Abortion, Vaccine Production, and Moral Values

How should Christians evaluate the use of vaccines developed with cells derived from abortions?

by Christina M. H. Powell

Some vaccines were developed with human tissue culture cells derived from abortions. How should Christians morally evaluate the use of such vaccines?

By Christina M. H. Powell

When my parents took me for vaccinations as a child, they connected the names of the diseases on the vaccine chart to stories from their own childhood. Tetanus reminded my father of the older sister he never met who died from tetanus at the age of 4 after stepping on a rusty nail. Mumps and measles reminded my mother of weeks spent with swollen glands or an itchy rash. The childhood diseases these vaccines prevented were not just statistical possibilities to my parents. As a result, adults in my parents’ generation viewed vaccines as positive medical advances worth the risk of an occasional rare side effect.

After decades of vaccination, most parents today have no direct experience with the diseases prevented by the vaccines. Furthermore, the number of vaccines available has increased, with children in the United States receiving as many as 24 injections by the age of 2, including up to 5 shots in one doctor’s visit. Finally, the Internet allows information about potential vaccine side effects and myriad theories about vaccine risks to spread as never before. The nature of the materials used to manufacture some vaccines can raise bioethical questions for Christians who firmly believe in the sanctity of human life. Pastors may find concerned parishioners wanting to know if they can reconcile the use of certain vaccines with their spiritual values. In this article, I focus on separating fact from fiction in understanding the bioethical issues surrounding vaccines.

Growing a Virus

Many vaccines confer immunity to a virus. A virus requires living cells to replicate. Growing sufficient quantities of virus to make a vaccine means growing the virus on tissue culture cells, then purifying the virus away from the cells to make the vaccine. Jonas Salk grew the three strains of poliovirus for his polio vaccine in a monkey kidney cell line. However, the danger of using animal cells to culture a virus is the possibility of another animal virus contaminating the vaccine. Indeed, in 1960, after researchers discovered Simian Virus 40 (SV40), they found this virus present as a contaminant in the monkey cells used to grow the poliovirus. Researchers found that SV40 caused tumors in rodents, but the majority of evidence from long-term studies in humans suggests there is no causal relationship between receiving SV40-contaminated polio vaccine and cancer development. After discovery of SV40, researchers grew subsequent batches of polio vaccine on SV40-free monkey cells.

Concern over the introduction of animal virus contaminants, as well as the inability of some viruses to grow well in animal cells, makes use of human tissue culture cells an attractive solution. However, any human cell lines derived from tumors carry a theoretical risk of residual DNA contaminants from the tumor cell lines inducing cancer in vaccine recipients. So researchers view normal human cells as the only acceptable choice for growing a virus. They have grown two human diploid cell lines (normal cells) in the laboratory and used them extensively for vaccine production for decades. Researchers in the United States developed one of these diploid cell lines, WI-38, in 1961; researchers in the United Kingdom developed the other diploid cell line, MRC-5, in 1966.

Researchers derived WI-38 cells from the lung tissue of a 3-month gestation female from an elective abortion. Researchers derived MRC-5 cells from the lung tissue of 14-week gestation male aborted for psychiatric reasons. Cell biologists removed fetal tissues after the fetuses were dead. They did not perform these abortions with the intent of harvesting tissues. The cell biologists who created the diploid cell lines from the tissues did not induce the abortions. WI-38 and MRC-5 cell lines no longer contain any of the original fetal cells, only descendent cells grown in a laboratory. These descendent cells were never a part of the fetus’ body. These cells cannot form a living organism, nor do they constitute a potential human being, as they are only lung cells.

Using these cells to produce vaccines does not require any new abortions to obtain new cell lines for future use. The goal of current vaccine research is to create vaccines through molecular tools, bypassing the need for human cell lines entirely. For example, scientists now make Hepatitis B vaccines in yeast cells. Thus, using vaccines made in human diploid cell lines, derived from tissues harvested after an abortion induced in the 1960s, does not encourage the creation of new embryonic cell lines for vaccine use nor promote abortion.

Judging Moral Complicity

Should Christian parents with a high value of the sanctity of human life withhold vaccination from their child because an aspect of the vaccine production has a distant historical association with abortion? We call the bioethical concept involved “moral complicity,” meaning whether or not a person becomes morally tainted by association with a previous immoral act.

Several factors help determine the extent of moral complicity. One such factor is timing. If a person’s action or inaction will influence a future immoral act, a person is more culpable than if a person’s decision occurs long after the immoral act took place.

A second factor is proximity. A doctor who performs an abortion is more culpable than a technician who grows viruses using cells derived from donated embryonic tissue.

Yet a third factor is intent. The woman who chose to have an abortion might have intended to end her pregnancy, but the intent of the researcher using the donated embryonic tissue was to develop a vaccine and prevent illness. The intent of a parent allowing his or her child to be vaccinated more than 50 years after the original abortion that produced the donated tissue is to make use of the vaccine created by the researcher to prevent illness in his or her child and other members of the population. The parent’s intent follows the intent of the researcher, with clear separation from the intent of the original abortion.

Of course, if the motivation behind an abortion is to produce useful material for scientific research, those who use such material bear some culpability. However, in the case of the abortions used to produce the two cell lines used in vaccine manufacture, the motivation for the abortions was entirely unrelated to subsequent use of the embryonic tissue for cell line development. Thus, a Christian parent does not bear moral culpability for choosing to vaccinate his or her child if no other vaccine options are available.

Responding With Wisdom

Both the Christian Medical and Dental Association and the Vatican have urged vaccine manufacturers to develop future vaccines without the use of cell lines connected to abortion. However, both organizations also make clear that parents should feel free to vaccinate their children regardless of the historical association with abortion if no alternative vaccine is available. The risk to public health and the health of the parents’ children outweighs the concern about the historical origin of the vaccine.

In the case of the rubella vaccine, developed by isolating the rubella virus from an embryo infected with the virus and aborted because of concerns over birth defects, the vaccine has prevented many future abortions — spontaneous (miscarriage) and elective — stemming from infection of a pregnant woman with rubella. Doctors did not perform the original abortion with the intent of isolating the virus for vaccines.

Pastors can help parishioners sort through the plethora of information available on the Internet, including sensational and misleading news and opinions. In so doing, pastors can prevent their parishioners from becoming unnecessarily anxious over issues for which they have no moral culpability and from making unwise decisions based on misinformation. At the same time, pastors can uphold the sanctity of human life and find ways for their flock to assist women experiencing crisis pregnancies today.

In the words of the Psalmist, “Teach me knowledge and good judgment, for I trust your commands” (Psalm 119:66). Reconciling vaccines available today with spiritual values becomes possible when you understand the bioethical concepts involved. Meanwhile, we look forward to the development of scientific knowledge that will move vaccines with a distant association with abortion from the doctor’s office to the annals of history. Until then, may we respond in wisdom to the ethical challenges in our world.