental and emotional health.  

The wheeled robots, called “Pepper”, move independently and gesture with robotic arms and hands and are designed to be “culturally competent”, which means that after some initial programming they learn about the interests and backgrounds of care home residents. This allows them to initiate rudimentary conversations, play residents’ favourite music, teach them languages, and offer practical help including medicine reminders.

Robots, persons, and human care 

Even if programmed by human beings, and even if very efficient, are robots appropriate for truly human care? Not in my view. Robots do not care. They cannot provide care. They do not have the capacity to do so either emotionally or existentially. That is not to say that robots cannot perform important tasks. And it is also not to say that they might not be able to do some tasks more efficiently, more frequently, and more accurately than some humans; but they cannot provide care. Human care is a uniquely human gift, just as human touch is a uniquely human experience.

Care is a person-centered virtue. For Christians, the Good Samaritan is the classic example. In the account in Luke 10:25-27, Jesus makes it clear that providing care for those who are hurting and vulnerable is a holy obligation, not an option. In contemporary conversations, being a good Samaritan is often described as going above and beyond the call of duty, but Jesus’ words at the end of the story, “Go and do likewise,” show that it is an imperative. What models are there for Christian person-centered care for senior adults?

Among some Christians, care for the sick, aged, poor, unloved, and dying is a religious vocation or calling. The Alexian Brothers, for instance, is a lay Catholic order that dates back to the Black Death in 14th century Europe. Their moto is Caritas Christus Urgent Nos (For the love of Christ Compels Us). Their articles of faith begin with the affirmation: “We believe that life is a sacred gift from God. Each person is created in the divine image with a right of conscience and from conception until death is called to eternal union with God.” The Alexian Brothers established hospitals, continuing care retirement communities, and other ministries in health care.

The Christian and Missionary Alliance, an evangelical denomination, operates Shell Pointe Retirement Community, that provides independent living, assisted living, memory care, rehabilitation, skilled nursing care, a pharmacy, and two medical centers. Rather than warehousing senior adults, Shell Pointe is “dedicated to the service of God and the care of His people by providing a broad continuum of residential alternatives and services, designed to enhance the independence and dignity of its residents through spiritual, social, recreational, and physical programs.”

Through their state conventions or other nonprofit entities, Southern Baptists operate a number of senior adult and continuing care retirement communities, including communities in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Texas, Missouri, and other states. In Missouri, “For over 100 years, The Baptist Home has provided care for the aging by providing quality care driven by a biblical perspective. Missouri Baptists are committed to supporting the sanctity of life from conception to natural death. The Baptist Home serves this commitment through Christlike, compassionate care to our aging population.”

If Southern Baptists and other Christians are going to resist the robot revolution in health care, respect human dignity, and support the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death, they will have to rededicate themselves to patient-centered care, including senior adult care, palliative care, and hospice. We must not allow human senior communities to devolve into old people factories.

By / Mar 12

How should we think about the ethics of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine? Russell Moore joins Jeff Pickering, Chelsea Patterson Sobolik, and Travis Wussow to explain why it is ethical to take this shot. And specifically for pro-life Christians, taking the vaccines will help preserve life and end the pandemic suffering.

The round table also reflects on the one year anniversary of the pandemic and what it all means for the church going forward. 

Resources from the Conversation

By / Dec 15

Several COVID-19 treatments and vaccines have come under scrutiny because their development included testing possibly using abortive fetal cells. Here is what you should know about the fetal tissue cells and the ethical concern about using them to develop therapeutics and vaccines. 

What are fetal tissue cells, and how are they used?

A human fetus (Latin for “offspring”) is the stage of human development from the embryo stage (the end of the eighth week after conception, when the major structures have formed) until birth. When the fetus dies, either naturally or by an elective abortion, the tissue (including intact organs) can be legally donated for research purposes.

As Christians committed to the cause of human dignity, we affirm that a human life begins at the moment of conception. Further, we recognize that every human life, even in the earliest or most advanced stages, bears all the rights and dignity of a person. Therefore, the use of fetal tissue in medical research and treatments is a matter of deep concern for believers.

Fetal tissue can be used in biomedical research for transplantation material and other purposes, but is more often connected to the creation of “immortalized” cell lines. Immortalized cell lines are established by culturing fetal cells in such a way that they continue growing and multiplying in laboratory dishes indefinitely. These cells can then be used for such activities as testing a drug’s ability to damage genetic material or to test the effects of specific viral infection.  

While immortalized cell lines began with fetal cells, they no longer contain fetal body parts, and no fetal tissue remains. No cells remain from the original fetal tissue. 

