Young people with a passion for the pro-life cause and a desire to strengthen their leadership skills are encouraged to apply for Students for Life of America’s 2021 leadership fellowships. These fellowships educate students about abortion, provide leadership training, and connect promising young people with more established mentors. SPL president Kelsey Hazzard is a graduate of SFLA’s Wilberforce Fellowship for college and graduate students; in fact, she is proud to have been a member of the inaugural class.
Since then, SFLA has added several fellowship opportunities, including the Stevens Fellowship for high school students. Both Kelsey Hazzard and SPL co-leader Terrisa Bukovinac (who you may also know as the head of Pro-Life San Francisco) have served as Wilberforce and Stevens mentors. Last year, SFLA added the Hildegard Fellowship for young artists. There are also fellowship groups geared toward young men and religious students.
Whichever fellowship program suits you best, be sure to complete your application before the March 31 deadline!
[Photo credit: Students for Life of America]
[Today’s guest author is Dr. Steve Jacobs, the Program Director of Illinois Right to Life. He received his J.D. from Northwestern University School of Law and his Ph.D. in Comparative Human Development from the University of Chicago. You can follow him on Twitter @DrSteveJacobs or contact him at email@example.com.]
In 2019, my research on biologists’ understanding of when life begins gained media attention. [Read SPL’s overview of Dr. Jacobs’s research here.] Not long after, Dr. Nathan Nobis, a philosophy professor of Morehouse College, posted a blog on his abortion advocacy website critiquing my work, and recently Secular Pro-Life asked me to respond to the piece. Here are some of my thoughts.
Dr. Nobis opined that “When does life begin?” and “Are fetuses human?” are “bad,” if not “dumb,” questions. He asserted that those who deny fetuses’ humanity do not believe that “fetuses aren’t biologically human” but “mean that [fetuses] don’t have what are often considered ‘human’ traits, like understanding and feeling and reason and the like.” That might well be the case but, despite quoting my research and linking to my dissertation, he failed to reference the data within that casts doubt on his belief.
We asked hundreds of Americans the following question: “If biologists were asked, ‘From a biological perspective, when does a human’s life begin?,’ what would most biologists select as the point at which a human’s life begins?” Only 23% of pro-choice participants selected fertilization.
They were also asked: “Based on your understanding of biology, from a biological perspective, when does a human’s life begin?” Again, only 23% of pro-choice participants selected fertilization.
Dr. Nobis suggests that people know fetuses are biological humans. Yet when they were directly asked about this issue, most pro-choice Americans suggested our biological lives don’t begin until viability or birth. Similarly, they predicted biologists would not agree that a human’s biological life begins at fertilization.
Many polls and studies have shown that pro-choice and pro-life Americans disagree on when a human’s life begins. In one recent national poll, only 9% of young Democrats said that they believe human life begins at conception, compared to 51% of young Republicans. In my dissertation, I presented numerous linear regression models that reveal views on when life begins to be a stronger predictor of abortion attitudes than gender, religious identity, beliefs about sexual morality, and even one’s political ideology.
As has been similarly shown by the work and very existence of Secular Pro-Life, the models suggest that a feminist atheist who recognizes a fetus as a human is more likely to support abortion restrictions than an anti-feminist Catholic who believes a human’s life begins at birth. This is so because the humanity of fetuses has been and continues to be the central factor in people’s views on the morality and legality of elective abortion access.
If a fetus is not a human, then abortion restrictions stop women from having a basic, harmless medical procedure.
If a fetus is a human, then each abortion kills a human and is a presumptively punishable crime without an affirmative legal defense.
Dr. Nobis and other abortion advocates seek to complicate the issue by moving the goalposts from humanity to personhood. In my research, I found that Americans rejected this distinction, as 93% stated that a human’s life is protectable once it has begun and 96% stated that all humans deserve rights and all humans are equally deserving of rights. Indeed, a legal review of the distinction between “human” and “person,” within the meaning of the U.S. Constitution, made it clear that there is none.
