Do Vegans Who Get a COVID-19 Vaccine Abandon Their Moral Principles? Yes — and No.
Although the vaccines for COVID-19 that are presently available are being represented as having no animal ingredients, the blood of many thousands of horseshoe crabs is being used to make sure that the vaccines are free of contamination. Although the crab blood is technically not an ingredient of the vaccine, it might as well be. Horseshoe crabs are not really crabs; they are more closely related to spiders and other arachnids than they are to crabs or lobsters. But horseshoe crabs have a complex nervous system and it is very likely that they are sentient, or subjectively aware and able to experience pain. The crabs are captured, placed in racks, and have the tissue around their hearts pierced. Up to 30% of their blood (which is blue) is drained. The process is certainly distressing to the crabs.
Horseshoe crabs being bled. (Source: Smithsonian)
Although they are returned to the ocean, between 10% and 30% of the crabs die in the bleeding process and after they are returned. Many are re-caught and bled again. Although there is a non-animal alternative to using crab’s blood, that alternative has not been accepted and will not be employed with respect to the COVID-19 vaccines.
So Putting aside any issues of animal testing of the finished vaccine, this raises the question about whether it is morally acceptable for vegans to get the vaccine. I have been a vegan since 1982. I take my veganism very seriously. I believe that we cannot justify using sentient nonhumans exclusively as resources for humans for any reason (food, clothing, entertainment, research, and so forth), and that we have an obligation to abolish all animal use. Therefore, I do not think that we can morally justify getting the vaccine.
But I don’t think that that ends consideration of the matter.
I want to make a distinction between actions that are morally justifiable and those that are morally excusable. The former are acts that are morally good acts, or are at least not morally objectionable. The latter are acts that are morally objectionable but where circumstances mitigate the culpability of engaging in the act.
We can see the distinction easily if we look at two doctrines in criminal law; self-defense and duress. If I am minding my business and you approach me in such a way that I reasonably believe that you are about to kill me, I can use deadly force against you to protect myself. My killing of you is legally justifiable and this reflects our moral view that in killing you in self defense, I have done nothing wrong.
Contrast this with the situation in which you approach me on the street and place a gun to my child’s head, demanding that I rob the grocery store across the street or you will kill my child. I reasonably believe that you will make good on your threat so I rob the store, give you the money, and you run off and do not harm my child. My action is legally excusable and this reflects our moral view that what I have done is wrong — I have harmed the store owner who is an innocent party here — but we understand why I did what I did. I acted under compulsion. I did not really have a choice. Moral culpability assumes that the actor chooses to act in a particular way and in this hypothetical, I am being compelled to act in the way that I did. Our view of the lack of moral culpability in this example informs the legal doctrine of duress.
Let’s apply this distinction in a context involving animals. I am shipwrecked at sea. I am starving. My companion in the lifeboat is a rabbit. Am I morally justified in killing and eating the rabbit? No. The rabbit has a morally significant interest in continuing to live and I have no right to ignore that interest because it would benefit me to do so. But if I had no other choice but to starve, my killing and eating the rabbit may be excusable — in killing and eating the rabbit, I have acted in a morally wrong way but my culpability is mitigated by the compulsion of the situation.
Regina v. Dudley and Stephens (source: BBC)
I would say the same thing if the other occupant of the lifeboat were another human. It would be wrong to kill and eat my human companion, but it might be excusable in that it is wrong, but my culpability is mitigated by the circumstances. Indeed, there is a famous English legal case from 1884, Regina v. Dudley and Stephens, where three shipwrecked sailors who were starving killed and ate a fourth. Although they were eventually rescued and prosecuted for murder, their death sentences were commuted by Queen Victoria to imprisonment for six months precisely because although they did commit murder, they were compelled to do so.
Virtually none of our animal use involves this sort of compulsion. That’s the problem. Just about all of our animal use is transparently frivolous; we eat animals because we like the taste or because of habit or because it is convenient. We wear animals because we like the way we look.
