By Bishop Robert Vasa
Occasionally I am compelled to approach topics which, if I were more prudent, I would avoid. The issue of vaccines produced using cell lines of illicit origin is one such topic. At the outset I will say that the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) has produced a rather thorough FAQ sheet (frequently asked questions) on this topic and I would recommend that FAQ to those who have further questions. I also need to say that any decisions which individuals make regarding these vaccines need to be very thoroughly considered and carefully weighed. It is very possible for many, particularly those more strongly and passionately involved in pro-life activities, to see the abortion connection and fail to hear or give proper attention to the moral analysis.
Last week, I included the statement from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on this issue. In reality the Congregation used the vaccine issue as an example rather than addressing the issue directly: “Thus, for example, danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available.”
In order to understand what it means to say that vaccines were developed “using cell lines of illicit origin” we need a little history and a little science. In the case of rubella there was a need to develop a vaccine because of the severe effect which the disease had on a developing child in the womb. Researchers sought a suitable host on which to culture the vaccine and fetal cell tissue was the most desirable. Thus strain RA 27/3 of the rubella virus was developed. RA 27/3 needs to be deciphered. R = Rubella. A = Abortion. 27 = 27th abortion victim. 3 = 3rd tissue sample. From this 27th victim, even now 40 years later, human diploid cell strains (HDCSs) are currently used for, among other things, culturing viruses for the manufacturing of a variety of vaccines. Vaccines from this and other abortion related cells strains have been licensed worldwide for inoculation against polio, rabies, rubella, chicken pox, measles, shingles, mumps, and hepatitis A and B. I was very surprised to hear rather recently that these vaccines contain extremely small traces of the original fetal DNA. The cell strains on which these vaccines were cultured contain the complete fetal chromosomal set. The use of HDCS is based on several practical considerations. They have a receptivity to many human viruses, long storage potential, low cost of cell procurement, an excellent record of safety, and a very low risk of a preexistent virus on the cells themselves. This all sounds so cold and even gruesome to me. It is very easy for me to see why some have protested the use of these vaccines so strenuously. We need to remember, however, that the Holy See, taking all this into consideration and doing a thorough moral analysis does permit parents to use these vaccines for their children. I would maintain that the document does not indicate that parents must use these vaccines. This is a matter which conscientious parents need to consider very seriously. Further, there are ethically purer vaccines available in the United states for a number of the diseases listed above.
A very important thing to know is that Japan has approved vaccines against rubella and hepatitis A, which have been prepared without the use of human cells extracted from aborted fetuses. These vaccines represent a morally preferable alternative since they have not used cell lines of illicit origin, but they have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, and therefore are not readily available in the United States. This is why the Document, “Dignitas Personae,” has added: “Everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available.”
Thus my reading of the document inclines me to conclude that parents may use these vaccines derived from cell lines of illicit origin but they should inquire about the availability of a more ethical alternative and they must make their objections known to the physician, to the healthcare system and to the FDA. Clearly, the use of these vaccines, while morally permissible, is not entirely morally neutral.
I am personally very troubled by the abortion connection even though it is deemed quite remote in the moral analysis. My problem is this: Evil may never be done in order that good might come from it. Yet, evil is done, and not just any evil but the evil of deliberate murder in abortion, with the precise intention of producing a medical good. We strongly reject the evil but, either directly or at least indirectly, we reward and even encourage the evil-doers by our wholesale acceptance of the good they have produced.
I have seen people with shingles and this disease is not at all pleasant. Yet, for me, the choice between accepting the risk of getting shingles and using a vaccine derived from a cell line of illicit origin is easy. I would rather accept shingles and its consequences than send the message that I would knowingly use a vaccine derived from a cell line of illicit origin. In reality, if everyone did this then one of two things would happen. The pharmaceutical companies would stop making the vaccine or they would begin to look seriously for alternatives that are not tied to abortion. Without our protest, however, these companies have no incentive to change their ways. They will continue to do evil that good may come from it; we will continue to receive the good they produce, and we will thus give moral and financial support to their heinous practices.
This is in no way intended to be a thorough scientific or moral evaluation of all the factors involved but rather a little bit of a wake up call. It is good and necessary for us to be aware of unfair and unsafe working conditions in the production of certain consumer goods and we need to avoid those products. We also need to be aware that products of illicit scientific research, particularly that which involves the death of innocent children, are not entirely morally neutral.