Subvet over at Catholic Dads recently asked if anyone has any info about vaccines that use aborted fetal tissue. I’d always assumed that this was just an urban myth and was really surprised to find that there might be some truth to it. Unfortunately, a lot of websites on the topic offer only sensationalistic coverage and it’s hard to tell if their information can be trusted. I stayed up way too late last night doing my own research and was finally able to get some clarity on the issue. I thought I’d compile the info I found into a post in case it’s useful to anyone else:
Are there modern vaccines that are made from aborted fetal tissue?
The answer to that question is good news and bad news. The good news is that there aren’t any common vaccines (none at all that I’m aware of) that need an ongoing supply of aborted fetal tissue for their creation. However, the bad news is that quite a few common vaccines are made from human diploid cell strains that originally came from an aborted baby many years ago.
This chart lists the vaccines that come from aborted fetal cell lines, as well as ethical alternatives where available. All info I came across (from both religious and government / pharmaceutical resources) indicates that the chart is accurate. Here are the stories behind each of the fetal cell lines listed on that chart:
[In the cases where the source I list is an opinion piece or blog post, the author cites a reputable source for the claims they make (e.g. medical journal, court transcript, etc.) I tried hard to get accurate information that was based on facts and not rumors or speculation.]
WI-38 was developed from the lung tissue of a Swedish baby girl who was aborted in 1962 around three months gestation. Her parents were married (and still are as far as anyone knows) but felt that they had too many children. This fetus was chosen by Dr. Sven Gard specifically for use as a vaccine culture. (source, source, source)
The story of the Rubella vaccine is a bit more grim. It involved not one, but 28 abortions. Twenty-seven to isolate the virus, and then it was cultured in WI-38 (see above). The acronym RA273 means: R=Rubella, A=Abortus, 27=27th fetus tested, 3=3rd tissue explanted. From a Catholic Education Resource Center article:
Rubella is most dangerous for preborn infants, who have a 20 to 25 percent chance of contracting congenital rubella syndrome if their mothers catch rubella during the first trimester. Scientists at the Wistar Institute took advantage of the 1964-65 rubella epidemic to legally acquire fetal tissue from at least 27 so-called therapeutic abortions conducted on women at risk for rubella. Since the live virus was not detected until the 27th abortion, the preceding 26 abortions were apparently performed on perfectly healthy babies. By contrast, Japanese researchers obtained a live virus by swabbing the throat of an infected child.
From an article in American Journal Diseases of Children (referenced here):
Explant cultures were made of the dissected organs of a particular fetus aborted because of rubella, the 27th in our series of fetuses aborted. This fetus was from a 25-year-old mother exposed to rubella 8 days after her last menstrual period. 16 days later she developed rubella. The fetus was surgically aborted 17 days after maternal illness and dissected immediately. Explants from several organs were cultured and successful cell growth was achieved from lung, skin, and kidney. It was then grown on WI-38. The new vaccine was tested on orphans in Philadelphia. [emphasis added]
MRC-5 was developed from the lung tissue of a Caucasian baby boy in the UK who was aborted at 14 weeks gestation in 1966. His mom was 27. The abortion was intentional but not done for the purposes of developing the vaccine. (source, source)
All I could find on this one is that it’s derived from the lung tissue of an aborted Caucasian baby boy. (source)
HEK stands for “human embryonic kidney”, and the child was probably aborted around 1972. The doctor who originally worked with the fetal tissue said at an FDA meeting that “the fetus, as far as I can remember was completely normal. Nothing was wrong. The reasons for the abortion were unknown to me. I probably knew it at the time, but it got lost, all this information.” (source)
The PER.C6 line was developed in 1995 from “embryonic retinal cultures” obtained in 1985. This abortion was performed in France on a baby at 18 weeks gestation (babies at this age can stretch, yawn, rub their eyes, open their eyes and are close to being able to live outside the womb). According to an FDA Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research meeting, “the pregnancy was completely normal” and the abortion was performed “simply because the woman wanted to get rid of the fetus”. The mother later had two healthy children at the same hospital. (source)
The doctors wanted a healthy fetus like this one because “an unborn child with medical problems, or from parents with medical problems or with a family history of medical problems, would not be acceptable as a source of material for cell lines which were to be submitted for regulatory approval.” (source)
What should Catholic parents do?
A Vatican statement on the issue says it’s very important to use ethical alternative vaccines where possible and to put pressure on the pharmaceutical industry to seek morally acceptable alternatives to all vaccines. In the cases where no ethical vaccine exists, they say:
As regards the diseases against which there are no alternative vaccines which are available and ethically acceptable, it is right to abstain from using these vaccines if it can be done without causing children, and indirectly the population as a whole, to undergo significant risks to their health. However, if the latter are exposed to considerable dangers to their health, vaccines with moral problems pertaining to them may also be used on a temporary basis.
Websites with Useful Information
- Chart of aborted fetal cell line products and ethical alternatives
- Aborted Fetal Cell Line Vaccines And The Catholic Family: A Moral and Historical Perspective
- Transcript of a U.S. Food and Drug Administration meeting of the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (PDF; relevant info starts on p. 77)
- Vaccine Components: Human Fetal Links with Some Vaccines from the National Network for Immunization Information
- Immunity from Evil?: Vaccines derived from Abortion by Jameson T. Taylor, Ph.D.
- Vatican Statement: Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared from Cells Derived from Aborted Human Foetuses (scroll down for statement)
- The National Catholic Bioethics Center on the Pontifical Academy for Life Statement regarding the Use of Vaccines
- Letter from Merck (pharmaceutical company) regarding their use of vaccines derived from human fetal tissue
- Vatican condemns vaccines using fetal tissues (Catholic World News)
- Articles from Catholic Medical Weekly blog’s series on Human Technology Manufacturing Platforms:
- Part I: The Paediatric Vaccination Question
- Part II: How close is close?: Levels of Cooperation
- Part III: Human Technology Manufacturing Platforms
- BBC News: Scans uncover secrets of the womb
- BBC News: Pictures of babies in the womb: Pictures taken from a new type of detailed ultrasound scan that show “fetuses” in the womb opening and closing their eyes, yawning, rubbing their eyes, scratching their noses, grasping their hands and feet…and smiling.
Hope this is helpful to others!