But what about situations in which we need to take some medication that has animal ingredients? Assume that you are dying and that your only chance of survival requires that you take a pill that has an animal ingredient. Is it morally justifiable to take the pill? No. It is not morally justifiable. It violates the right of the animal to not be used exclusively as a resource. But is it morally excusable? It may be. If you are able to get the pill without the animal ingredient from a compounding pharmacist, then you should do so. If, however, you cannot get the pill without the animal ingredient, and there is no other alternative to using the pill with the animal ingredient, then your taking the pill is excusable — what you’re doing is not morally okay but you don’t really have a choice. You are not advocating for the institutionalized exploitation of animals; indeed, if you are a vegan, you oppose that exploitation. But you are dying; you need the pill.
The same analysis applies to the COVID-19 vaccine. COVID-19 is a nasty virus. It kills people, including those who do not have underlying illnesses, and it can cause long-term harm in those who survive. We are just becoming aware of the significant adverse consequences that the virus has. If it were possible to get the same level of protection against getting the virus if we wore a mask whenever we were with others, I’d say that we should mask-up and that there is no situation in which getting the vaccine would be excusable, let alone justifiable. But masking-up, although a very good thing to do, especially before the vaccine is widely available, will not provide the same level of protection. The vaccine presents a situation that is sufficiently analogous to the lifeboat situation; there is a compulsion that mitigates culpability.
In sum, getting the vaccine is not morally justifiable; it may, however, be morally excusable.
As this controversy heats up, I have seen countless claims that any vegan who gets the vaccine has abandoned their moral principles. I have asked at least a dozen of these people whether, if they were ill and could be saved only by taking a pill that contained animal ingredients, they would take such a pill. In all cases, they have answered that, although it might not be the right thing to do, they would take the pill but that would be different because they would have no choice except to choose to die and that it is not reasonable to maintain that anyone has a moral obligation to die. Their reaction illustrates that they intuitively accept the justification/excuse distinction; that is, they recognize that where there is no meaningful choice and issues of life or death are involved, preferring to live makes one’s choice excusable even if not justifiable. Their reaction also illustrates that the real dispute here is that many simply don’t see COVID-19 as presenting a serious situation; that is, many vegans are simply pandemic deniers, or do not appreciate that COVID-19 is significantly different from the common cold. They see deciding to take the vaccine as more akin to deciding to eat a steak rather than a salad for dinner and less like the decision to eat the rabbit (or the human) when one is starving on the lifeboat. I find the position that the pandemic is not a real and serious threat to be absurd. Moreover, these people ignore that, if they get the virus and end up being hospitalized, they will end up consuming more medications with animal ingredients than whatever was in the vaccine.
In any event, there is a great deal more that could be said about all of these issues. But I want to keep it short and simple in this essay and to focus only on the distinction between justification and excuse. I do, however, want to make three additional points before closing.
First, I am not making any claim about the safety of the vaccines. That is a separate issue. Although we are being told that the vaccine is safe, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the U.S. has acknowledged that there are a number (2.79%) of adverse reactions at least to the m-RNA vaccine and these reactions involve more than a swollen arm; recipients were “unable to perform normal daily activities, unable to work, required care from [a] doctor or health care professional.” I have written to the CDC to get further information about this and have thus far received no reply. This matter needs further exploration.
Second, we should always promote the development of drugs to to not include animal products. It is 2020. With our technological sophistication, I sincerely believe that we could develop vaccines (and everything else) without using horseshoe crabs or any other animals, or doing any animal testing (which is crude and inexact anyway). It’s just a matter of demand.
Third, we should be clear that this pandemic, like all pandemics, came from animals. Pandemics involve zoonotic diseases that jump from animals to humans usually in the context of our exploiting animals, and that exploitation often involves using those animals for food. As long as we continue to eat and otherwise use animals, we will continue to have pandemics.
If we really want to do something about pandemics as a general matter — or to avert climate catastrophe — we have no choice but to move toward a vegan world. We would then have no need to worry about the distinction between justification and excuse. And before you think that veganism is extreme, consider that it would be more extreme to let endless pandemics and global warming destroy us. Moreover, veganism is a moral imperative for anyone who thinks that animals matter morally and are not just things.