This article, though specific to the Netherlands, deals with ethical issues in relation to the corona virus and vaccination, and is therefore of relevance to us all. Although here in Western Australia God has mercifully kept us virtually free of the corona virus, it’s more problematic in the eastern states. Australians, like people in many countries, are preparing for vaccination.
The author, Rev Siem de Marie, was a specialist doctor in internal medicine and infectious diseases at the Erasmus Medical Centre, Rotterdam, before becoming a minister of the Word in De Gereformeerde Kerken in 2006 at age 52. He recently retired.
Vaccinate against corona – yes or no?
It is 5 January 2021 as I write this and the Netherlands is about to begin large-scale vaccination against corona. There’s much writing and talk about it, both negative and positive. As Christians, what should our position be on this subject?
Everyone knows that Covid-19 is a serious disease with a potentially fatal outcome. The media is awash with information about it. Moreover, the disease is still spreading rapidly, perhaps even faster than before, because of a new variant of the virus. Although many young people who are infected have none or only mild effects, the situation can be completely different for the elderly and for people with medical issues. At the time of writing, hospitals and intensive care units in the Netherlands are full of Covid patients. This not only places a huge burden on healthcare, but also puts the treatment of patients with other serious diseases at great risk. This is already leading to additional illnesses and death. The whole world is being affected by this. It’s a very worrying development that places great demands not only on medical care, but also on the government which has a duty of care to society.
PREVENTION AND TREATMENT
So far, hygienic measures to contain the spread have had only limited success. This is mainly because many people don’t comply with directives. Furthermore, there are no drugs available yet that effectively stop the disease—although there are now drugs that have a positive effect on survival. In the case of other deadly infectious diseases such as smallpox, whooping cough, diphtheria and poliomyelitis, large-scale administration of a vaccine has been shown to prevent disease and contain an epidemic. Therefore, from the beginning of the coronary epidemic, a lot of effort has been put into the development of vaccines in many research centres.
The Netherlands has now ordered large quantities of vaccines for use in the coming period. Some of these have been approved, but others are still in the developmental phase. At the end of such a development phase, vaccines are tested on tens of thousands of people. This research must show whether the vaccine is sufficiently effective in different age groups and whether it is also safe, i.e., not likely to cause serious side effects.
Two vaccines are now known to have a very high success rate (about 95%) with few side effects. The first vaccine (Pfizer), to be introduced this month, is currently not recommended for use on people with severe allergies and on pregnant women. What is known about the success and safety of one vaccine does not necessarily apply to another. This is mainly due to differences in the composition of the vaccine. There are vaccines that contain genetic material of the coronavirus that, after injection into the body, causes pieces of the virus protein to be formed. Without getting sick from it, your body then makes antibodies against it. These will be able to protect you against illness in the event of a future infection with corona.
This applies to the first two vaccines that are available in the Netherlands. Other vaccines, which have yet to be approved, either use only a piece of the coronavirus, which does not cause any illness after injection, or a disarmed cold virus in which parts of the coronavirus are built in. All vaccines aim to make the body’s defences specifically directed against corona. The extent to which this happens can vary between vaccines and age groups, and also depends on any underlying diseases with impaired immunity.
HOW DO WE DEAL WITH IT?
The reactions of the Dutch population to vaccination against corona vary. There is still a fairly large group that is hesitant or even negative about it. This is mainly due to the lack of sufficiently reassuring information about the possible side effects. It is obvious that this will change in the near future. Meanwhile, according to random samples, about 75% of the population is willing to be vaccinated. It may help that in the last few weeks millions of people around the world have already been vaccinated without much difficulty.
As believers, we do not see the great solution of Covid-19 in the vaccine itself, but we expect our well-being from the Lord. This does not take away the fact that it is the Lord who enables the vaccines to be discovered and made available.
POSSIBLE OBJECTIONS AND CONSIDERATIONS
What objections can a believer have to this? I will mention here a number of possible objections and some considerations.
- One hears—in some circles—of objections to all forms of vaccination. The idea behind this is that the Lord governs diseases and that you have to leave it to Him whether He heals you or not. According to these people, if you were to be vaccinated you would be going against God’s providence. You are also consciously exposing yourself, they say, to possible side effects. But this line of thinking ignores that vaccines are also part of God’s providence. Everything comes from His Fatherly hand. This includes the risks of side effects (see also point 5).
- There are conspiracy theories that an evil genius is behind these vaccines in order to make money from them or to exert influence through them. Now, there will always be people with their own sinful interests behind medical devices, but that does not make the proper use of these devices wrong. In so many ways and areas we are confronted, in this world, with impure intentions or ungodly deeds. When was our bread baked (on Sunday perhaps), how were the flowers we buy grown (through genetic engineering perhaps)? When using these things, think of the gold and silver that the Israelites received on their exodus from Egypt, or what Judah was given by Babylon when God’s people returned to Canaan. Wasn’t there evil associated with the way those nations obtained or developed that gold and silver?
- Of the two vaccines ordered by the Netherlands, it is known that cell lines from a foetus from 1973 and 1985 respectively were used in their development, but no particles of these are now present in the vaccine. (Incidentally, this does not apply to the two vaccines that are currently available.) Opinions may differ as to whether one wants to receive such a vaccine. This is primarily a matter of conscience. It is somewhat comparable to eating meat that was intended for idols. Paul writes about this in Romans 14 and 15 and 1 Corinthians 8 and 10. However, there it is not about necessary protection against illness for yourself and others, but about things that you can interpret differently. I can well imagine that you would not want to use such a vaccine. But if you don’t know the background or don’t want to see this as an obstacle, then in my opinion you are not sinning by being treated with such a vaccine. You are sinning if you think that your health depends on it. You are also sinning if you believe it not to be right but do it anyway (Rom 14:23). In this context, we must also take each other’s opinions into account. On the one hand we must not condemn one another, and on the other we must not give offence (see Romans 14:14-23; 1 Corinthians 10:25-32).
- You can’t be 100% certain that an administered vaccine will work. There is also no 100% guarantee that you will not experience any side effects. But now that these vaccines are available, you do have to take responsibility. This always means weighing up the effectiveness and possible side effects. But that applies to all medicines. It remains important that, if you let yourself be vaccinated, you keep expecting the outcome from the Lord. Place it in His hands and thank Him for it.
- The responsibility that we have in these corona times concerns not only our own health but also that of our neighbours in society. We are averse to the expression “together we can do it”, but under God’s blessing He gives opportunities that we should not reject lightly, also because we care about others. Let us pray for ourselves and for each other for wisdom in this matter.
(This article appeared in De Bazuin, February 2021. Translation from the Dutch by Jelte Numan)