Vaccines and Abortion: What’s the Right Choice?

Reason to Worry

But why worry about using a vaccine containing cells from a baby murdered forty years ago? The complexities of this question are similar to those that arose in 2001 when President George W. Bush opted to fund embryonic stem-cell research. Just as President Bush felt the stem cells should be used “to help and to promote life,” some Catholic ethicists permit the use of abortion-tainted vaccines. States Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ (USCCB) Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities: “Certainly, the abortions were immoral and the vaccine companies’ cooperation with the abortionists was immoral, but the idea that a person is complicit in that act many years later, solely because he or she was presented with the vaccine as the only available way to protect his or her health, is a difficult argument to make.”

Other ethicists compare the WI-38 and MRC-5 cultures to bars of soap manufactured from Nazi holocaust victims. True, the soap can be put to good purpose — to wash away dirt and germs. And, true, it is improbable the use of the soap will encourage the murder of additional Jews. But, still, should one use this soap?

As opposed to the Nazi Holocaust, the abortion holocaust is ongoing. This fact, along with the widespread use of these vaccines, makes it very likely additional cell lines will be created from other aborted babies. Contrary to popular belief, the WI-38 and MRC-5 cell strains are not immortal. This fact, no doubt, is what prompted researchers in the Netherlands to establish yet another fetal tissue cell line — PER.C6 — in 1995. Dr. Alex J. van der Eb, a consultant with Crucell, the company that “owns” the cell strain, discloses why PER.C6 was aborted: “[T]he pregnancy was completely normal up to 18 weeks, and it turned out to be a socially indicated abortus, abortus provocatus [i.e., an elective abortion], and that was simply because the woman wanted to get rid of the fetus.”

Unlike WI-38 and MRC-5, PER.C6 is a “designer” cell engineered to be immortal. The same genome that confers immortality on PER.C6, however, may also cause tumors in people immunized with vaccines grown on the cell strain. Nevertheless, pharmaceutical companies are lining up in droves to purchase licensing agreements that will enable them to use PER.C6 to develop a myriad of new vaccines, including inoculations for HIV, Ebola, West Nile, and influenza.

The Culture of Choice

While vaccines can be safely grown on chick embryo or monkey kidney, aborted fetal tissue has become the culture of choice for most pharmaceutical companies. In the United States alone, ten different inoculations are propagated on two fetal cell lines called WI-38 and MRC-5. These vaccines are: VARIVAX (chickenpox), Havrix (hepatitis A), VAQTA (hepatitis A), Twinrix (hepatitis A/hepatitis B), POLIOVAX (polio), IMOVAX (rabies), MERUVAX II (rubella), M-R-VAX (measles/rubella), BIAVAX II (mumps/rubella) and M-M-R II (measles/mumps/rubella). The US military is also testing a new smallpox vaccine cultured on MRC-5 as well as two adenovirus — i.e., cold — vaccines grown on WI-38.

Want proof? Take a look at the chickenpox vaccine’s product insert. As part of the vaccine’s manufacturing process, the varicella virus was “introduced into human embryonic lung cell cultures” and “propagated in human diploid cell cultures (WI-38).” As a result, the vaccine “contains…residual components of MRC-5 cells including DNA and protein.” Even many doctors, however, don’t realize WI-38 and MRC-5 are made from aborted babies. “Although I had seen it mentioned, I didn’t know what it meant,” acknowledges Dr. Frank Dennehy, a family physician and Assistant Clinical Professor of Family Medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University.

The WI-38 cell line is derived from a three-month-old preborn girl aborted in Sweden prior to 1962. Dr. Stanley Plotkin provides further details in the August 1969 issue of the American Journal of Diseases of Children: “This fetus was chosen by Dr. Sven Gard, specifically for this purpose. Both parents are known, and unfortunately for the story, they are married to each other…. The abortion was done because they felt they had too many children.”

The alibi used to rationalize the MRC-5 abortion is hardly better. According to Coriell Cell Repositories, “The MRC-5 cell line was developed in September 1966 from lung tissue taken from a 14-week fetus aborted for psychiatric reasons from a 27-year-old physically healthy woman.” MRC is an acronym for the Medical Research Council.

Isolating the “RA 27/3” rubella component of the M-M-R II vaccine entailed conducting not one, but twenty-seven abortions during the 1964-65 rubella epidemic. Because the live virus was apparently not identified until the twenty-seventh abortion, the first twenty-six abortions were probably performed on healthy babies.

Tough Decisions

Granting that the companies that created these cell lines are guilty of immorally cooperating with the sin of abortion, what about those parents who decide to use the vaccines?

