The human diploid cells used to create some of the most common vaccines in the world were originally derived from aborted human beings. That creates a huge ethical dilemma for those who must explain why these fetuses are human enough to provide the human cells necessary for such cultivation, but not human enough to be protected under the law. Add to this the broader questions of vaccine safety, and there is much to wrestle with.
According to the National Network for Immunization Information (NNII), there are certain viral vaccines that cannot be produced apart from the use of living cells.1 The bacteria used for bacterial vaccines can be grown in laboratory cultures. Not so for viruses. And because there are risks and limitations associated with using animal cells to develop human vaccines, many scientists prefer cells derived from human organs. But where do these cells come from?
Human diploid cells, as they're called, can be sustained and grown in the laboratory for decades, but each cell strain must be originally derived from a human organ. For many of the vaccines in use today, those original organs came from aborted human fetuses. Quoting from the NNII website:
Two different strains of human diploid cell cultures made from fetuses have been used extensively for vaccine production for decades. One was developed in the United States in 1961 (called WI-38) and the other in the United Kingdom in 1966 (called MRC-5).
WI-38 came from lung cells from a female fetus of 3-months gestation and MRC-5 was developed from lung cells from a 14-week-old male fetus. Both fetuses were intentionally aborted, but neither was aborted for the purpose of obtaining diploid cells. The fetal tissues that eventually became WI-38 and the MRC-5 cell cultures were removed from fetuses that were dead. The cellular biologists who made the cell cultures did not induce the abortions.2
As indicated in the paragraphs above, the purpose of the NNII page titled, "Human Fetal Links with Some Vaccines," is to explain why they believe the use of these vaccines is ethically sound. Much more significant is the frank admission that vaccines produced through fetal remains are being "extensively" used and have been for the last three or four decades. For a time, you'd hear whisperings of the abortion/vaccine connection, but solid data was hard to come by. Now the connection is beyond dispute.
The fact that "hundreds of millions of doses of vaccines" have been produced through abortion-derived cell lines3 is only a problem if abortion is a problem. If abortion is a morally-neutral procedure, then why shouldn't we use aborted fetal remains to create as many vaccines as we can? But if you listen to the almost apologetic language of the NNII explanation, it becomes quite apparent that there is an ethical problem with abortion. They place great moral emphasis on the fact that these tiny human beings were not aborted for the express purpose of harvesting their cells? But why should that matter, unless there's something wrong with abortion? Why would the use of aborted fetuses be any more or less offensive if it was done for the express purpose of creating these vaccines? They point out that the "cellular biologists who made the cell cultures did not induce the abortions." Again, why should that matter, unless they're trying to distance themselves from the act of abortion? And if there's nothing wrong with abortion, why bother making such distinctions? Why summarize their ethical defense with the argument that, "additional abortions are not needed for the production of these vaccines."?4 Why point out that the use of the rubella vaccine prevents abortions, if there's nothing wrong with abortion in the first place? Why do they reference a statement from the Vatican declaring that, in the absence of an alternative, these vaccines may still be used in good conscience?5
Are they simply trying to appease those who are ideologically opposed to abortion? Perhaps, but it's far more likely that they feel the weight of this ethical compromise as much as anyone. Specifically, they've already argued that the reason these cell lines are so important is because animal cells aren't as safe and reliable. Nor are synthetics. Only human cells are sufficient to grow the viruses necessary to produce these vaccines. And where is the only place human cells come from? From human beings. The only way abortion can be an ethically-indifferent procedure is if it doesn't kill an innocent human being, but the only way that fetal remains can be used for vaccine creation is if they come from a living, human being. And there's the rub. If human fetuses aren't human beings, of course there's nothing wrong with abortion. But if human fetuses aren't human beings, then they could never have been used for the creation of these kinds of vaccinations in the first place. You can't have it both ways, without severely twisting the definition of "human being."
