The Pro-life movement and Black Americans. The media tends to portray these two groups as very different. And they are. But there are some curious commonalities between the two groups. Most obviously, there are large numbers of Christians in both groups. More surprisingly, these two groups are by far the most suspicious of the COVID vaccine – although for different reasons.
Why do Pro-lifers and Blacks have this vaccine suspicion?
My name is Curtis Chang, and welcome to Redeeming Babel, where our mission is to provide Biblical thinking in a confusing world. In another video, I explained the history behind Black American distrust of vaccination. In this video, I turn to the Pro-life movement.
Pro-lifers fear that the vaccine is connected to abortion. And indeed there is a distant connection. But the consensus of leading Christian bioethicists is that this distant connection should not discourage pro life Christians from taking the vaccine. Pro lifers in fact have strong reasons to be pro-vaccine.
The cell line
To understand why this is the case, one must first understand what a cell line is. A cell line begins with some original cell taken from a human source, and then those original cells get replicated in labs over and over and over, often over decades. The cells that descend from that original cell make up the cell line. It is these descendant cells – the cell line – that gets used in biomedical research.
One of the most important cell lines used in COVID vaccine research is the HEK 293 cell line. No one knows the actual individual identity of HEK 293. The original cells were obtained in the Netherlands in 1973 by Dr. Frank Graham. Dr. Graham has reported that he cannot be sure whether the fetal remains came about through a miscarriage or an elective abortion. But it is quite possible – maybe even probable – that HEK 293 originated from an elective abortion.
For the sake of understanding the pro-life Christian’s worst fears, let’s assume this is the case.
This would mean that COVID vaccine research used cells that if you back far enough, can be trace an ancestry to a past abortion. Keep in mind that the vaccine ITSELF does not contain any fetal cells; it is the research PROCESS that used the cell line. And remember the cell line used today is not the actual original cell taken from a fetus. Those original cells are long gone. The HEK 293 cell line are the descendants of that original cell taken back in 1973.
The HEK 293 cell line has been used not just in vaccine research, but in most advanced medical treatments today. The biggest recent breakthroughs in treatment for diabetes, heart conditions, hepatitis, arthritis, lung disease, cancer and many other diseases all drew upon the HEK 293 cell line. In fact, if someone today did not want to touch the impact of the HEK 293 cell line at all, that person would almost have to disconnect from modern medicine entirely. If you have received any meaningful medical treatment in the past ten years, you most likely have already been impacted by the HEK 293 cell line. None of us can avoid this impact.
And this is where we have to make a key distinction: the distinction between impact and guilt. Impact does not equal guilt.
There can certainly be impact from a past sin. In fact, the Biblical concept of original sin is meant to say that none of us can avoid the impact of past sin. Sin originates a “cell line” of impact, if you will, that can extend down through the generations. Anyone who has a family of origin where there was abuse or addiction knows that this is true. Past sin makes an impact on subsequent generations.
But impact that gets passed on is not the same as current guilt. Let’s say, God forbid, you had a grandparent who was abusive. This fact will impact your family of origin and probably even you. But this does not mean that you automatically are an abuser. Impact gets passed on. But guilt does not. In the same manner, an act of abortion back in 1973 had a huge impact on all biomedical research, including COVID vaccine research. But this does not automatically make the COVID vaccine guilty.
So, as we think about the COVID vaccine from a pro-life perspective, let me emphasize three key points:
None of the vaccines contain any fetal tissue or offshoot
No actual cell taken directly from fetuses were used in research
None of the vaccines encourage more abortions for medical research
None of the vaccines contain any fetal tissue or offshoot
First, none of the vaccines contain any fetal cells or even any descendant cells. None of the vaccines contain the HEK 293 cell line itself. To repeat, the research process for the vaccine relied on the cell line, but the vaccine itself does not include the cell line. When someone gets injected with the vaccine, they are NOT getting injected with any fetal tissue or any cell line originating from fetal tissue.
