The Moral Implications of Fetal Tissue Vaccines
By Steven Kellmeyer
"Childhood vaccination is against our religious beliefs." While this
statement is associated with religious groups like the Jehovah's
Witnesses, it may become much more common due to two relatively recent
vaccines: Varivax and Maruvax II. Both vaccines were generated through
the use of fetal tissue obtained through surgical abortion. The use of
such viral vaccines poses a serious moral challenge. Can the health
interests of a living child be weighed against a child whose death is an
accomplished fact, when the murderer promises to kill no more children -
in fact, he promises to use the wealth derived from the murder to keep
your child, and thousands like her, alive?
While fetal tissue harvesting and research are widely discussed, a more
insidious moral dilemma remains unmentioned: the use of fetal tissue
obtained from abortion and used to generate vaccines. Is it morally licit
to use such vaccines? This issue demonstrates the moral situation is at
its most extreme. The child whose tissues have been harvested has been
dead several decades. Unlike front-page experiments in the macabre, the
medical treatments being derived from these tissues are neither
speculative nor rank failures - the vaccines work. Lives will be
preserved and not just yours. The lives preserved are even more precious
to you than your own - they are the lives of your children. We have only
to accept the terms.
The arguments surrounding such vaccines are thus the acid test of the
right-to-life movement. The problems involved have led astray even
well-catechized, well-meaning Catholics. Within the last five years, two
different groups of Catholic ethicists have found the use of these
vaccines to be moral, largely through subtly flawed analogies. Note
carefully: the ethical problems discussed here only arise with a class of
vaccines generated for use against certain viral diseases. Vaccines
generated against bacterial disease do not have the same ethical
problems. In order to understand why this is so, we need to re-visit our
high school biology.
Why Fetal Tissue is Used
In order to produce a bacterial or a viral vaccine, laboratory personnel
must have large quantities of the bacterium or virus in question.
Fortunately, bacteria can be grown in large quantities simply by giving
them the equivalent of chicken broth. Unfortunately a virus, a simple
strand of DNA or RNA, isn't as capable. A virus needs cellular machinery,
machinery it doesn't have, in order to reproduce. It must insinuate
itself into a cell, hijacking the cell's machinery. To grow large
quantities of virii, a tissue culture, essentially a vast "lawn" of cells
which coat the inside of the flask like scales on a fish, must be
prepared. The virus is placed in contact with the cell tissue, invades
the cells, hijacks the cellular machinery, and reproduces itself. After
large numbers of viruses have grown, they are removed from the cell
culture, inactivated, and processed in order to produce the vaccine.
The problem: viruses need good cells to hijack. The cells must provide
excellent machinery for virus production, and be easy for the virus to
invade. Two human cell lines used to produce cell cultures, WI-38 and
MRC-5, have problematic origins. WI-38 is normal lung tissue taken from a
three-month old female child aborted in Philadelphia in 1961. MRC-5 is
normal lung tissue taken from a 14-week old male child aborted because a
Swedish couple wanted no more children. Both cell lines support a broad
range of rhinoviruses. Both are "immortal," which means they reproduce
rapidly and self-consistently enough to remain essentially similar to the
tissue taken from two dying bodies over thirty years ago.
Current Moral Analyses
Two vaccines generated using viruses grown in these cell lines are Merck
and Co.'s Varivax, a chicken-pox vaccine, and Maruvax II, for rubella.
Catholic ethicists have analyzed the morality of these vaccines at least
twice in the last five years; once in an October 1994 briefing paper
issued through the English Bishops' Catholic Media Office (EBCMO), and
again in July 1997, by Daniel Maher, Director of Publications of what was
then called the Pope John Center in Braintree, Massachusetts, at the
request of Denver's Archbishop Charles Chaput. Though somewhat different,
both arguments reach the same conclusion: the vaccines are morally licit.
Both opinions clearly find abortion reprehensible, and both struggle to
provide a just response. However, neither analysis is morally binding,
and both are subtly flawed.
Both lines of reasoning are founded on the nature of the seminal event:
since the cell lines are immortal, no further abortions are needed in
order to generate more cells. Thus, the evil act which procured the
tissues is complete and sufficiently remote from the present use of the
tissues that whoever uses the vaccine today is not morally complicit in
the original abortion. That is, using the vaccine won't prevent the
historical abortion, vaccine generation doesn't require more abortions
today or in the future, so there is no attachment to the sin of abortion.
Two analogies are used to support this argument. The first rests on the
use of data from Nazi death-camp experiences. German doctors froze
prisoners to death in tanks of ice water in order to learn how to treat
hypothermia. Though they failed to find a treatment, their data was
eventually captured by Allied troops. Allied doctors developed
information based on that data which is used today in the treatment of
hypothermia. Since this use of illicitly collected data was moral, it is
also acceptable to use illicitly collected fetal tissue.
Unfortunately, the comparison fails. First, the use of data is
substantially different from the use of tissue. Second, no one argues
that present hypothermia treatments show Nazism and Nazi experiments were
not really evil, nor is anyone arguing that the current use of the Nazi
data justifies undertaking similar experiments today. However, fetal
tissue research, transplants, and products are quite often used to
justify abortion. Third, the profits and data obtained from that research
allows society to assume the method of obtaining fetal tissue is, if not
completely moral, at least not particularly relevant.