Fetal tissue—obtained both ethically and unethically—has been used to develop life-saving vaccines and therapeutic treatments for diseases such as cancer. For example, the 1954 Nobel Prize for Medicine, for instance, was awarded for a polio vaccine that was developed from fetal kidney cells. Fetal cells were also used in the production of a widely used vaccine for measles. In both cases, the tissue was obtained from spontaneous abortions and ectopic pregnancies. Cells from aborted fetuses, however, have been used in a number of more recent vaccines for chickenpox, hepatitis, measles, mumps, poliomyelitis, rabies, rubella, and smallpox. Fetal tissue from aborted fetuses has also been used in cosmetics and anti-aging creams.

As Nicholas Evans, a bioethicist at the University of Massachusetts Lowell, says, “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.”

Were fetal cells used in the experimental treatment for COVID?

Regeneron Pharmaceuticals manufactured an experimental antibody cocktail known as REGN-COV2. Regeneron has clarified that the company tested the effectiveness of REGN-COV2 by creating a “pseudovirus” mimicking the actual one. One element of the pretend virus is a cell line known as HEK293T. 

HEK293T is a widely used immortalized cell line that was made from fetal tissue acquired in the Netherlands in the 1970s. The records pertaining to the origins of HEK293T were lost, so it is not know whether the tissue came from a spontaneous miscarriage or an elective abortion.

In either case, it’s important to distinguish between “fetal tissue cells” and “cells derived from a long chain that arose from cells in fetal tissue.” The HEK293T cells are no longer fetal tissue cells. 

Were cells derived from fetal cells used in the creation of COVID-19 vaccines?

In addition to the use on REGN-COV2, at least five of the candidate COVID-19 vaccines being developed in America use cells from HEK293T cells or PER.C6, a cell line developed from retinal cells from an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985. 

The vaccines by Pfizera and Moderna recently approved by the FDA used HEK293T cells in the testing process, but not in the production of the vaccines themselves.

Is it immoral to use treatments and vaccines developed using aborted fetal cells?

Christians should always prefer medical treatments that have no connection to elective abortions. But in light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the approval of at least one vaccine for use in the United States, it is important to understand whether taking a vaccine that utilized (or potentially utilized) aborted fetal cells is morally permissible.

A common way of addressing this question is to determine what type of cooperation is undertaken in the evil act of abortion. To cooperate in evil, the cooperator contributes in some way to the wrongful action of the principal agent, either by formal cooperation or material cooperation.

Formal cooperation happens when a person cooperates with the immoral action of another person, sharing in the latter’s evil intention, while material cooperation occurs when the person cooperates with the immoral action of another person, without sharing the evil intention. While formal cooperation is always evil, making a determination on material cooperation depends on other additional factors. 

For example, if the abortion was conducted in order to harvest tissues that were to be used for the purpose of creating a cell line, then it would clearly be immoral. But in the case of  HEK293T, even if an abortion occured it was not carried out for that reason, and the tissue was acquired for the purpose of medical research only after the death of the child occurred for other reasons. This has significant consequences for determining whether such research is either licit or immoral.

To determine the morality of using the cells, it is helpful to compare it to another situation: the use of organs from a person who has been murdered. If a doctor were to offer to transplant a kidney or heart from the murder victim into a Christian, we would likely not have any objection. The primary concern would be whether the victim consented to organ donation prior to their death. 

Most Christian ethicists agree that fetal tissue donation is not inherently unethical if the tissue was obtained from a spontaneous abortion (miscarriage) or an ectopic pregnancy (a pregnancy in which the fetus implants in the fallopian tube instead of the uterus) and was willingly donated by the parent. Such donations would be similar to a parent agreeing to donate the organs of an infant or a child that had died by natural causes.

The donation of fetal tissue may be morally tainted, though, when the tissue is derived from a fetus that has been killed in the womb. Allowing and condoning such donations of tissue derived from abortion to continue would make us indirectly morally complicit in the act of abortion, conveying a sense of approval for an ongoing regime that sanctions the killing of the unborn. 

That raises the question of whether the use of cells from HEK293T would promote abortion in just such a way. While pro-life Christians may disagree on how to answer that question, it is unlikely that the use of the HEK293T cell line will lead to additional children being murdered in the womb in order to expand the number of fetal tissue cell lines. The reason is that it is completely unnecessary, and medically inexpedient, to create new cell lines from aborted children. As Rev. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, a Catholic biomedical researcher, explains

. . . HEK293 is an established cell line. What this means is that these cells have been used and studied by biologists for nearly half a century. They are well characterized, and they have been validated for their safety. I point this out because it helps explain why it is unheard of for a vaccine manufacturer to seek out new human fetal cells from a recent abortion. Such novel fetal cells would be uncharacterized, unvalidated, and unapproved by regulatory agencies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for human vaccine production. Why waste time, effort, and money to obtain, characterize, and validate new human fetal cells when the classic fetal cell lines obtained decades ago like HEK293 are readily and cheaply available? 

