A relevant question regarding the COVID-19 vaccines is whether or not it is reasonable to apply for a religious exemption simply because the vaccine may have, at some point in its development, utilized parts of an aborted baby. In order to arrive at my answer, please follow me through a brief theological discussion to its practical application.
As many philosophers have contended, The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky contains one of the most notable passages for what has been termed the existential problem of evil. In book V, chapter IV, two of the brothers Karamazov are conversing about the nature of reality, evil, and God. The religious skeptic, Ivan, poses a particularly difficult dilemma to his younger brother Alyosha, a practicing monk, which is specifically intended as an argument against God:
Tell me yourself, I challenge you—answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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To this challenge, the devout believer Alyosha simply replies, “No, I wouldn’t consent.” Yet, before we jump ship and either prosecute Alyosha for being of little faith or throw in with the skeptic Ivan and declare this a death blow to the character or existence of God, we have to understand what Dostoevsky is doing with this thought experiment. Alyosha goes on to remark that he, himself, as a mere human, could not possibly agree to be the “architect” of such a world. Alyosha continues:
[Y]ou said just now, is there a being in the whole world who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? But there is a Being and He can forgive everything, all and for all, because He gave His innocent blood for all and everything. You have forgotten Him, and on Him is built the edifice, and it is to Him they cry aloud.
The point is that, according to the Christian narrative, Christ is both the one who bears the suffering of that tortured baby and forgives the torturer. In the words of theologian Jürgen Moltmann, “God not only participates in our suffering but also makes our suffering into His own, and takes our death into His life.” That is, His imagination and power are ones that greatly exceed our own, such that He is the only Being who could ever consent to such a world of suffering, precisely because according to God’s justice no tears will ever remain unavenged.
This is where I think Dostoevsky has given us a masterful illustration of our place within the created order. As human beings, we cannot consent to building a utopia, much less any worldly system, on the unavenged tears of an innocent child because we possess neither the “right” to forgive nor the power to redeem. God alone is the owner of such rights and powers. So, we cannot unjustly take the life of another human person for the utilitarian purpose of the greater good because, in the end, no matter how much greater the good, the entire project remains unjust (see Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment for a narrative take on this question).
Thus, Dostoevsky’s illustration becomes a useful analogy in our contemporary scenario in which we might be asked to participate in receiving a potentially advantageous medicine that has been created at the expense of an aborted baby. Supposing that we could entirely eradicate COVID-19, if but only one baby had to be ripped apart to achieve this, would the end justify the means?
Alas, the vaccines are proving that they are certainly falling well short of completely eradicating COVID-19, if not even exacerbating new and more infectious variants, while simultaneously causing a record number of deaths and adverse events. So, in the best-case scenario, we are really asking whether a vaccine that could reduce the severity of symptoms from an illness that has a very high survival rate, but does not appear to protect us from contracting the illness, is worth the price of one, and in some cases, multiple aborted babies.
As has been noted, many vaccines, including those used for COVID-19, have utilized aborted baby organs and tissue in their development. Some distinguish between vaccines that utilized aborted lines for the product’s invention versus those that have aborted fetal elements within the vaccine itself. One reasonable response might be that it is far more objectionable to receive a vaccine that contains fetal tissue rather than receiving a vaccine that only used such in its original development. However, this is a bit of a misnomer when we consider Dostoevsky’s analogy. Yes, killing more than one baby is worse than killing only one baby. But, let us consider the ethical reality of any system built upon the foundation of an abortion:
Tell me yourself, I challenge you—answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men safe from COVID-19, giving them freedom from lockdowns at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby in the womb ready to burst forth into the fullness of life—and to found that medical achievement on the edifice of its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect of such a vaccine on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.
No, I wouldn’t consent.