Feedback archiveFeedback 2012

Vaccines and abortion?

Published: 24 March 2012 (GMT+10)

We regularly receive emails asking about the use of aborted fetuses in developing vaccines; Kevin M., Canada, wrote in requesting comments in more detail. Dr Jonathan Sarfati’s responses are interspersed.

doctor performing a typhoid vaccination in Texas, 1943

A doctor performing a typhoid vaccination in Texas, 1943.

Dear Dr M.

Dear CMI, First off, I would like to say thank you for your all your good work; your website, the Creation magazine and the Journal of Creation are all extremely informative and useful and have been of great encouragement to me. Through 3 years of university majoring in biochemistry and 4 years of dental school, I faced a barrage of evolutionary teaching. Your resources have emboldened my faith.

We are happy that our work has been helpful.

I am responding to two articles on your website: 1. Vaccines and Genesis-Questions and Answers on Vaccinations and the Immune System and 2. Are vaccines biblical, safe or effective? The main point that I am addressing was brought up by someone by the name of Rachel in article #2 above where she writes: "And it is FACT that some vaccines are made using the medium of tissue cells of aborted fetuses!" to which the reply by Dr. Carl Wieland was:

“Abortion is a tragic evil, and the articles should have made clear that we don’t for a minute condone or support that, but oppose it in the strongest possible terms. This should be clear in general from Q&A: Human Life Abortion and Euthanasia. In fact, we would prefer it if you didn’t use such a medicalese term like ‘fetus’ for unborn baby, because this tends to perpetuate the notion that it is somehow less than a baby. That’s unless one would be likewise prepared to use the medicalese ‘gravida’ for the pregnant mother.”

And that was very reasonable. Whoever controls the language wins the debate, so we should not follow the pro-aborts with their selective medicalese which dehumanizes the unborn in the eyes of many laypeople. And the answer also made it clear that we oppose abortion, including to generate vaccine culture media.

In my opinion, the point posed by Rachel was not directly addressed by Dr Wieland. Indeed, it is a fact that many of the vaccines used today have been developed using aborted fetal cell lines (Certainly I do not normally use the word "fetal" however this is the name commonly used to refer to these cell lines derived from aborted babies). Two of the most common aborted fetal cell lines are MRC-5 which has been used to make the hepatitis A vaccine, the hepatitis A&B vaccine, the Polio combination vaccine, and others, and the WI-38 cell line which has been used to make the Measles/Mumps/Rubella vaccine, and others.

OK, since this reply was made, I answered a pro-life friend who had asked a related question about the rabies vaccine being grown in human embryos. I replied:

I have my doubts about that. The rabies vaccine goes back to the creationist chemist and biologist Louis Pasteur (1822–1895), who infected rabbits; then after they died, he dried out their nerve tissue to weaken the germ. He gave it to Joseph Meister, a 9-year-old boy bitten by a rabid dog. The boy never developed rabies. Rabies vaccine is still made that way sometimes.

Now it seems that most rabies is cultured on embryonic eggs—but chicken not humans. Another version uses fetal lung tissue culture from Rhesus monkeys. Note that viruses are not like bacteria, that can be cultured on nutrients; viruses are non-living biological machines that must hijack genuinely living cells to reproduce.

The one objectionable version of the vaccine is that cultured on cells derived from a male baby who was aborted in the UK in 1966. This is a cell line coming from continual reproduction of cells from that, not embryos per se. No new embryos are being generated for the purpose of culturing vaccines (this is immoral). The vaccine makers had nothing to do with the abortions.

Here is a Roman Catholic statement about the morality of using such vaccines.1 I.e. we should avoid and seek alternatives if possible, unless it is necessary to save our lives or those of children. After all, would we refuse a life-saving organ that was from a victim of a drunk driver for example who listed “Organ Donor” on the driver’s license, because he was killed in a sinful way?

Another paper from Christianity and Pharmacy says much the same.2

The Vatican has taken this issue so seriously that it wrote a letter on it, seen here (though I do not agree with the conclusion that using these vaccines is acceptable merely because there is no alternative): Moral reflections on vaccines prepared from cells derived from aborted human foetuses, Pontifical Academy for Life, for the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, 9 June 2005.