No actual cell taken directly from fetuses were used in research
Second, no actual cells taken directly from fetuses were used in the research. When we talk about how the HEK 293 or other cell line were used in vaccine development, remember that we are not talking about the actual cells from an abortion that happened decades ago. The HEK 293 cells used today in labs are not the original cells. Those original cells are long gone. The cell line are descendants (usually modified at that) of those original cells.
The analogy I like to use is the railroad lines that connect my home state of California to the rest of the country. Most goods that we Californians import today from the rest of the country come to us on railroad lines that were originally laid down in the building of the First Transcontinental railroad. That origin story is filled with racist treatment of the first Chinese Americans, my ancestors. They were discriminated against horribly, given the most dangerous jobs, and were periodically lynched by mobs, like in the horrible Rock Spring Massacre.
Today’s transportation lines into California are like the fetal cell lines that developed the COVID vaccine. They are not evil in their current state and usage, but they run on tracks that follow lines first laid down by previous institutional sin. And none of us can avoid being touched by those lines.
None of the vaccines encourage more abortions for medical research
Finally, it is important to emphasize that none of the COVID vaccines encourage more abortions for medical research.
In fact, the fact that HEK 293 has been so widely studied and used for decades means that most researchers rely on it and other long established cell lines. They are not motivated to obtain new cell lines from new fetuses. And government regulations strongly discourage any researcher trying to do so, especially from aborted fetuses. This point is key to the difference between impact and guilt. Because it means that current vaccine research, while it has been impacted by past abortion, is not guilty of promoting current abortions.
All of these facts have led to a consensus among the leading Christian bioethicists. The consensus is that Christians – including pro-life Christians – are encouraged to take the COVID vaccines. The Vatican – which as studied this issue extensively – has given its approval. The president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary has similarly approved. Leading conservative bioethicists, like those associated with pro life foundations such as the Heritage Foundation have also joined in the approval.
I agree with this chorus of thinkers. I believe that every pro-life Christian should take the COVID vaccine.
Indeed, I suggest that the COVID vaccine can serve as an image of God’s redemption. Redemption is God’s ultimate answer to the problem of original sin. Redemption is taking something that originated in a wrongful state, and reworking that thing into something good. The Bible tells us that in his death and resurrection, Jesus redeemed human sin.
1 Corinthians 15:22 puts it this way:
“For as all die in Adam, so also all shall be made alive in Christ.”
1 Corinthians 15:22
In other words, Adam’s original sin had an impact on us all. We are descendants of his spiritual cell line, so to speak. But the origins of that spiritual cell line, that began in death, is not the final verdict. The spiritual line of Adam has been reworked by Jesus. What began as a story of sin and death has been reworked into a story of forgiveness and life. That is what it means to be “made alive in Christ.” That is redemption.
The idea that what began in death could be reworked into life is hard for the human mind to grasp. This is why we need images of redemption in the world. We need examples that can serve as metaphors of what Jesus accomplished, that show us, “Jesus’ redemption is kind of like that…”
I propose that the COVID vaccine is an image of redemption. Yes, the vaccine may have a distant origin story in abortion. But that past has been reworked and redeemed into something that saves life. We can point to the vaccine and say, “Jesus redemption is kind of like that.” And indeed, the production of a vaccine in less than a year is really a miracle. Something like this has never happened this quickly. I personally believe God’s redemptive power was present in the process.
My invitation to Pro-life Christians who distrust the COVID vaccine is this: please remember that the Christian story is the story of redemption. Every one of us has a origin story in sin. None of us can avoid this. Yet each one of us has had our story reworked by Jesus into new life. That’s what it ultimately means to be pro-life. To be pro life is to be pro redemption. And to be pro redemption, in my view, means being pro vaccine.
The vaccine is ultimately a redemption story. Let’s be part of that story.
It can be all too human to jump in too fast and draw quick conclusions on the meaning or reason behind something, adding to what are often irrational beliefs. Often with ambiguous events, a ‘meaning vacuum’ occurs, leaving us without immediate clarity on the event.