19th-century U.S. Senators responsible for the passage and ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, which guarantees equal protection to all persons within the United States, and Supreme Court Justices responsible for interpreting the amendment have stated that all humans are persons under the Constitution. In the landmark abortion case Roe v. Wade, Justices who established abortion as a constitutional right said that if it is shown that fetuses are persons then they would be guaranteed constitutional protections, and abortion rights would collapse. [See SPL post “Why did people laugh during Roe v Wade?”] In the Supreme Court case Webster v. Reproductive Health Services, the Court made it clear that if there is not “a fundamental and well-recognized difference between a fetus and a human being” then “the permissibility of terminating the life of the fetus could scarcely be left to the will of the state legislatures” as the Fourteenth Amendment would guarantee fetal rights. The Court does not draw distinctions between humans and persons.
It’s no great mystery why abortion advocates deny or downplay the significance of the question of when a human’s life begins. Equality dictates that all humans equally deserve legal protection, and virtually all criminal codes show that there is no liberty right to kill a human (as the right to life is seen as a higher, more fundamental right since one cannot have liberty without life and since there are fewer exceptions to the right to life than the right to liberty). Thus, establishing a fetus as a human invariably leads to the conclusions that (1) fetuses deserve equal legal protections and equal rights and (2) there cannot be a liberty right to elective abortion. Abortion advocates have known this since the 1970s.
When pro-choice Americans were asked what would happen if the biological fact that a human’s life begins at fertilization were to become common knowledge, 90% believed abortion rates would go down and 83% believed that support for legal abortion access would go down. These results suggest that pro-choice Americans realize the question of when a human’s life begins is not a bad or dumb question: it is the fundamental question of the abortion debate.
In early 2019, I miscarried one of my twins. I had already known how common miscarriage is, and I suspected that when I began talking publicly about my miscarriage, people I’ve known for years would quietly let me know they had also had pregnancy losses. It was bittersweet for that prediction to come true; their understanding and support meant a lot to me, but I was sorry to learn of their own heartbreaks.
It helped me process to talk about my lost babe with others who have been through it. I joined some online support groups for pregnancy loss where I found additional consolation and connection. Miscarriage is common, but people don’t speak about it much publicly. As I talked privately with so many other women about their losses, I began to see why.
First, many women feel guilty that they miscarried; they worry that some action they took caused their miscarriage, even though there’s usually no reason to believe that’s the case. Some even think the miscarriage is some kind of fate—a punishment for some past mistake or a reflection of their inability to parent. It’s terrible. Grief is hard enough on its own, without added layers of guilt and shame.
Second, many women worry their grief is stupid or irrational. They experience a lot of gaslighting—nearly all of it, I think, unintentional—from medical personnel, friends, and family. And the lack of compassion seems to get more pronounced the earlier in pregnancy we miscarry.
Research has found that “gestational age was not shown to affect the degree, intensity, or duration of the grief, anxiety, or depression” for mothers who had miscarried, and yet one of the hallmarks of early miscarriage is “the minimization of the loss by others.” My pregnancy loss groups regularly feature posts lamenting when loved ones make well-meaning but dismissive comments (“You can always try again.” “At least you weren’t further along.” “At least it wasn’t an actual baby.”)
Even therapists don’t always react appropriately. I lost my babe around 6 weeks. The first counselor I saw commented about how that gestational age is “super early.” During our session she mentioned more than once that I may find my grief over miscarrying is a surface emotion for other, deeper issues—seeming to imply losing a baby, on its own, wouldn’t normally warrant this much anguish. At the end of our session, she said “Well I’m glad to work with you, and we can work on processing your… well I guess it’s like a miscarriage, isn’t it?” (I did not continue seeing her.)
These responses are tragic but not especially shocking. Thanks to our fiery, never-ending national abortion debate, there are countless voices loudly and incessantly insisting that human embryos and fetuses are not babies. Worse, they often go further and imply that viewing preborn humans as children is ignorant or superstitious. Example:
|Original tweet here.|
This kind of condescension insults and silences people (pro-choice and pro-life alike) who grieve their miscarriages as the deaths of their children.
|Original tweet here.|
In an article about miscarriage and post-traumatic stress, the BBC interviewed a woman whose reaction underscores the problem:
Toni Edwards-Beighton, 36, says she felt she was losing her mind after a miscarriage in 2016. “I felt my grief was wrong because it wasn’t a real baby – but I was in complete shock,” she says. … “It wasn’t ’tissue’ to me, it was our baby,” Toni says.
