Last updated on October 23rd, 2020 at 12:52 pm
Thanks to REGN-COV2 antibody combination therapy, developed and manufactured by Regeneron and made famous by President Trump, moral questions about the use of abortion-derived cell lines abound. Is REGN-COV2 a morally tainted product? If so, would it be wrong to use it?
Let’s start with the facts. First and foremost, no abortion-derived cells are found in the REGN-COV2 investigational medicine that is administered to patients. Regeneron states that it consists of two antibodies, REGN10933 and REGN10987. Furthermore, as the Charlotte Lozier Institute rightly points out, “No human embryonic stem cells or human fetal tissue were used to produce the treatments.” The antibodies were first produced in genetically engineered mice. Production of the REGN-COV2 antibody combination is done in Chinese hamster ovary (CHO) cells.
Yet here an important distinction comes into play: development of a drug is broader than its production. The Science article describing the development of REGN-COV2 references cell line HEK293T. This is a derivative of HEK293, a cell line created in the 1970s using the kidney tissue of an electively aborted female fetus. HEK293T was used to create vesicular stomatitis virus (VSV)-based SARS-CoV-2 spike pseudoparticles, which were then used in assays testing the neutralization ability of the Regeneron antibodies. This is explained in greater detail in the article’s supplementary materials. The assay methods were not established by Regeneron, but were followed with certain modifications.
In short, no abortion-derived cell line was or is used by Regeneron to produce REGN-COV2, but HEK293T played a role in its development. The effectiveness of the REGN-COV2 against SARS-CoV-2 was tested using an assay that involved production of viral particles in HEK293T cells.
The Catholic Church decried the destruction of human embryos and fetuses for scientific research in the 1987 instruction Donum vitae. More recently, in Dignitas personae, the Church affirmed that those with decision-making authority in biomedical research have a duty to refuse to use biological material derived from these life-destroying acts. This applies to production and overall development, though reliance on abortion-derived cell lines in the ongoing production of a treatment will be graver than using it once in an assay to test certain properties. The duty is rooted in a call to give witness to the value of human life, to oppose the unjust legal and regulatory situation creating and sustaining this dilemma, and to avoid any “impression of a certain toleration or tacit acceptance of actions which are gravely unjust” (DP, nn. 34-35).
So is it okay for a patient to use Regeneron’s antibody cocktail, or any other drug that might have relied on abortion-derived cell lines for testing during development? The value of human life impels us to protect and promote health, though never by committing immoral acts. Using therapies developed with some reliance on materials obtained through past abortions is not wrong of itself. It does not imply agreement with or encouragement of the way in which the materials were obtained, though there is a real danger that some will wrongfully invoke such therapies to push for more abortions. In short, serious health dangers could allow the use of treatments that were developed using materials obtained through past abortions (see DP, n. 35). Regeneron’s antibody combination therapy could be used in good conscience with a serious reason.
The crucial caveat, however, is a correlating duty to oppose biomedical research and development using cell lines with ties to abortion and to encourage development of alternative products with no such ties. This is because the moral impetus is the mobilization of consciences in defense of the dignity of human life and against a growing indifference toward abortion, human embryo destruction, and other evil actions behind the biological materials (see DP, n. 35). In other words, the moral energy is directed to the transformation of minds and hearts in the biomedical and political culture, working to purposefully and gradually root out associations with past wrongdoing without dangerously undermining life and health in the present.
This brings us to a dynamic paradox and a stumbling block for critics. On the one hand, we can give witness to the dignity of human life by using treatments that are available, despite reliance on materials with past origins in abortion or embryo destruction, when there are no better reasonable alternatives and the need is serious enough. On the other hand, such use actually intensifies the call to actively and vocally oppose ongoing and future use of immorally sourced cell lines as well as any laws, policies, regulations, and industry standards that enable abortion, human embryonic stem cell research, violations of informed consent, exploitation of the human body, or other grave wrongs. Such opposition is fruitful both for human dignity and scientific progress: it goes hand in hand with seeking and promoting innovative methods and materials.
In sum, we can affirm with clarity the value of life through existing treatments like REGN-COV2 and through the crucial work of transforming biomedical research and development both now and into the future.