As universities and pharmaceutical companies race to put out the first COVID-19 vaccine, some sectors of the religious right are gearing up to fight it, based on tenuous ties to what they call “the abortion industry” and a biblical teaching about “the mark of the beast.”
LifeSite News, a Catholic, anti-abortion website, has gathered more than 350,000 signatures on a petition protesting mandatory coronavirus vaccination orders—none of which have actually been issued. The petition starts with the kind of big-government concerns that have become a hallmark of anti-shutdown protests, claiming that “fear of a disease” could inadvertently lead to support for “the hidden agenda of governmental as well as non-governmental bodies” with plans to “restrict personal freedoms.”
“The so-called ‘public health experts’ have gotten it wrong many times during the current crisis,” the petition states. “We should not, therefore, allow their opinions to rush decision-makers into policies regarding vaccination.”
Further down, the petition raises the issue of stem cell research used in the production of vaccines. A number of life-saving vaccines—from the chickenpox to measles—are cultured in human stem cells originating from legally aborted fetuses, a process long approved by the Food and Drug Administration. At least one pharmaceutical company is currently using these stem cell lines to test a vaccine, according to a letter sent to the FDA by two dozen religious leaders.
The LifeSite petition calls the use of these stem cell lines “a total non-starter,” stating that the organization “opposes immorally-produced vaccines using aborted fetal cell lines.” (A note at the bottom of the page, seemingly meant to distance the organization from the anti-vaxxer crowd, states that LifeSite has no position on “any particular coronavirus vaccines produced without such moral problems.”)
The stem cells used in vaccine development come from two fetuses aborted more than 50 years ago and, according to vaccine expert Dr. Paul Offit, contain “incredibly small amounts of [their] DNA.” The Pontifical Academy for Life, National Catholic Bioethics Center, and former Pope Benedict XVI have all determined that using vaccines cultured in stem cells is acceptable in the interest of public health, not least because they are so far removed from any actual abortion. Just last year, the Pontifical Academy stated that parents could vaccinate their children with a "clear conscience" that the use of most modern vaccines “does not signify some sort of cooperation in voluntary abortion."
Still, some religious leaders have gone so far as to declare that they will not accept a COVID-19 vaccine developed with these products—even though experts the world over agree a vaccine is the best chance to stop a pandemic that has already killed some 300,000 people.
“So sad… even with Covid-19 we are still debating the use of aborted fetal tissue for medical research,” Bishop J. Strickland of Tyler, Texas, tweeted in April. “Let me go on record...if a vaccine for this virus is only attainable if we use body parts of aborted children then I will refuse the vaccine...I will not kill children to live.”
Deacon Keith Fournier, founder of the Common Good Foundation, tried to convince his Twitter followers this week that some COVID-19 vaccines are being made using “body parts from unborn babies.”
“I GUARANTEE I, and any other Pro-Life Catholic and any other TRUE Christians will NEVER use such a vaccine. NEVER. NEVER,” he wrote.
The religious leaders who wrote to the FDA did not go quite as far, instead urging the U.S. government not to fund vaccines developed through stem cell technology. The letter to FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn states that the leaders “strongly support efforts to develop an effective, safe, and widely available vaccine as quickly as possible.”
“However, we also strongly urge our federal government to ensure that fundamental moral principles are followed in the development of such vaccines, most importantly, the principle that human life is sacred and should never be exploited,” the letter says.
Others have tried to tie the vaccine to abortion through donations from Bill Gates, who has pledged $300 million to developing and distributing a vaccine. LifeSiteNews has long opposed Gates for his donations to Planned Parenthood and support of contraception and abortion access. Its petition claims the billionaire “should not be permitted to influence policy decisions on a coronavirus vaccination program.”
“Unwitting citizens must not be used as guinea pigs for New World Order ideologues, or Big Pharma, in pursuit of a vaccine (and, profits) which may not even protect against future mutated strains of the coronavirus,” the petition reads.
Other religious figures have decried Gates’ participation because of a popular but ludicrous conspiracy theory that suggests the billionaire will plant a microchip in every injection. Ronnie Hampton, a free Methodist pastor who died of the virus in March, told followers before his death that the vaccines would have “some type of electronic computer device that’s gonna put some type of chip in you and maybe even have some mood, mind-altering circumstances.”
“They’re saying that the chip would be the mark of the beast,” he added, referring to a belief among some Christians that the anti-Christ will one day return and physically mark his followers.
Pastor Curt Landry of Oklahoma, meanwhile, claimed the vaccine would not contain the mark of the beast itself, but a microchip that the government could use to track who was willing to accept it.
“Do not pray, do not hope, do not think, ‘Oh, praise God they are going to have a vaccine,’” he told followers in a YouTube video. “That vaccine is from the pit of Hell. Do not pray for those vaccines, and do not take the vaccine. These vaccines are going to be coming. They are not going to be good. They’re not good for you physically, and spiritually, they’re a set-up for what shall come later.”
The conspiracy theory seems to have come from a Reddit AMA in which Gates suggested that countries would eventually have digital certificates to show who has recovered from the virus, who has been tested recently, and who has received the vaccine. He did not say anything about microchips.
The “mark of the beast” theory, meanwhile, has been roundly dismissed by religious scholars. Writing for the Logos Academic Blog, minister and theology PhD Matthew Halstead argued that the mark of the beast is something given to people who willingly worship the anti-Christ—not something you accidentally ingest in a Gates-funded vaccine.
Christians should not fear the vaccine unless they plan on using it as a symbolic expression of their “willful and public rejection of the Christian faith,” he wrote.
“If that’s you and if that’s your plan,” he added, “then it’s not the vaccine that’s the problem.”