We all need to be able to wait patiently and let a situation calm down before deciding what – if anything – we should do about it. This can be the difference between ‘believing’ and ‘knowing’, and I talk more about that distinction later in the video, with some tips on how to carefully help someone make that distinction, and how to dispute irrational beliefs.
Can you be honest without being rude or hurting other people? In this video we talk about how you can be honest and accurate with what you are saying to the other person and learn to do it from a sharing perspective. The real truth that describes what is going on on the deepest level in that moment for you is almost always going to be taken in and appreciated by the other person. If we learn to be aware of habitual subconscious patterns like soaking in and boiling with emotions or acting out of an emotion to attack the other person or defend ourselves we can go deeper and share what is going on at the core. This is the most connecting, constructive and truthful way of being honest and will help you and the other person get a deeper understanding of what’s really happening. It opens the potential for the relationship (acquaintance, work, friends, couple, family etc.) to deepen and each indivual to grow and expand in this truth. If honesty is coming from a deep desire to be truthful and sharing that truth for the good of both it is the most beautiful gift you can give anyone.
Don’t try to change someone else’s mind. Instead, help them find their own motivation to change.
A few years ago, I made the mistake of having an argument with the most stubborn person I know. R., whose initial I’m using to protect his privacy, is a longtime friend, and when his family came to visit, he mentioned that his children had never been vaccinated — and never would be.
I’m no proponent of blindly giving every vaccination to every newborn, but I was concerned for his children’s safety, so I started debunking some common vaccine myths. After days of debate, I was exhausted and exasperated. Determined to preserve our friendship, I vowed never to talk with him about vaccines again.
Then came 2020. Fear of the vaccine may be the greatest barrier to stopping Covid-19. It stretches far beyond the so-called anti-vaxxer community: About half of Americans harbor questions about the safety of the Covid-19 vaccines; 39 percent say they definitely or probably won’t get one.
I decided to see if I could open R.’s mind to the possibility. What I didn’t realize was that my mind would be opened as well.
As an organizational psychologist, I’ve spent the past few years studying how to motivate people to think again. I’ve run experiments that led proponents of gun rights and gun safety to abandon some of their mutual animosity, and I even got Yankees fans to let go of their grudges against Red Sox supporters. But I don’t always practice what I teach.
When someone seems closed-minded, my instinct is to argue the polar opposite of their position. But when I go on the attack, my opponents either shut down or fight back harder. On more than one occasion, I’ve been called a “logic bully.”
When we try to change a person’s mind, our first impulse is to preach about why we’re right and prosecute them for being wrong. Yet experiments show that preaching and prosecuting typically backfire — and what doesn’t sway people may strengthen their beliefs. Much as a vaccine inoculates the physical immune system against a virus, the act of resistance fortifies the psychological immune system. Refuting a point of view produces antibodies against future attempts at influence, making people more certain of their own opinions and more ready to rebut alternatives.
That’s what happened with my friend. If I wanted him to rethink his blanket resistance to vaccines, I had to rethink my approach.
Several decades ago, when treating substance abuse problems, psychologists developed a technique called motivational interviewing. The central premise: Instead of trying to force other people to change, you’re better off helping them find their own intrinsic motivation to change. You do that by interviewing them — asking open-ended questions and listening carefully — and holding up a mirror so they can see their own thoughts more clearly. If they express a desire to change, you guide them toward a plan.OPINION TODAY: Get expert analysis of the news and a guide to the big ideas shaping the world.
Say you’re a student at Hogwarts, and you want to help your uncle reject Voldemort. You might start like this:
You: I’d love to better understand your feelings about He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
Uncle: Well, he’s the most powerful wizard alive. Also, his followers promised me a fancy title.
You: Interesting. Is there anything you dislike about him?
Uncle: Hmm. I’m not crazy about all the murdering.
You: Well, nobody’s perfect. What’s stopped you from abandoning him?
Uncle: I’m afraid he might direct the murdering toward me.
You: That’s a reasonable fear — I’ve felt it too. Are there any principles that matter so deeply to you that you’d be willing to take that risk?