Beyond the ethical problems of using vaccines derived from aborted fetuses, some are questioning the safety of these vaccines as well. Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are considered by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to be an "urgent public health concern."6 The CDC reports that "more people than ever before are being diagnosed with an ASD," and though some of the increase may owe to "better efforts in diagnosis… a true increase in the number of people with an ASD cannot be ruled out."7 A 2010 report published in Environmental Science and Technology by members of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) identifies 1988-1989 as the "changepoint" in ASD occurrence. Like the CDC, they recognize the debate over "the nature of increasing autism," but affirm that "the potential for this increase to be real and involve exogenous environmental stressors exists."8
One of the environmental stressors to receive the most attention has been childhood vaccines, specifically the MMR vaccine (measles-mumps-rubella). The Autism Society, which calls itself "the nation's leading grassroots autism organization,"9 continues to identify "thimerosal containing vaccines" like MMR as a leading contender in the search for potential contributory causes of ASD10–in large part because the increase in ASD parallels the increased use of the current MMR vaccine, and excess exposure to mercury during early human development has been suggested as a possible risk factor for ASD. The Children's Environmental Health Centers state that, "naturally occurring and synthetic chemicals in the environment, such as lead, mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), have been shown to have neurotoxic effects," and that "exposure to neurotoxicants during critical moments of fetal and childhood development can lead to neurodevelopmental disorders [like ASD]."11 The Autism Society website quotes a joint report from a broad coalition of government health agencies which concludes that, "vaccines containing thimerosal as a preservative could expose infants to cumulative mercury at levels that exceed EPA recommendations during the first 6 months of life."12
Subsequent studies have been unable to find a connection between the mercury-containing vaccines and ASD, and the paper originally purporting the connection has been fully retracted.13 Nevertheless, the Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee (IACC) grants that these studies were "limited in their ability to detect [those] more genetically vulnerable to environmental exposures."14 The CDC follows suit by recognizing that because so many still have concerns about the connection between vaccines and autism, more research is merited. Autism Speaks, a leading autism advocacy group, states that, "while large scale studies have not shown a link between vaccines and autism, there are lingering legitimate questions about the safety of vaccines that must be addressed."15
Like so many others, the current version of the MMR vaccine was formulated through the use of aborted fetal cells. In the spring of 2010, the Sound Choice Pharmaceutical Institute was awarded a half-million dollar grant to conduct a two-year study on "the link between residual human DNA in childhood vaccines and autism."16 Their April 2010 newsletter highlights some of the reasons they believe the purported connection is credible enough to pursue further. Whether or not there proves to be a causal connection between autism and the use of abortion-derived vaccines, the ethical concerns do not go away. Just because something is safe, doesn't mean it's ethically sound.
For a list of vaccines produced from aborted fetal cell lines, and a list of suggested alternatives, visit: http://www.know-vaccines.org/
This page was last updated on March 30, 2017. To cite this page in a research paper, visit: "Citing Abort73 as a Source."
- National Network for Immunization Information. "Human Fetal Links with Some Vaccines: Manufacturing Viral Vaccines," http://www.immunizationinfo.org/issues/vaccine-components/human-fetal-links-some-vaccines (Jun 3, 2008)
- National Network for Immunization Information. "Human Fetal Links with Some Vaccines: Human Fetal Diploid Cells," http://www.immunizationinfo.org/issues/vaccine-components/human-fetal-links-some-vaccines (Jun 3, 2008)
- National Network for Immunization Information. "Human Fetal Links with Some Vaccines: Summary," http://www.immunizationinfo.org/issues/vaccine-components/human-fetal-links-some-vaccines (Jun 3, 2008)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs): Research," http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/research.html (accessed on Apr 25, 2011)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs): Determining How Many People Have ASDs," http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/research.html (accessed on Apr 25, 2011)
- Michael E. McDonald and John F. Paul. "Timing of Increased Autistic Disorder Cumulative Incidence: Abstract." Environmental Science & Technology. http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es902057k (Feb 16, 2010)
- Autism Society. "About the Autism Society." http://www.autism-society.org/about-us/ (accessed on Apr 25, 2011)
- Autism Society. "Autism and Vaccines." http://www.autism-society.org/research/environmental-health-initiative/autism-and-vaccines.html (accessed on Apr 25, 2011)
- Children's Environmental Health Centers. "Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders." http://www.epa.gov/ncer/childrenscenters/autism.html (accessed on Apr 25, 2011)
- The Lancet. "Retraction—Ileal-lymphoid-nodular hyperplasia, non-specific colitis, and pervasive developmental disorder in children." http://press.thelancet.com/wakefieldretraction.pdf (Feb 2, 2011)
- Autism Society. "Autism and Vaccines: Overview." http://www.autism-society.org/research/environmental-health-initiative/autism-and-vaccines.html (accessed on Apr 25, 2011)
- Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee. "The 2011 Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee Strategic Plan for Autism Spectrum Disorder Research: What Do We Know?." http://iacc.hhs.gov/strategic-plan/2011/caused_prevented.shtml (Jan 18, 2011)
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs): Vaccines," http://www.cdc.gov/ncbddd/autism/research.html (accessed on Apr 25, 2011)
- Sound Choice Pharmaceutical Institute. "April 2010 Newsletter." http://www.soundchoice.org/Images/SCPINewsletter_April_2010.pdf (April 2010)