My miscarriage broke my heart, but stories like the above make me grateful I have so many pro-life friends and family. I have people in my life who affirm the value and significance of my lost babe not merely as a potential child who will not come to be, but as my actual child, once living and now gone. I have never felt my grief is misplaced or irrational. I have never struggled to reconcile my overwhelming instinct about the reality and value of my child with cultural messaging or social circles persistently arguing otherwise. I have had four children; three of them are with me now, and one is gone. The grief is difficult, but I’m thankful I don’t have to also navigate the gaslighting.
Unfortunately, in addition to dealing with dismissive comments in their interpersonal relationships, people struggling through miscarriage often also encounter insensitive responses from the medical community.
In her recent article “Hospital attitude adds to couple’s heartache,” Sarah Terzo highlights these themes. Lindsey and April Woods lost their daughter through miscarriage in the second trimester, and their grief was only compounded when medical staff repeatedly referred to their baby as “tissue” and—only after persistent requests—provided their daughter’s remains for burial in a bright orange biohazard bucket.
This apparently indifferent approach has been all too common in medical settings. In 2010, Critical Care Nursing Quarterly published “Proof of life: a protocol for pregnant women who experience pre-20-week perinatal loss,” in which the authors conducted a literature review and found there were no protocols for the emotional care for women who experience pregnancy loss prior to 20 weeks gestation. The authors suggested options for better respecting the experience of loss (such as offering a prayer, moment of silence, naming ceremony, referral for perinatal support groups, etc.). But implementation of such protocols has been slow. A 2017 article in the Journal of Perinatology explained that, in an emergency room setting, women under 20 weeks gestation who miscarry get appropriate physical care, but “psychological and bereavement support they need is provided less consistently, or, more often, not at all.” The research found that when women do not receive appropriate emotional and psychological support, their grief is deeper and longer-lasting, and their losses are more likely to trigger unresolved grief and depression during subsequent pregnancies. In contrast, providing proper emotional support to women who have miscarried improves both their mental health outcomes and medical personnel’s work satisfaction.
To that end, in the last few years key stakeholders in emergency room management and pregnancy loss bereavement have worked together to create a position paper addressing care for women miscarrying—at any gestational age. The paper details best principles and practices, emphasizing sensitive and dignified care for the family such as offering bereavement care and culturally competent options for disposition of the child’s remains.
This is a step in the right direction, and I’m hopeful more medical staff can access the education and training needed to better care for people mourning miscarriage. I’m less optimistic about positive changes in our culture as a whole. It’s difficult to see how the abortion rights narrative—that prenatal life is effectively irrelevant—can coexist with our lived experiences of our offspring alive, then gone. I expect as long as so much of society is incentivized to dehumanize our children, my pregnancy loss groups will continue to have posts like this:
|“It is just a fetus, tissue, they say
But I know better
It was my child, my baby
A living being
A part of my family”
One of the first actions the new Biden Administration is expected to take (which has yet to happen as of this writing) is the repeal of the Mexico City Policy. The policy originated under Ronald Reagan and prevents US foreign aid funds for family planning from going to organizations that perform abortions or advocate for their legalization in developing nations, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.
This policy has fluctuated since its foundation, as it has been reversed under all Democratic presidents since Clinton and then re-enacted under all Republicans since Reagan.