Must be the same as what I quoted. But notice the principle: it was not supporting killing more babies, but using the cell lines from a baby already killed decades ago. That deed was unfortunately done, and cannot be undone. There is also no evidence that it would lead to more abortions. The second paper I quote explains the "principle of double effect", which I also invoked in What about abortion to save the mother’s life?

Now it is clear that CMI is strongly pro-life, and it is also clear from your article "Stem cells and Genesis" that you oppose embryonic stem cell research due to its obvious connection with abortion.

Or rather, they both have the common connection to the beginning of life from conception (fertilization).

In light of the reality that many vaccines today are intricately linked with aborted children, how can CMI not oppose these vaccines?

As shown above, the link is to two aborted children from 40 years ago, as wrong as that was. But especially since there is no more abortion for the purpose of generating vaccines, using the relatively few vaccines from these babies does not entail supporting how they were generated.

Why should Christians be willing to compromise our ethical standards because the medical profession at large says we’d be foolish not to?

This is begging the question about whether there is a compromise. Not only is there that double effect principle above, but also the general biblical principle of a hierarchy of morals or graded absolutism: if two moral principles conflict, the greater principle exempts one from the obligation to the lesser one. (One thinks of the common example of someone in WWII-era Germany, or the countries it occupied, lying to the Nazis about the Jews he is hiding.)

Even if vaccines could save some lives, though the evidence for this is arguable at best,

I disagree, as would those who suffered horribly from rabies, smallpox and polio.3

how can we not think of Jesus’ words in Luke 9:24, "For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will save it." (Also see Matt 16:25 and Mark 8:35).

Indeed, and that would apply to those who would commit murder, of born of unborn humans, to save one’s life. It would not apply to those who see no reason to add still more deaths to the atrocities of the two murdered babies from >40 years ago without any gain in return.

Thank you for your consideration of this most important subject.

Sincerely in Christ
Dr Kevin M.

In Christ

Dr Jonathan Sarfati, for Dr Carl Wieland at his request.

References and notes

  1. Moral reflections on vaccines prepared from cells derived from aborted human foetuses,, accessed 13 March 2012. Return to Text.
  2. J.D. Grabenstein, Moral considerations with certain viral vaccines, Christianity and Pharmacy 2(2):3–6, 1999, accessed 13 March 2012 from Return to Text.
  3. See also 9 anti-vaccination myths busted with science by Dr Rachael Dunlop, 12 November 2011 (off-site). Return to Text.

Reader’s comments

Josef L.
Dr. Wieland,

I also don’t want anyone to take what I said as medical advice (as I am in no way qualified).

My comments were more my own personal convictions; and as I’ve said, I think everyone should become informed for themselves and not rely on layman (such as myself) for their decisions.

Also, if you’re worried that people will see my comments and make the wrong decision, then I would have no problem at all with you taking down my comment. I also don’t want people to make the wrong decision based on what I’ve said.
Carl Wieland
Thanks, Josef. I did not intend any personal criticism, as your comments were generally measured, it was that one section which could have inadvertently misled folk. Thanks for your willingness for them to be removed, but I suggest that the exchange gives an opportunity to once again raise the whole risk/benefit thing, which is so easily lost. When I was in the medical profession years ago, it was sad to see how so many people assumed that the profession was basically a bunch of dupes in the hands of either ‘big pharma’ or some other power base. This even extended to cancer cures, with the suggestion that ‘real’ treatments were being suppressed due to such vested interests. My experience, FWIW, is that doctors who treat cancer hate it with a passion, and would be highly motivated to prescribe XYZ to fix it regardless of the source of XYZ, even if it were growing in some weed at the side of the road. As an aside, it would actually enhance their reputations and thus incomes (and big pharma would doubtless find a way to market the helpful ingredient within the weed and make money anyway :-)). Well, I’ve turned that into an opportunity to ride a particular hobbyhorse. I hope all realize that CMI has no official policy on such matters, other than our general policy of being guided by Scripture solely where it speaks, and where it does not, pointing out the importance of the wisdom principle. See the article Hanging Loose.
Violet H.
Reference #2 under “References and notes” after this article refers to J.D. Gravenstein. Is this the same Lt. Col. John D. Gravenstein, Ph.D. who worked closely with Merck and GlaxoSmithKline?