Thus, the Nazi murderers reap neither monetary benefits from their evil
nor an enhanced reputation from the use of the hypothermia data, and,
most important, they gain no emulators on the basis of their work.
However, the abortion industry is reaping both monetary benefits and an
enhanced reputation from the use of this tissue, and they have gained
quite a few emulators. Furthermore, the abortion industry and society
uses contraception and abortion to structure a eugenic biomedical agenda
essentially similar to that of the original Nazi regime. The unwanted
members of society, whether they be children in the womb, the poor unable
to afford medical care, or the aged, useless in a consuming, producing
society, are being systematically killed or pressured into suicide.
Ironically, Nazi ideology is reaping the benefits of an enhanced
reputation through the use of fetal tissue for biomedical purposes.
The second analogy compares the use of fetal tissue to that of a
murdered organ donor. It is morally acceptable to use an organ harvested
from someone who has been murdered. Since the manner of death is not
relevant to the ability to donate organs, tissue harvesting is called
However, organ donation is a freely willed act. Organs can be harvested
from an individual only if and as the individual stipulates. Thus, the
donor may give permission only to remove her corneas, she may permit
organ harvesting only if she dies naturally, or she may forbid harvesting
entirely. The patient's pre-established will rules how her organs will be
handled, not the manner of death. Her will must be positively
established, or no donation can take place at all. Clearly, the child's
will in regard to her tissues cannot be established. While a parent has
the right to decide how to dispose of her dead child's organs, this right
presupposes the parent has not brought about the child's death.
Neither analysis considers a more closely-related example: enforced
cannibalism. The use of tissue to generate vaccines which may save
other's lives is a kind of cannibalism. On October 13, 1972, a plane with
40 people aboard, all Catholic, crashed in the Andes. Due to the total
lack of food in the snowy wasteland, the survivors of the crash were
forced to eat the bodies of those who had died in order to maintain their
own life. The Church ruled the cannibalism to be acceptable in this
instance, because the bodies of the slain were treated with great
reverence and the need for sustenance was life-threatening. While it is
true that most of those whose bodies were eaten had not given their
consent, it is also true that none were murdered; their deaths were
unforeseen and unpreventable. By removing the issue of will, this example
better corresponds to the abortion event, while simultaneously
highlighting the moral problem: the manner of death and the reverence due
the human body in death must be considered.
Another argument asserts the separation of the cells from the living
being to which they once belonged gives the tissue a different,
independent life. While technically true, it doesn't address how the
tissue came to have this status. In May 1973, at a combined meeting of
the American Pediatric Society and the Society for Pediatric Research
held in San Francisco, California, Dr. Peter Adam and associates
described their experiment on fetal brain metabolism. The putative
scientists aborted babies between 12 and 21 weeks gestation and cut their
heads off. The heads were kept alive in a nutrient solution in order to
study the brain tissues' uptake of nutrients. Using the above argument,
the living brains in the severed heads could morally be used to generate
the viruses necessary for vaccine production because those brains have a
life which is now different from and independent of their origin, the
living child. Though this example merely substitutes brain tissue for
lung tissue and skulls for test-tubes, few could look the living skull in
the eye and call the products derived from the living brain within
morally licit for use.
Researchers' Moral Culpability
In fact, there is a further problem, which none of the above analyses
address. Who owns an immortal cell line? In October, 1976, UCLA Medical
Center, while treating John Moore's hairy-cell leukemia, discovered his
T-lymphocytes had unique properties and harvested them, establishing a
new cell line without his knowledge. The cell line turned out to be quite
valuable. Moore found out and sued, claiming a right to part of the
profits. Although he lost, the court found his doctor failed in his
fiduciary duty towards Moore. Three elements were present:
Certainly the aborted child was not being treated for
an illness, did not survive the treatment, did not consent to the
harvesting of the cells, nor was he informed of what the researchers
would do with those cells. By every one of the court criteria, the
researchers who established the immortal cell line obtained the tissue
- the patient was being treated for an illness
- the patient survived the treatment
- the cells were taken without the patient's consent, thus
the courts found these researchers violated the patient's right to
But what is the moral culpability of the cell-line researchers or the
pharmaceutical researchers? It seems unlikely the tissue is licit. The
children's consent was not obtained, and the only individuals who could
have given such consent, i.e., the parents, or just possibly the
physician, lost their this right by their collusion in the children's
death. How culpable are the researchers for these deaths?
It has been argued the pharmaceutical researchers bear no culpability:
the tissue for the cell line could, in principle, have come from a
natural miscarriage. This is a variation of the cannibalism argument;
just as the Andes plane crash survivors were forced by circumstances to
eat their dead companions, so the researchers were forced by
circumstances to use aborted fetal tissue to generate a vaccine. Yet,
while chicken pox/rubella can be deadly diseases under the right
circumstances, the two situations hardly seem equivalent. Even if we
grant such an equivalence, are the researchers innocent bystanders? They
could make such an argument. In 1992, the National Institutes of Health
successfully lobbied President Clinton to repeal the federal funding ban
on the use of tissue from surgical abortion precisely because
miscarriages were not providing enough suitable tissue for continued
research. Researchers, pointing to this, could claim it proves surgically
aborted children were their only real source of tissue. Sadly, this means
the pharmaceutical researchers depended on an intrinsically evil act,
making the vaccine morally illicit.