Pro-choice critics of the policy, labeling it the “global gag rule,” argue that restricting funds from family planning organizations in Africa harms women by making access to contraception and clinical abortions difficult or impossible. In fact, these critics point to a few studies that seem to confirm this (one in 2011, one in 2018, and the latest in 2019). The 2019 study, published in Lancet Global Health by Brooks et al., is more comprehensive than the previous studies and analyzes data from three administrations (Clinton, W. Bush, and Obama). They analyze data on abortion and modern contraceptive use in 26 African countries and label some “high exposure” (hereafter HE) if they are most dependent on US foreign aid, and therefore more affected by the Mexico City policy, and others “low exposure” (hereafter LE) if they are least affected. The authors explain:
Our paper finds a substantial increase in abortions across sub-Saharan Africa among women affected by the US Mexico City Policy. This increase is mirrored by a corresponding decline in the use of modern contraception and increase in pregnancies under the policy. This pattern of more frequent abortions and lower contraceptive use was also reversed after the policy was rescinded.
Based on this summary, one might conclude that Brooks et al found that when the Mexico City policy is in place, abortions rise and contraception use decreases, and once the policy is reversed, abortions decrease and contraception use increases, especially in HE countries. And yet this relationship is not what the study found. As the authors explain in the supplemental material (Figure S4):
|(Click to enlarge)|
There is no clear pattern here of contraception use decreasing and/or abortion rates increasing during the policy. In fact, the pattern of increasing contraceptive use in both HE and LE countries is consistent regardless of whether or not the Mexico City policy is in place. HE countries had lower contraceptive use from the beginning, but use increased more sharply around 2005, during the Bush administration, and continued to increase under Obama at a steadier pace.
The abortion rate chart is much more scattered, possibly reflecting unreliable reporting (more on that below), but taken at face value, the trends seem mostly independent of the Mexico City Policy. Abortion rates in HE countries started off low and trended up during Clinton’s administration and into the Bush administration until around 2007, when there was a slight decrease. The only consistent pattern is that abortion rates in both LE and HE countries rose sharply under the Obama administration, which seems to directly contradict the authors’ implications about the policy’s effects.
This lack of correlation is obscured in the main paper, because the authors focus on differences between abortion rates among HE and LE countries. Here is how they put it:
Our regression estimates show that relative to women in low-exposure countries, women living in high-exposure countries used less modern contraception, had more pregnancies, and had more abortions when the policy was in place compared with when the policy was rescinded…when US support for international family planning organisations was conditioned on the policy, coverage of modern contraception fell and the proportion of women reporting pregnancy and abortions increased, in relative terms, among women in countries more reliant on US funding.
Now it is true that abortion rates of HE countries were more similar to the LE countries under Obama then they were under Bush, but Brooks et al don’t mention that this is because rates for both groups sharply increased after plateauing at lower levels during the Bush years. There also was a larger gap in contraception use between LE and HE countries under Bush, but this gap narrowed years before Obama reversed the Mexico City policy.
The Supplemental Material contains another important chart (Figure S3). The authors color code the abortion rate per 10,000 woman-years in each African country studied for the study’s time period (1995-2014). Some countries included a lot fewer data. For example, from 1995-2014, Brooks et al have only 7 years for Swaziland and 6 years for Comoros, Gambia, and Liberia. Nearly all the countries have data missing for at least some years.
Brooks et al use data from the Demographic and Health Surveys (DHS), a nationally representative household survey. These surveys track reported abortions and live births, with spontaneous abortions (miscarriages) and induced abortions categorized together. Here’s how the authors differentiated between the two:
A termination was classified as induced if it occurred following contraceptive failure, if the terminated pregnancy was unwanted… or if the woman was under age 26 years and was not married or in a union. Terminations were not classified as induced if they occurred in the third trimester, if the woman indicated that contraception had been discontinued to allow for pregnancy, or if the woman was married or in a union with no children.
As the basis for their algorithm, the authors cite this study conducted in Turkey in 1996 using DHS data from the country. Brooks et al note their own limitations with the DHS:
Abortions are often under-reported in survey data, and the DHS is no exception.
Even if abortions did go up during the Mexico City Policy and down without it (not the case), given all the uncertainties and missing data, it would be hard to draw any sweeping conclusions from these surveys. Similarly, pro-lifers should be cautious about assuming Obama’s reversal of the policy caused the apparent abortion rate jump under his administration; the jump could reflect more accurate reporting, or the abortion rates may not be reliable to begin with.