Do creationists now have dollar signs where their consciences should be?

For shame.
Jonathan Sarfati
Are you seriously claiming that we were bribed by these companies?
Violet H.
To CMI: It’s the BIBLE that is infallible, not Big Pharma—something you have obviously missed.
Jonathan Sarfati
Au contraire, the infallibility of the Bible is in our Statement of Faith, Section B, article 1. What you have missed is that this does not imply opposition to “Big Pharma” for its own sake, but only where it opposes the Bible. Nor should we impute infallibility to “Anti–Big-Pharma”. As I wrote in Arguments we think creationists should NOT use:

We also remind our readers that CMI is primarily pro-Bible, not anti-establishment for its own sake. in particular, we concentrate on the biblical teachings of creation by the Triune God, and that death is the result of sin. Our anti-evolution/millions of years stance is the corollary of this, not the end in itself. By extension, oppose the ‘establishment’ only where it conflicts with the Bible. So we urge Christians to ensure that their stance comes from being pro-Bible, not a knee-jerk anti-establishmentism.
J. J.
That article is extremely confusing and unclear. I'm extremely interested in this topic and is highly disappointed with the quality of the article. Our family believes vaccination works, but not the why it’s currently done by profit-orientated companies (specifically the heavy metal components).
Jonathan Sarfati
Of course, assessment of quality is a matter of opinion. Also, it was addressing only one major issue, not the issues in which you are interested. Actually, those are addressed in the previous article Are vaccines biblical, safe or effective?.

To support the comments made in that article on both those issues:

  1. I would say that I prefer vaccines to be made from profit-oriented companies, because they will earn profits only if buyers believe that they will work, and probably even more important, will suffer bad losses if they make something that hurts someone. Conversely, non-profit also means non-loss, and I can see no worse thing than decisions made by people who don’t stand to lose if they hurt people. As Adam Smith, actually a moral philosopher before he turned to economics, said about 200 years ago: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” In this fallen world, selfishness is just a ubiquitous human condition.

  2. The point was also made that whether a heavy metal—or any substance—is “toxic” depends on the amount, as explained in detail in Understanding poisons from a creationist perspective. As argued in in this “Readers’ comments” section, in the amounts used, there is no proof that even the mercury-containing thiomersal has caused conditions like autism. However, it is deadly to germs even in tiny amounts, reflected in the term oligodynamic effect, from Greek oligos = few (it seems to be common among chalcophile metals like mercury, silver and copper, i.e. with an affinity for sulfur, so they disrupt vital sulfur-containing bacterial enzymes). It’s also important to note that in this fallen world, there are no solutions, just trade-offs. Vaccines lacking preservative have had their own problems—e.g. in 1928, 12 of 21 children inoculated with a non-preserved diphtheria vaccine were killed by a staph infection. Finally, this question is somewhat moot in the US, since thiomersal has been phased out in favour of single-dose vaccines. But this has its own trade-off in the greater expense, which is a big issue for third-world countries. So the World Health Organization argues that this problem outweighs the potential toxicity in Position of the Global Advisory Committee on Vaccine Safety regarding concerns raised by paper about the safety of thiomersal-containing vaccines, May 2003, although this is always under review.

Anyway, I hope these comments go some way to provide some thoughts about the issues you raised.
Paul F.
One principle which I think bears noting here is that which David expressed when his men sneaked thru enemy lines to get water from the well at Bethlehem for him. He poured out the water, saying that it was the blood of those who risked their lives and that therefore he would not drink it. I have wondered why he did this, since the deed was already done. My conclusion is that it was not for the sake of those who had already risked their lives, but for those who would be emboldened to do similar acts of valor in the future. In the same way, it is not for the sake of the children who have already been murdered that we avoid certain things but rather for the sake of those who may be murdered in the future because researchers are emboldened to similar immoral acts.