Currently, the use of the HEK293T cells in biomedical research is not increasing the number of abortions that are being carried out every year. If we were to see evidence of that happening, however, it would change the moral calculation.

The remaining question is whether accepting the use of HEK293T cells would potentially be cooperating with the killing of the child in the 1970s. For a number of reasons, many if not most Christian bioethicists would argue that it is not (assuming an abortion even occured). The primary reason being that this situation is morally analogical to the case of the murder victim/organ donor. No one would say the Christian who received the organ was morally responsible in any way for the murder. 

For this reason, Christians are not morally culpable if they use treatments and vaccines that were developed using such cells, even if the cells originated in aborted fetal tissue. As David Prentice, vice president and research director of the pro-life Charlotte Lozier Institute, says, “We would prefer they not use the controversial cell line even in the testing, because there are other alternatives. But that testing on the side doesn’t affect me in terms of the recipient of the drug.” Ethicist Christopher O. Tollefsen also adds, “Because researchers may ethically use the HEK cell lines to develop vaccines, people can of course ethically use a vaccine should it be developed from the HEK cell lines.”

For more on the ethics of the COVID-19 vaccines:

By / Aug 28

In this episode, Josh, Lindsay, and Brent discuss Hurricane Laura, Jacob Blake, the Republican National Convention, Liberty University, and COVID-19. Lindsay also gives a rundown of this week’s ERLC content including a piece by Jason Thacker with “How pornography is preying on the vulnerable in the midst of COVID-19,” Alex Ward with “Explainer: Report of the Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board,” and Josh Wester with “4 Lessons from Carl F.H. Henry’s The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism.” Also in this episode, the hosts are joined by Meredith Leatherwood for a conversation about life and ministry.

About Meredith

Meredith Leatherwood is the Founder of Leatherwood Promotions, a business that promotes Christian records and singles in the music industry. She has been working in the music industry for nearly two decades as a record promoter. She holds a Masters in Theology from Liberty University. She and Brent have been married for eight years and they’re busy raising three children in Nashville, Tennessee. 

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  1. A massive hurricane, named Laura, made landfall early Thursday morning off the coasts of Louisiana and Texas
  2. 2 killed during Jacob Blake protests in Kenosha
  3. Justic Dept. to open investigation on Kenosha shooting
  4. 17-year-old charged with homicide after shooting during Kenosha protests, authorities say
  5. Republican National Convention took place
  6. Falwell resigns as president of Liberty
  7. Coronavirus cases fell by 15% this week

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By / Aug 25

Recently, the Human Fetal Tissue Ethics Advisory Board released its recommendations for funding based on proposals submitted to the National Institute of Health. This board, tasked with the oversight of projects that would require the use of fetal tissue, recommended that the Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar withhold funding from all but one project. This has led to charges that the board is bringing ideology to bear on an objective process. However, the board is made up of experts across the ideological spectrum who weighed the proposals and made recommendations based on the merits or deficiencies of the proposals. 

Background: Defining fetal tissue research and a history of the oversight board

Fetal tissue research is the use of cells “that are harvested for the purpose of establishing cell lines or for use as transplantation material and other purposes.” This process of harvesting cells can be done through induced abortions or from miscarriages, but the mother must consent for the cells to be used in NIH proposals and research. 

The Human Fetal Tissue Research Ethics Advisory Board was announced in June of 2019 when the Trump administration banned the current use of fetal tissue in federally funded projects. Previously, the process had been for grants to go from the National Institutes of Health to the Secretary for final approval. However, with the creation of the new board, previous projects were halted, and all new proposals had to go through an additional layer of ethical review. This board, made up of 15 individuals who meet specific qualifications, and which must be made up of a broad range of experts, considered the ethical ramifications of the research and the necessity of the fetal tissue research. Their recent meeting recommended withholding funds from 13 proposals previously approved by the NIH and the funding of one proposal. It will now be up to Secretary Azar to make the final decision under HHS rules.

The members of the board include scientists, theologians, ethicists, and medical professionals. There are a range of perspectives on the board raging from those opposed to fetal research and those who are advocates of the procedure. One member in particular, Ben Mitchell, should be noted because of his expertise in this area. He is a Southern Baptist bioethicist, a member of the ERLC’s Research Institute, and the former Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University.