But even if all the data presented is accurate and representative, it still doesn’t support the authors’ grim picture of the Mexico City Policy. The average abortion rate of all the 26 countries studied was apparently lower when the policy was in effect under Bush than when it was rescinded under Obama.
Today is the 48th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, the brutal Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion and stripped the right to life from unborn children in the United States.
Despite being the leader of a pro-life organization, I don’t dwell on abortion often. I find the horror of it too paralyzing. I know abortion kills human beings, and I know that killing human beings is wrong—so why not just focus on what I can do to change minds and save lives, here and now? Over 62.5 million lives lost to abortion is impossible to wrap my head around anyway; as the saying goes, one death is a tragedy, while millions is a statistic.
That emotional distance serves me well most days, but those millions of departed children deserve my sustained attention and mourning—especially on the anniversary of the injustice that sanctioned their slaughter. I offer this meditation.
In 1973, a baby boy was secretly aborted. His mother and the abortionist have both passed away. The baby’s memory died with them.
In 1974, a baby was killed in a saline abortion.
In 1975, a baby was aborted in Los Angeles.
In 1976, a teenager aborted her baby because she didn’t want her conservative religious parents to know that she’d been having sex.
In 1977, a teenager aborted her baby because her parents threatened to kick her out of the house.
In 1978, a baby was aborted because his mother feared losing her job. She did not know that the Pregnancy Discrimination Act would be signed into law just a few months later.
In 1979, a woman had an abortion; she never learned that she had been carrying twins.
In 1980, a baby girl was aborted because her parents felt they were too young.
In 1981, a baby boy was aborted because his parents felt they were too old.
In 1982, a baby boy was aborted because his father left and his mother lacked support.
In 1983, a baby was aborted in Chicago.
In 1984, a baby was aborted in Miami.
In 1985, a baby was aborted after a contraceptive failure.
In 1986, a baby boy was aborted after his parents made no effort to use contraceptives.
In 1987, a baby girl was aborted because her mother did not think she could finish college if she gave birth.
In 1988, at the very moment I was born and my parents joyfully welcomed me, another innocent baby girl was torn limb from limb before she had a chance to take her first breath.
In 1989, a baby was aborted in Nashville.
In 1990, a baby was aborted in New Orleans.
In 1991, a baby was killed in a dismemberment abortion.
In 1992, a woman had an abortion she deeply regrets.
In 1993, a woman had an abortion and has been “shouting” it ever since.
In 1994, a woman had an abortion and never spoke of it again.
In 1995, a baby was killed in an aspiration abortion.
In 1996, a baby was aborted in New York City.
In 1997, a baby was aborted in Houston.
In 1998, a young woman aborted her baby after being assured that “it’s just a clump of cells.” Years later, she conceived a planned child, scheduled her first ultrasound, and was horrified to discover that she had been lied to.
In 1999, a medical resident aborted her baby. She knew the reality of prenatal development full well, but callously disregarded her child’s life.
In 2000, a baby was killed in a partial-birth abortion.
In 2001, a baby girl was aborted. Her body was recovered by pro-life advocates and given a proper burial.
In 2002, a baby boy was aborted and his body was stored in an abortionist’s garage.
In 2003, a baby girl was aborted. Her little broken body was treated as medical waste.
In 2004, a baby boy was aborted and his body was exploited for laboratory research.
In 2005, a baby boy was conceived in rape due to sex trafficking, and aborted at the insistence of his mother’s pimp. The abortion business looked the other way.
In 2006, a baby was killed in a chemical abortion.
In 2007, a baby girl was aborted because her parents wanted a boy.
In 2008, a baby boy was aborted because his parents wanted a girl.
In 2009, a baby girl was killed in a “selective reduction” abortion. She had the bad luck of being the easier target for the abortionist to reach. Her twin sister survives, living with the vague sense that something is missing.
In 2010, a baby was aborted in Phoenix.
In 2011, a baby was aborted in Charlotte.
In 2012, a baby was aborted and the abortionist was paid with state taxpayer funds.
