THE THREE ARGUMENTS I UNDERSTAND
“The COVID-19 vaccine is morally compromised.”
Christians (such as myself) have consistently wrestled with whether or not we formally or materially cooperate with evil if we use vaccines developed from the stem cell lines of aborted fetuses harvested in the 1970s and 1980s. Questioning the development (and testing) of COVID-19 vaccines is consistent with this concern. Because I share that concern, I’ve read numerous statements from church leaders and Christian bioethicists concerning the COVID-19 vaccines. Here is a short sampling:
Generally, Pfizer and Moderna get a green light; Johnson and Johnson and AstraZeneca get a yellow light tinged with red.
So while I understand and appreciate the moral concern associated with COVID-19 vaccines, I believe there are at least two options that avoid the potential for immoral cooperation in a bad thing.
“The COVID-19 vaccine is unsafe.”
There has long been concern over the introduction of vaccines into the human body, as there are often side effects. With the COVID-19 vaccine, there is the additional concern over a) the speed in which the vaccines have been rolled out, b) the use of Emergency Use Authorization by the FDA rather than straight up approval, and c) the lack of time to do long-term studies on side effects. These all deserve serious responses. It’s not like the history of vaccines has been above reproach, and we have only had months instead of years to study the impact of the recent vaccines.
From what I can tell, the speed in which these vaccines reached the public was the result of a number of things.
- First, it’s an RNA-based vaccine that uses a standard template of sorts (that’s my non-scientist analogy) thanks to the research done for viruses like SARS and MERS. There was already a foundation on which a specific vaccine is much easier to build. It's new technology that has only recent cut the time frame for vaccine development.
- Second, a loooot of money was thrown at the problem from the public and private sector.
- Third, Operation Warp Speed.
- Fourth, “the was formed due to the Ebola outbreak in 2015. CEPI is a global partnership between public, private, philanthropic, and civil society organizations that works to accelerate the development of vaccines against emerging infectious diseases.”
- There are clearly side effects to the vaccines, as reported anecdotally and officially, but there is little reason to believe that the COVID-19 vaccines used in the United States have caused deaths. UPDATE: as of today (April 13, Johnson and Johnson is being checked to see if the vaccine has caused blood clots). However, it's also worth noting that you are 8x more likely to get a blood clot if you get COVID-19 than if you get the shot.
“I don’t trust the government’s push for vaccination.”
Remember the Tuskegee Experiment? Yeah, that time the government pretended to treat syphilis in black men but gave them placebos? It may not shock you to know that plenty of people are still leery when the government says, “I would like to inject you with something that I promise will help.” By the way, the Tuskegee Experiment started in 1932 but the story broke in 1972, by which time “28 participants had perished from syphilis, 100 more had passed away from related complications, at least 40 spouses had been diagnosed with it and the disease had been passed to 19 children at birth.”
That story broke in my lifetime. It’s not that long ago. I am really sympathetic to those who distrust doctors from the government who are here to help. So I understand the reluctance, even while I personally am not reluctant (I have already had both Pfizer vaccination shots).
I think we all ought to be willing to have good faith discussion about all three points above. We don’t have to agree for me to take you seriously (and I hope the same is true in the other direction). There is room here for iron to sharpen iron. I have opinions; I think (and hope) I am right, but I hold my opinions in an open hand.
THE ARGUMENT I KIND OF UNDERSTAND
“It’s not that dangerous.”
Compared to Ebola (50% death rate), the Black Plague (killed 30% to 60% of the English population), SARS (10% case fatality rate) or MERS (34% case fatality rate), COVID-19 is nowhere close to as dangerous. The H1N1 pandemic in 1918-1920 (the Spanish Flu) had a 2% - 2.5% case fatality rate and killed 675, 000 people in the United States (which had 1/3 of the population at that time) by the time the official pandemic was over after 2 years. Absolutely, that was worse. So I understand why people would reach this conclusion viewed in the light of a historical context that focuses in more severe plagues.
However, it doesn’t make COVID-19 inconsequential. COVID-19 can be bad even if other things are worse. Since I mentioned the historical context of worse pandemics earlier, let's look at another historical context.
- COVID-19 clearly is far more dangerous compared to things we are used to (like the common flu). It has a 1.8% case fatality rate in the United States (it's as low as 0.9% in Turkey and as high as 9.1% in Mexico). That’s a lot worse than the common flu.
- Worldometer currently reports approximately 571,000 deaths in the US from COVID-19. That's almost certainly an undercount. In contrast, U.S. flu deaths for the 2019-2020 flu season were 22,000, and the flu is barely registering so far in 2021. The CDC presumes an average of 61,000 flu deaths per year over time. Based on the CDC’s estimates, since December 2019, COVID-19 has killed more people in the U.S. than influenza has in the last 10 years (that number drops to 5 years if you use the upper limits of the CDC estimates, but that’s still a lot).
- Flu deaths in Michigan in 2020 were officially 2,179; 2021 has been in the single digits. Coronavirus deaths over the same time frame are over 17,343.
- COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in the United States in 2020 behind cancer and heart disease. We had over 1,700 deaths a day from COVID-19 since late November until early March, making COVID-19 the #1 case of death in the U.S. during that time frame (heart disease and cancer account for an average of 1700 and 1600 deaths per day, respectively).