The USCCB has determined parents may use fetal tissue vaccines if they are the only available means of protecting against “serious diseases.” A USCCB communiqué reads: “Catholic moralists have concluded that individuals, when they have no practical alternative, may use vaccines to protect their health and the health of their loved ones without serious sin, even if the vaccines were cultured in fetal cells that ultimately came from an elective abortion.” A recent paper by the Pontifical Academy for Life similarly concludes that while “doctors and fathers of families have a duty to take recourse to alternative vaccines,” parents may use the tainted vaccines in cases of “serious risk.”

Luckily, alternative vaccines are available for measles, mumps, polio and rabies. Parents who wish to immunize their children against these infections are morally obligated to use these shots. Merck sells separate measles (ATTENUVAX) and mumps (MUMPSVAX) inoculations that can be used in lieu of the trivalent M-M-R vaccine. ATTENUVAX and MUMPSVAX are back on the market after the temporary closing of one of Merck’s factories (for safety violations) caused an eighteen-month shortage. (Claims to the contrary, no evidence suggests the reintroduction of these products signifies a “pro-life breakthrough” in terms of Merck’s attitude toward fetal tissue vaccines.) IPOL, an injectable polio vaccine cultured on monkey kidney, is carried by most physicians in the United States. In fact, although the abortion-tainted POLIOVAX shot is still licensed in the United States, it is no longer distributed here. Instead of IMOVAX, pro-lifers should choose RabAvert, a rabies vaccine cultured on chick embryo and produced by the Chiron Corporation. Excepting influenza, for which adequate vaccines already exist, it is doubtful alternatives will soon be invented for those inoculations currently being tested on PER.C6.

No pro-life substitutes are available (in the United States) for chickenpox, rubella and hepatitis A. The question, then, is whether these infections are serious enough to justify using the tainted vaccines.

“The chickenpox vaccine is definitely optional for small children because if they get it when they are four or five, it’s usually a benign disease,” counsels Dr. Dennehy. Likewise, Dennehy thinks hepatitis A poses little threat to most children. As for rubella, “The only time it matters is if a mom gets it when she’s pregnant.” Although rubella itself is essentially harmless, a preborn child who catches the disease from his mother has a 20 to 25 percent chance of contracting congenital rubella syndrome, a condition that can cause blindness, deafness and other injuries.

Because using abortion-tainted vaccines is a form of remote material cooperation with abortion, parents are obligated conscientiously to discern whether the benefits obtained from using the shots outweigh the evil of abortion. Each family’s decision will differ according to their personal circumstances. When Ted and Naomi Zepeda, for example, immunized their three-year-old daughter Catherine against rubella, they did so under the presumption that Catherine herself might one day be pregnant. Ted and Naomi, however, don’t think it is as necessary to give the rubella shot to Mark, their sixteen-month-old boy. “It was a really tough decision,” admits Naomi. “You want to do what’s best for your child, but at the same time you don’t want to have anything to do with abortion.”

Mary Crowley, on the other hand, chose to be expelled from her nursing program at University College Cork, Ireland, rather than submit to rubella vaccination. “We want to save as many lives as we can, but those babies have to be remembered too,” cautioned Crowley at the time. “I’m praying a lot and trying to find out everything I can. If I want to be a nurse I have to take the vaccine, but the least I can do is give God the opportunity to get the alternative for me.”

After unsuccessfully taking her case to Ireland’s High Court, Mary enrolled at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. Here in the United States, Mary was again faced with the decision of whether or not to be immunized against rubella. After attempting for a year and a half to obtain an alternative shot manufactured by the Kitasato Institute of Japan, Mary was forced to take the vaccine earlier this month. Explains Crowley: “I was unable to get the vaccine from Japan and the deadline with the nursing program came. I have now taken the tainted vaccine. It is such a blow.” Despite this defeat, Mary believes her struggles may serve as a reminder to other medical professionals that the use of abortion-tainted vaccines is a grave cause of scandal. “I was hoping beyond all hope that I could avoid this, but I couldn’t — not without turning from the vocation I know God has planned for me. So here I am feeling like I failed, but I’m trying to trust God, that good will come of it.”

© Copyright 2005 Catholic Exchange

Jameson T. Taylor is the author of America's Drug Deal: Vaccines, Abortion and Corruption. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in political philosophy at the Institute of Philosophic Studies of the University of Dallas. Mr. Taylor’s interests include bioethics, personalist philosophy, life and family issues, and American politics. His work has appeared in Catholic Digest, Citizen, HLI Reports, Lay Witness Magazine, and Our Sunday Visitor. His current projects include a book on the theme of community in Pope John Paul II’s The Acting Person.

Questions can be directed to him at or by calling 540-636-3549.

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