In 2013, a baby was aborted and the abortionist was paid by a private “charitable” abortion fund.
In 2014, a baby was aborted after he was prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome.
In 2015, a baby was aborted at a Planned Parenthood.
In 2016, a baby was aborted at an independent abortion business.
In 2017, the baby of a teenage immigrant in a government-run shelter was killed after the ACLU went to court to strike down the shelter’s anti-abortion policy.
In 2018, a baby was aborted in Memphis.
In 2019, a baby was aborted in San Francisco.
In 2020, a baby was aborted after her parents lost their jobs due to COVID-19 and feared that they could not afford to raise a child.
Today, a baby is scheduled to die in your town.
Image credit: 6-week ultrasound provided by a Secular Pro-Life supporter.
Today, Joe Biden will be inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States of America, and Kamala Harris will be inaugurated as Vice President. Pro-life advocates are bracing for a hostile four years, as abortion industry interests dominate Washington, D.C.
Since the Supreme Court’s brutal and unjust decision in Roe v. Wade in 1973, there have been many ups and downs, victories and defeats, and constant shifts in the balance of power. But some things never change.
Human life still begins at fertilization.
All human beings are still worthy of protection from violence.
Abortion is still the violent act of killing a human being.
Abortion is still a matter of life and death, not a mere religious issue or political debate.
The cause of life still attracts millions of dedicated people of every faith and none, from diverse backgrounds.
Pro-life Americans still have the truth on our side.
Social and legal change takes time. To put our struggle in context, Roe v. Wade will be 48 years old on Friday; we remember that it took 58 years for the Supreme Court to overturn Plessy v. Ferguson and reject “separate but equal” racism. The pro-life movement is in it for the long haul.
We will continue to save as many babies as we can, while we strive for the day that the right to life is restored. No matter who is in the White House, no matter who is in Congress, no matter who is on the Supreme Court, no matter who dismisses and mocks us, we aren’t going anywhere.
With both the Powerball and Mega Millions jackpots at unusual highs ($730 million and $850 million, respectively, as of this writing), we wanted to know: what kind of pro-life work would you do if you won the lottery? Here are a few of your ideas.
Reming M.—Start a secular pregnancy center and/or shelter for families. Then throw money at all the whole life/secular/pro-life organizations I like. I’d be like Oprah, “you get a million dollars, you get a million dollars, everyone gets a million dollars!”
Ginnie P.—I already am making plans and preparations for a mobile midwifery clinic. I’d have a whole clinic van fleet staffed!
Samantha T.—Start a foundation to help with basic living expenses for single mothers so they don’t have to stay with abusers or family members who may try to force them to abort or to just help them get on their feet. And also fund scholarships so they can go to college or trade school.
Herb G.—Create and fund a pregnant person’s bail fund.
Kristin M.—I’ve thought about this a lot. I would buy myself a house, give myself a salary to hold me for the rest of my life and put that away in savings, and then literally spend the rest on the non-stereotypical pro-life non-profit organizations such as Secular Pro-Life while seeing if I can volunteer more in my free time too.
Adam P.—I would buy all the billboard space in and around the top 30 most populous cities in America for a year and advertise for local pregnancy centers and pro-life groups, or just general pro-life messages.
Jessica B.—I would start an alternative to Planned Parenthood that offers all the things except abortion; would try to partner with existing places that are close to the same if possible to lower overhead.
Laura P.—Start Unplanned Parenthood ® where we do everything that PP does (and more) sans abortion. I mean, UP does sound a lot better than PP anyway.
P.S.—Secular Pro-Life does not take a position on the morality or wisdom of state-run lotteries; we were just being topical. If you struggle with compulsive gambling, we encourage you to seek help.
P.P.S.—We asked a similar question in October 2018, when the jackpot was over a billion dollars. Our social media following has grown a lot in the past two years! Here’s what folks had to say back then.
Editor’s Note: Many readers have asked us about the ethics of receiving vaccines that were developed in part by exploiting the bodies of abortion victims. In part 1, guest author Stacy Trasancos outlined factors to be considered in confronting this dilemma. In this article, Secular Pro-Life president Kelsey Hazzard offers her thoughts.