- The different strains that are starting to make their rounds globally are causing some serious issues (like in Brazil right now). No one is quite sure what impact these mutated strains will have, or how the vaccines will respond to all of them
- In "The next wave of the pandemic: Long Covid, " Axios notes some sobering realities about the long-term effect of COVID-19 on individuals: between one and six months post-infection, people whose coronavirus cases didn't require hospitalization had a 60% higher risk of death than people who hadn't been infected with the virus; non-hospitalized COVID patients also had a 20% greater chance of needing outpatient medical care over those six months post-infection. Their symptoms spanned across organ systems and also included mental health issues; 69% of nonhospitalized adults who'd had COVID had one or more outpatient visits between 28 and 180 days after their diagnosis. Of these, two-thirds received a new primary diagnosis. "“We found it all,” Ziyad Al-Aly, chief of the research and development service at the VA St. Louis Health Care System and an author of the study, told the NYT. “What was shocking about this when you put it all together was like ‘Oh my God,’ you see the scale." “We have hundreds of thousands of people with an unrecognized syndrome and we are trying to learn about the immune response and how the virus changes that response and how the immune response can include all the organ systems in the body,” Eleftherios Mylonakis, chief of infectious diseases at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School and Lifespan hospitals, told the NYT.
THE ARGUMENT I DON’T UNDERSTAND
I hear this argument specifically from fellow Christians - not all, not even a majority, but I am seeing it enough on social media or in interviews that I think it bears addressing. The argument goes something like this:
“I'm not going to get the vaccine, because if it's my time to die, God will take me no matter what I do."
“I'm not getting the vaccine because I don't live in fear. God is in control. Doctors can't save me.”
The idea behind statements like this seems to be that Christians who truly trust the sovereignty of God and have faith in His plans won't need to get the vaccine, as if there is a fated course for our life in which no decision we make about the coronavirus will have an impact when it comes to our health (or the health of others with whom we come in contact). This argument seems strange to me because I haven't heard it made in virtually any other area of life. For example:
- I am congratulated when I tell people that my cholesterol and blood pressure are down thanks to a change in diet, exercise, or medication. No one has said to me that I should stop living in fear, or that God is in control and I shouldn't worry about my vital statistics.
- When I went to the emergency room for my heart attack, no one criticized me afterwards for trusting in doctors instead of God. If anything, they criticized me for not calling an ambulance instead of having my wife drive me in to the ER.
- When I got a stent, nobody cautioned me that God was in control and doctors can't save me. When I started taking follow up medication, there was certainly conversation about how helpful different proposed medications were, and how I could address things naturally or holistically, but there was never a suggestion that I shouldn't address it; in fact, there were strong suggestions that I should. People wanted me to stay around, and there was a shared belief that I could do something about it.
- When I went on blood thinners permanently and started wearing those tight stretchy socks around my calves because of a history of blood clots, I was encouraged to do this by everybody. Everybody. Not a single person told me I lacked faith, or that I should passively wait for God to take me.
“If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God."
Luther is pointing out something important: We seem to believe that there are actually things within our control that can alter when we die and how healthy we are - and even at times impact those around us. It’s a tacit acknowledgment, I think, that God has given us genuine free will, with real consequences that follow real choices. In Scripture, the analogy is “reaping and sowing.” We do a thing, and something follows. Actions have consequences. It’s why we…
- look both ways before we pull out onto the road.
- follow driving rules and wear seatbelts.
- throw food away when it expires.
- don't let little children play unattended around fires.
- hide poisonous or caustic substances in our kitchens so kids don't get them.
- protect our kids from human traffickers.
- build buildings to code.
- caution against not just smoking but inhaling second-hand smoke.
- store guns in such a way that people can't just access them and play with them.
- eat less fried food and cut out sugar and go on diets.
- get yearly physicals.
- use essential oils, herbs and spices to address sickness.
- do something about a cancer diagnosis with a known solution.
- scrape our windshield after a hard frost before we drive on the road.
- go to a doctor if half our face goes numb.
- tell our parents to take care of themselves (we want them around longer).
- get snow tires for safer driving in the winter.
- fix a breech pregnancy.
- encourage mothers with at-risk pregnancies to rest.
- want police to stop violent crime.
- wear protective goggles when working around things that could damage our eyes.
- own and often carry guns. Gun owners don’t think, “Well, if someone tries to kill me, it’s my time to go.” They take active measure to avoid going.
In all of these things, we are tacitly if not directly acknowledging that the choices we make matter.We can do things that will lengthen or shorten our life, and in some cases the lives of others. We can do things that will raise or lower the quality of our life. We live every day this way.
So what has changed with the response to vaccines and COVID-19? That's the question I can't figure out. Why would COVID-19 be the one thing where we are being encouraged by some Christians to live as if we can do nothing to impact the potential length or quality of our life?
This is the stance that bothers me, because there is theology at stake here. This is a stance that has something to do with the character and nature of God, of how God works in the world, of what God expects of us.
Now, if you read that whole list I wrote and thought, “Actually, I would not do any of those things or tell you to do any of those things,” then kudos for being consistent. This is not directed at you, though we should have a different theological discussion. But if you nodded your way through my list and still think we should not get the vaccine because "if it's my time to die, God will take me," I am going to really need help understanding why this situation is different.
Unless it’s not actually about theology. Unless theology is being used as a smoke screen for something else. It’s hard for me to see how this argument is not a diversion from the real issue because it makes no sense when placed in the context of the normal course of life. Does it have to do with an alignment with party politics? A defense of freedom as individuals understand them in light of the Constitution? A pushback against what is seen as encroaching facism?
- If it’s about party politics, that’s a bad reason.
- If it’s about a fight for a particular understanding of constitutional freedoms, cool. Just name it, and let’s have that discussion.
- If it’s pushback against an overreaching government, let’s have that discussion. It’s an important question.
And if you really believe that God is the kind of God who does not give our decisions any significance – that God is the kind of God who did not design the world to respond to our decisions, that He deceived us when he inspired biblical writer to tell us we reap what we sow – then we need to have a different conversation about sovereignty and free will.