My comment is not intended as a final word on whether to use vaccines which came from babies who were aborted 40+ years ago, but rather as another point to consider in making that decision.
Jonathan Sarfati
You may well be right about David’s motivation, and indeed this is an important point. There is a related term in economics called moral hazard, where a policy can be criticized as unsound if it would probably encourage future counter-productive behaviour. However, since there are currently no babies being aborted to provide vaccinations—which would indeed be a terrible sin, as explained in the article—so the moral hazard aspect doesn’t seem to apply.

Also, it could be argued that the Bible is just reporting an event, not giving us a command to follow. It’s well known in the philosophy of ethics that we can’t go from an is to an ought. For example, Lot, described as “righteous” (2 Peter 2:7), in an exaggerated notion of hospitality to his (angelic) guests, offered up his own virgin daughters to be ravished by the first recorded Gay Pride parade in history. Here, I would point out, “Not everything recorded in the Bible is approved by the Bible.”

It’s different with the actions of Christ, because Christians are exhorted to be “imitators of Christ” (1 Corinthians 11) and “have the mind of Christ” (1 Corinthians 2:16).

D. H.
What do you mean by “without any gain in return” at the end of the article. Is it implying that if there was some gain, then the deaths would have been justified?
Jonathan Sarfati
No, it makes no such implication: this would actually be a form of the logical fallacy called denying the antecedent (see this section of my article Logic and Creation). It should be clear from the sentence immediately preceding: “Indeed, and that would apply to those who would commit murder, of born or unborn humans, to save one’s life.”
John K.
Yet another informative article.
I sincerely look forward to your visits to Southern California, as I will be attending the Long Beach homeschool conference specifically to see Dr. Jonathan Sarfati and the Costa Mesa conference to see Dr Wieland.
God Bless your ministry, and all who work it and read from it.
Denise E.
Isn’t there a limit to how long cells from aborted babies can be used? I understand that the lines need to be ‘refreshed’ every 10–20 years or so. I remember one person writing that they become cancerous after so many divisions. One wrote about an increase in autism at the introduction of the newly obtained cell lines.
Jonathan Sarfati
Apparently not (in answer to your first question). Cell lines can be very durable especially if they have an active form of telomerase that restores the protective telomeres at the ends of chromosomes. There is also a famous cell line called HeLa that has been going since 1951 that are descendants of cervical cancer cells. This is named after a young mother-of-five called Henrietta Lacks who died of that disease in that year. See also Living for 900 years. Jonas Salk used this cell line to develop his polio vaccine.
There have been various claims linking an increase in autism with vaccination in general, and with the preservative thiomersal (often called “thimerosal” in the USA, probably because of metathesis) in particular. However, the U.S. National Academy of Science’s (NAS) Institute of Medicine published a study in 2004 which summarized:

Thus, based on this body of evidence, the committee concludes that the evidence favors rejection of a causal relationship between thimerosal-containing vaccines and autism. [bold in original]

Another creationist scientist, Dr Jay Wile, has written a careful study, Vaccines DO NOT Cause Autism, 2009.
One wonders if instead of an increase in autism, there has been an increase in false diagnoses of autism (economist Dr Thomas Sowell, author of a book on late-talking children including his son, argues so in a 2008 column Autism Cures?).
Sheryl L.
If you further research this issue I believe you may be wrong! Chicken pox vaccine is abortion-derived but wasn’t made until 1995. What aborted baby did that vaccine come from? Safe and effective inoculations grown on animal cells or chick embryos are available for all but chicken pox, hepatitis A, and rubella—diseases mild enough to allow for the acquisition of natural immunity. I have had a problem with doctors who refuse to order the abortion-free alternatives. If more people would demand these vaccines, doctors would stock them!
Jonathan Sarfati
No, once again, the chicken pox (varicella) vaccine is cultured on those cell lines known as MRC-5 and WI-38 descended from babies aborted in the 1960s, not from babies being aborted now.