In 1951, Henrietta Lacks went to Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, complaining of a “knot” in her womb. Mrs. Lacks had a difficult life. She grew up in poverty and worked in tobacco fields from childhood. She gave birth to her first child when she was just 14 years old. She had a total of five children, including a developmentally disabled daughter who tragically died as a teenager. On top of all that, Henrietta Lacks was Black in the era of Jim Crow; Johns Hopkins was the only area hospital that would treat her. Johns Hopkins gave her a devastating diagnosis: cervical cancer.
Without her knowledge or consent, Johns Hopkins took a sample of Henrietta Lacks’ cancerous cells and gave it to a researcher, Dr. George Otto Gey. He then used the sample to create a cell line known as HeLa, taken from the first two letters of her first and last names. Due to its unusually high replication rate, the HeLa line became ubiquitous in medical research and remains so to this day. According to Wikipedia, nearly 11,000 patents involve HeLa.
Henrietta Lacks’ cancer metastasized, and she died at the age of 31. Her family had no idea until decades later that her cells lived on and were generating profits for white-dominated medical industries. Researchers even made the HeLa DNA sequence public, jeopardizing her descendants’ privacy. By modern standards, the origin of HeLa is wildly unethical. And while general protocols for obtaining patient consent have improved, Black women continue to face alarming discrimination from medical providers—especially when it comes to reproductive care.
Does accepting a HeLa-connected medical treatment signal approval of this manifestly wrong state of affairs? Does it encourage further maltreatment of Black patients and their families? Should those 11,000 products be pulled from the market in the name of racial justice, even if doing so costs lives? I humbly suggest that the answer is no, and that the same logic should apply to vaccines and other medical products which are connected to the injustice of abortion.
According to the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the two COVID-19 vaccines that are currently in use (by Pfizer and Moderna) do not use fetal cell lines in their production. However, Pfizer and Moderna have used some fetal cell lines for related laboratory tests, e.g. vaccine quality control. At Public Discourse, Nicanor Austriaco explains the origins of three popular fetal cell lines:
WI-38 cells were derived from cells obtained from a 12-week old fetal lung taken from an aborted fetus in the early 1960s; MRC5 cells were derived from cells taken from the 14-week old fetal lung of an aborted fetus in 1966; and HEK293 cells were isolated from cells taken from a fetal kidney of unknown gestational age in 1973.
Though HEK293 is commonly believed to have been obtained from an aborted human fetus, I received an e-mail a few months ago from Professor Frank Graham, who established this cell line. He tells me that to the best of his knowledge, the exact origin of the HEK293 fetal cells is unclear. They could have come from either a spontaneous miscarriage or an elective abortion. Regardless, the abortions that gave rise to the three cell lines—or in the possible case of HEK293, the miscarriage—happened decades ago.
In my view, taking a COVID-19 vaccine cannot be reasonably interpreted as an endorsement of those two or three historical abortions, let alone the continuing travesty of abortion today—just as using a HeLa-derived treatment is not an endorsement of how Henrietta Lacks was treated or of current racial inequities. Getting vaccinated for COVID-19 does not encourage more abortions. Babies are not being killed to produce more vaccine doses.
On the other side of the equation, the benefits of vaccination are substantial. This is particularly the case if you fall within some of the categories Stacy Trasancos mentioned, such as being a healthcare worker or living with an immunocompromised person; your vaccination could be directly life-saving. But even for those who are not at high risk of catching or spreading COVID-19, vaccination could save lives indirectly by creating herd immunity and allowing the economy to reopen sooner.
This could even save babies from abortion. We know that nearly three quarters of abortions are motivated by financial distress, and there is solid (albeit anecdotal) evidence that the pandemic and related lockdowns have led more pregnant mothers to choose death. The sooner we can get the coronavirus under control, the better.
I do wish that a vaccine with zero fetal cell line involvement were available. If it were, I would certainly choose it over the current options. But I cannot justify getting there via a boycott while COVID deaths continue to climb.