What recommendations were made?

Reviewing the recommendations of the board, there are several things to note about the proposals that were rejected and the one that was approved. Though there is no identifying information about the proposals, it is clear that, despite the ideological diversity of the board, there was not much disagreement on board about most proposals. When comparing the votes, only two of the proposals received relatively close votes. The other 12 ranged from 10-5 to 15-0 voting to withhold funds. So it is clear that on a board containing members across the ideological spectrum, a clear supermajority was reached as to the viability of these studies in almost every case. 

When looking at the reasons that the proposals were rejected, the participants noted a number of problems that caused them to vote as they did. These ranged from procedural and privacy concerns about the research to larger scale questions such as the manner in which the tissue would be obtained, whether another type of tissue could be used, and even the concern that one institution could be profiting from the procurement of the tissue. Also, it should be noted that several members of the board made clear that they would be willing to support the proposal if the problematic uses of tissue were removed or corrected. 

The board voted 9-6 for the proposal they recommended funding. The proposal is for a study of alternatives to fetal tissue and substitutes. In a study of this type, some fetal tissue is necessary as a control group so as to judge the experimental group. However, the recommendation clarifies that this study would be using existing fetal tissue which had been stored rather than acquiring new sources. Thus, it would not run afoul of causing the researchers to participate in abortion or other procedures to procure the samples. and if successful, it would eliminate the need for future research with fetal tissue by providing an alternative. 

How should Christians think about fetal tissue research?

There are several ethical considerations when it comes to fetal tissue research for the Christian. The first is the manner in which the tissue was originally collected. As noted above, fetal tissue can be taken from miscarriages or induced abortions. Christians ought to reject any willful taking of the life of a child for medical research purposes because of the child’s right to life. However, in the cases of miscarriages, there is room for disagreement among Christians about how to use the cells, just as in the case of individuals who donate their organs after death or bodies for medical research.

The other concern is what is to be done with cell lines that are already in existence from previously harvested tissue. Some of these were taken from aborted children, and thus were collected through unethical and immoral means. But does this mean that all research from the stem cell line must be rejected? While there is room for debate in this area, the salient ethical concern is whether an individual is participating in the evil of abortion by benefiting from the research of tissue collected by immoral means. As with vaccines developed with stem cell lines from aborted children, the individual who chooses to receive the vaccine is not morally culpable for the methods used to create the vaccine, but they should pursue ethical vaccine creation with alternatives to fetal tissue. 

In general, Christians should oppose the use of fetal tissue in research because of the way it incentivizes the marketing of aborted human fetal tissue. Though there are ways to obtain the tissue ethically, as with the consent of parents after a miscarriage, it is impossible to avoid the way this practice incentivizes the treatment of children as tools for scientific experimentation. One abortion provider, after intense public backlash following horrific videos detail practices for obtaining the tissue, said that it would no longer attempt to recoup the $45-60 that it receives as reimbursement for the tissue collection. When they made that statement in 2015, that $45 (taking the lower estimate) would have netted the abortion provider, if half of their 140,000 abortions resulted in fetal tissue to be sold, an additional $3 million. Christians should oppose this commodification of children and a Darwinistic worldview struggle that defines individuals by their utility rather than their intrinsic worth.

Ethics, science, and pro-life policies

For these reasons, the ERLC is grateful for the careful consideration the advisory board clearly carried out with respect to the proposals before it. The ERLC applauds the work of the board in ensuring an ethical approach to such a sensitive subject. 

Some detractors of the board have castigated it as a group which has brought ideology to bear on the rational and objective sciences. However, it should be noted that these ethical review boards arise out of a history of scientists objectifying individuals and populations and treating them as subjects for research rather than individuals possessing unique dignity and worth, most notably the notorious Tuskegee Study in the early 20th century. There is a need for ethical oversight when it comes to human research, especially when vulnerable populations are involved. 

Though there are cases where fetal tissue can be obtained ethically, as in the case of miscarriages, there is also the danger of incentivizing the death and sale of children through fetal tissue research. Thus, it is imperative that a board such as this review proposals and ensure that a culture of death is not expanded under the banner of improving life for the rest of humanity. We cannot sacrifice the weakest for our own benefit—that is a Darwinistic outlook that sees power and might as the standard of morality and defines a child in terms of his or her usefulness, not their intrinsic worth. The work that the advisory board is doing helps to promote an ethical approach to research that defends the rights of the most vulnerable.