In controlled trials, motivational interviewing has helped people to stop smoking, abusing drugs and alcohol, and gambling; to improve their diets and exercise; to overcome eating disorders; and to lose weight. The approach has also motivated students to get a good night’s sleep; voters to reconsider their prejudices; and divorcing parents to reach settlements.
Recently, thanks to a vaccine whisperer, it has been applied to immunization. Arnaud Gagneur is a pediatrician in Quebec who encourages reluctant parents to immunize their children. In his experiments, a motivational interview in the maternity ward after birth increased the number of mothers willing to vaccinate their children from 72 percent to 87 percent; the number of children who were fully vaccinated two years later rose by 9 percent. A single conversation was enough to change behavior over the next 24 months.
I set up a conversation between Dr. Gagneur and my friend. After 90 minutes, it was clear to me that R.’s vaccination stance had not changed.
“I have tried to apply all the principles of motivational interviewing, but I have had the unpleasant feeling of not doing so well,” Dr. Gagneur wrote to me in email. “R. is very knowledgeable and always ends up finding arguments that support his decision.”
Strangely, I didn’t feel defeated or irritated. I wanted to learn how my friend’s views could evolve.
The pioneers of motivational interviewing, William Miller and Stephen Rollnick, have long warned against using the technique to manipulate people. It requires a genuine desire to understand people’s motivations and help them reach their goals. Although R. and I both want to keep his children healthy, I realized I had never tried to understand his perspective on vaccines before. So the next morning, I called him.
In our past debates, R. had focused only on the potential downsides of vaccinations. With Dr. Gagneur, though, he acknowledged that vaccines could be good for some but not necessarily for others. If he lived in a country experiencing an outbreak of, say, malaria, would he consider immunization? “You weigh the pros and cons,” he said.
Psychologists find that when we listen carefully and call attention to the nuances in people’s own thinking, they become less extreme and more open in their views. I wondered how my friend’s ambivalence applied to Covid, and I knew that the kinds of questions I asked would matter. Social scientists have found that asking people how their preferred political policies might work in practice, rather than asking why they favor those approaches, was more effective in opening their minds. As people struggled to explain their ideal tax legislation or health care plan, they grasped the complexity of the problem and recognized gaps in their knowledge.
So for my second attempt, instead of asking R. why he was opposed to Covid vaccines, I asked him how he would stop the pandemic. He said we couldn’t put all our eggs in one basket — we needed a stronger focus on prevention and treatment. When I asked whether vaccines would be part of his strategy, he said yes — for some people.
I was eager to learn what might lead R. to decide that he is one of those people. In motivational interviewing, there’s a distinction between sustain talk and change talk. Sustain talk is commentary about maintaining the status quo. Change talk is referencing a desire, ability or commitment to making a shift. A skilled motivational interviewer listens for change talk and asks people to elaborate on it. This was my third step.
I asked R. what the odds were that he would get a Covid vaccine. He said they were “pretty low for many different reasons.” I told him it was fascinating to me that he didn’t say zero.
“This is not a black-and-white issue,” R. said. “I don’t know, because my views change.” I laughed: “This is a milestone — the most stubborn person I know admits that he’s willing to change his mind?” He laughed too: “No, I’m still the most stubborn person you know! But at different stages of our lives, we have different things that are important to us, right?”
I don’t expect R. or his children to be vaccinated any time soon, but it felt like progress that he agreed to keep an open mind. The real breakthrough, though, was mine. I became open to a new mode of conversation, with no points to score and no debate to win. The only victory I declared was against my own prosecutor tendencies. I had prevailed over my inner logic bully.
Many people believe that to stop a deadly pandemic, the end justifies whatever means are necessary. It’s worth remembering that the means are a measure of our character. If we succeed in opening minds, the question is not only whether we’re proud of what we’ve achieved. We should also ask whether we’re proud of how we’ve achieved it.
I no longer believe it’s my place to change anyone’s mind. All I can do is try to understand their thinking and ask if they’re open to some rethinking. The rest is up to them.