Cell-line researchers collude with abortionists in order to get tissue.
Researchers require living tissue, as fresh as possible; dead and dying
tissue is useless. Getting living fetal tissue requires extraordinarily
close cooperation between the researcher and the abortionist. In fact,
the researcher is often at the foot of the table while the abortion is
being performed, immediately dissecting the child. Typically, published
scientific papers on fetal tissue research list the abortionist who
supplies the fetal tissues as a co-author; without the close cooperation
of the abortionist, the paper wouldn't have been possible.
Thus, little independence exists between the cell-line researcher and
the abortionist. Even if the aborted tissues were simply shipped to the
lab by the abortionist, money and/or a positive social acceptance of
abortion will be given in exchange for the tissues. The abortionist will
not be dissuaded from his evil act, he will be encouraged to continue it;
indeed, the abortionist intends the act of supplying tissue to spread
social acceptance of abortion. Similarly, we encourage researchers to
support abortionists when we support work based on aborted fetal tissue.
The Nazi data could be used precisely because there was no danger of such
material cooperation; insofar as the possibility of such cooperation
exists, the use of the Nazi data is proscribed.
"Immediate material cooperation" is complicity in an action which one
does not formally approve, but in which one is so closely involved that
one shares its evil. The cell-line researchers were almost certainly
immediate material cooperators. Pharmaceutical researchers made no effort
to avoid the morally problematic cell line, and thereby spread the effect
of the abortionists' evil intent. While using the vaccine is not
identical to attending the abortion, using products derived from the
living tissues of a murdered child is uncomfortably close to immediate
material cooperation with the vaccine generators.
Using such vaccines institutionalizes the link between pharmaceuticals
and abortion. This effect was callously disregarded by Merck and Co. even
if it wasn't actually intended. Given the lack of equally effective
vaccines based on alternative, non-problematic cell lines, their intent
is suspect. In a free market one would expect non-abortion related
vaccine cell-lines to be available. None are. Either aborted tissue is
intrinsically necessary to such vaccine production, or we must seriously
question the ethics of pharmaceutical companies. Donum Vitae states: "The
corpses of human embryos and fetuses, whether they have been deliberately
aborted or not, must be respected just as the remains of other human
beings.... the moral requirements must be safeguarded, that there be no
complicity in deliberate abortion and that the risk of scandal be
avoided. Also, in the case of dead fetuses, as for the corpses of adult
persons, all commercial trafficking must be considered illicit and should
be prohibited." The cell-line researchers are complicit in abortion.
Merck and Co. commercially exploit the results of this complicity. Thus,
Donum Vitae is violated.
It is irrelevant that the abortion is a one-time long-since completed
event. A rape-murder committed in 1961 is also a one-time long-since
completed event, but it is still immoral to buy the film of the event for
one's own enjoyment. Buying goods produced by apartheid or slave labor is
not moral even if the crime which produced the item is a completed
action, with the slaves now dead. Using the product encourages slavers.
Using the vaccine encourages the abortion industry.
Even if chicken-pox or rubella were uniformly deadly diseases, the
danger posed to the public health by refusing this vaccine is irrelevant.
If a serial killer auctioned off his victims' property we must refuse to
buy that property, regardless of the danger to the public economy. In the
same way, we cannot be complicit in serial killing practiced by
scientists. A murderer cannot be allowed to justify the act of murder by
donating his victim's organs. He does not gain rights over the body of
his quarry simply by virtue of having swung the killing blow. Neither
does a society complicit in abortion have a right to apportion the
victim's body in ways which benefit itself, while muttering, "Well, she's
dead now, and we can't let the body go to waste." Drug companies use
these cell lines because the cell lines make money. The cell lines will
only be discarded when market pressures demonstrate they do not make
Assume someone learns the inheritance on which he lives was given to him
on the basis of a false will, designed to deprive the rightful heirs of
their money. The person who has benefited from the injustice must attempt
to rectify the situation. Likewise, Merck and Co. has a duty publicly to
renounce the abortion and all profits accruing therefrom. The problem of
scandal derives precisely from the fact that it encourages others to sin
or to continue in their sin. We cannot avoid participating in scandal if
we provide no incentive for the sinners to change. Public use of the
vaccines will not cause Merck and Co. or the abortionists to change their
behaviour. In fact, derived profits encourages their continued fetal
tissue efforts in other avenues of research. They experience no downside.
Is not this very fact scandalous?
The arguments supporting the morality of these vaccines do not stand up
to scrutiny. Refusing to use these vaccines involves physical risk for
ourselves, for our children, and for society. But their use poses an even
greater risk to a just society. The widespread use of contraception has
led inexorably to abortion, euthanasia and infanticide. Where might the
widespread use of tissue taken from surgically aborted children lead us?
Do we really want to find out?