And as we have pointed out, it’s always a cost-benefit analysis. None of these diseases is always mild. Rubella (German Measles) is well known for being very dangerous during pregnancy, resulting in spontaneous abortion about 20% of the time (so vaccinations are actually a very pro-life measure). Even chickenpox has dangers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):

  • A person who has had chickenpox can get a painful rash called shingles years later.

  • Before the vaccine, about 11,000 people were hospitalized for chickenpox each year in the United States.

  • Before the vaccine, about 100 people died each year as a result of chickenpox in the United States. [They were usually healthy before contracting the disease.]

Josef L.
Just a suggestion for those who have trouble with accepting vaccinations because they are uncomfortable with the ones that were cultured from aborted babies: just avoid those ones.

I am personally on the fence with vaccines. I do not believe in the “one size fits all” mentality that medical experts try to push on people. I personally believe that mass vaccinations are essentially like playing Russian roulette: somewhere down the road someone is going to get seriously hurt or worse.

Anyone who says differently either hasn’t looked into the issue, hasn’t been harmed by a vaccine, or doesn’t know anyone personally who has been affected by vaccines (a very close friend of mine when into a seizure immediately upon receiving her Hep B vaccinations and had to be rushed to the nearest hospital. By God’s grace, no serious damage was done, but she is now anti-vaccine).

On the other hand, I don’t think it is wise to go the other direction and write off all vaccines. I think it is wise to be able to take the “important” ones while avoiding the ones that don’t prevent anything deadly or life changing (I personally don’t get the flu shot because at worst, a flu lasts a week or so, while an adverse reaction to the shot could change my life for the worst). I think one could extend this to the vaccines that were cultured from the aborted babies too. If this offends anyone, and I certainly understand why it would, then just avoid those vaccines.

In the end, I think everyone is responsible for doing the research to the best of their ability and make an informed decision on the matter.
Carl Wieland
The key is ‘informed’. I am uncomfortable about people seeing things on a CMI site that can be interpreted by some as medical advice, which is not this site’s role to dispense. For example, the comment in your email that ‘at worst, a flu lasts a week or so’. That seems to propagate the common misunderstanding that the ‘flu shot’ is simply for what most people call the ‘flu’, which is really the common cold. Whereas ‘flu shots’ are for influenza. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC’s) website indicates that in that one country alone, “more than 200,000 people are hospitalized for flu-related complications each year. Over a period of 30 years, between 1976 and 2006, estimates of flu-associated deaths in the United States range from a low of about 3,000 to a high of about 49,000 people.” Thus, someone being influenced by your comment into not having a flu shot could even die as a result. Of course, it might turn out that it saved them from a vaccine-related side effect, but there is the nub of the issue.

We should not forget that life in this fallen world is a continual tradeoff between risk and benefit. We do this every time we drive a car, for instance. The judgement of medical professionals recommending a particular vaccine is obviously that the risk of being harmed by that particular vaccine is less than the risk of being harmed by the disease. Therefore, if you know someone harmed by a vaccine, that is terrible, and sad, but if it is within the overall reported numbers, it is not something that would surprise the medical authorities concerned, nor should it cause them to change their advice so long as their numbers are accurate, i.e. that the risks of not doing something outweigh the risks of doing it.

The Bible talks a great deal about wisdom. The understandable emotional impact of a particular experience should not change the way one views the overall risk/benefit assessment; it would seem more rational to base it on large numbers. For example, I saw an (unvaccinated) child die a horrible, slow brain-eaten-up death over months from a complication of measles. If the risk of getting that from not vaccinating was 1 in 10 million, for example, and the risk of your child dying from the vaccine was say 1 in 5 million, it might make sense to refuse the vaccine, in spite of seeing this horrible outcome from not vaccinating. (That was a hypothetical, to show the equation can work both ways; but of course the people responsible for disease prevention are paid to calculate those risks for the rests of us, and there are serious professional consequences if they get it wrong).
Graham P.
Excellent piece.

Article comments are only available for 14 days from publication.