The Anti-Vaxxers You Haven’t Heard Of

This morning I stumbled on an anti-vaccination movement I hadn’t heard of before.

Catholics.

Yes, you heard me right. Certain Catholics and Catholic groups oppose the use of vaccinations because they come from the tissue of aborted fetuses. In an article on Catholic Culture called “A silent scandal: Catholic schools promoting morally unacceptable vaccines” looked at the issue of American dioceses requiring children be vaccinated in their schools. It cited one statement from the diocese in Birmingham, Alabama:

Diocesan policy has changed for the 2015-2016 school year. Due to the fact that the Catholic Church does not object to any of these required immunizations, religious exemptions will no longer be accepted in lieu of the certificate of immunization.

Those “religious exemptions” referred to are opposition to abortion which leads some Catholic parents to avoid vaccinating children. These people believe that some vaccines, specifically the rubella vaccine, are produced using aborted fetal tissue. Thus, using vaccines creates a demand for aborted tissue and is against their pro-life beliefs. These pro-life beliefs are largely religiously motivated and so provide the basis for religious exemptions.

At first blush, this makes it sound like vaccine producers buy aborted tissue from somewhere, probably doctors who perform abortions, and use the aborted tissue in some big, scary abortion supply and demand ring. Sounds pretty terrible, right? I have no doubt that there are some people who actually believe this, but it is simply not true for reasons I will get to in a minute.

On the more measured and reasonable end of this anti-vaxxer belief is the correct knowledge that some vaccines were developed using aborted tissue. The rubella vaccine was developed after a woman with rubella aborted her fetus because of the horrible effects the disease would have on her child. Scientists studied the disease on the aborted tissue and were able to develop a vaccine which has saved countless lives. Because of that original development from aborted tissue, some Catholic anti-vaxxers refuse to use it on their own children.

I learned this from a day of researching on Google, trolling through various Catholic websites. I had not heard of this idea before and was fascinated. In particular, two questions came to my mind: are the Catholic anti-vaxxers right in any scientific way? And what are the ethical implications of using vaccines produced from aborted cells?

Let’s start with the science first, since that was what I researched initially. Looking at secular scientific sites reveals a lot of good information, but it does not address religious concerns. And after all, why should it? It’s about science, not about religion. I wanted a source that could look at the science with religion in mind and eventually I found one.

Dr. Jay L. Wile is a chemist and a Christian and he has written a wonderful Christian curriculum for science that many homeschoolers use. I used it to study general science, chemistry and biology in high school. I know from experience how Dr. Wile looks at science. He is always factual and he always acknowledges religion in his work. Finding his discussion of the vaccine issue was great because I knew I could trust him as a source. He starts out like this: “Of the many lies told by anti-vaccination advocates, this is one of the worst, because it hits on a real moral issue.”

Honestly, I was not expecting him to say this. I read on and learned that yes, the rubella vaccine was created using aborted tissue. However, that was only the initial vaccine. The way I understand it after having read Wile’s essay is this: while it was initially created using aborted tissue, the rubella vaccine no longer contains any aborted tissue. It is instead created by self-generating cell lines maintained by cell-distribution companies that do not sell aborted fetuses like I first grimly thought. So no rubella vaccine or other vaccines made in a similar way contain aborted tissue, despite having first been created from aborted tissue.

That’s the science and I think it seems pretty clear. Using the vaccines do not create a market for aborted tissue because no aborted tissue is used in making the current vaccines. People making that argument are simply being ridiculous and trying to make things sound horrible, which they’re not.

But that’s not the only ethical issue here. What should Catholics who oppose abortion do with a vaccine that was initially created from aborted tissue? Here I think we do get into some real ethical concerns. Dr. Wile offers one perspective.

The cells that were taken from the two aborted babies more than 35 years ago are much like my loved one’s heart. Two innocent babies were killed. However, they were able to donate something that has been used not only to make vaccines, but in many medical research projects over the years. Thus, these cells have been saving millions of lives for almost two generations! Although the babies were clearly murdered, the fact that their cells have been saving lives is at least a silver lining in the dark cloud of their tragic murder.

Dr. Wile’s argument is that yes, abortion is evil, but something good has come out of it. To not save children’s lives with vaccines would also be evil and that is the evil that should be prevented now. He treats it in more detail in his essay, and I encourage you to read it. My brief summary might not have done it justice.

Look, personally, I think that all anti-vaxxers are insane. Maybe not clinically, but certainly their actions create a dangerous environment for their children and for other people’s children. Why anyone would allow that to happen to innocent kids for any reason is beyond me. Science shows that the Catholic anti-vaxxers are mistaken and have tried to simplify a complex issue. This is dangerous and I do not support it. Religious people can say what they want, allowing human lives to be endangered because you oppose an abortion that happened years ago is immoral.

But here’s what I would support. Catholic anti-vaxxers might just bring up an important ethical issue when it comes to that long-ago abortion. There is a need to recognize that a life (potential or otherwise, depending on your view) was sacrificed in order to save others. An opinion piece on LifeSite puts it this way:

Doesn’t the story of Henrietta Lacks suggest that drug companies should do something similar with their vaccine products? From now on, the NIH says, scientists who use HeLa cells must include “an acknowledgment and expression of gratitude to the Lacks family for their contributions”.

Why shouldn’t drug companies and researchers who use the WI-38 (or the MRC-5 cells) do the same? “This vaccine was developed with the cells of a Swedish child who was aborted in 1964. We are grateful for her contribution and grieve at her absence.”

I think this is a fair point and I believe that both pro-lifers and pro-choice supporters could agree on it. This was a form of life which could have been a child, a human being who contributed to the world. Acknowledge at least the loss of that potential when using a vaccine which allows children to reach theirs. And in the meantime, keep using those vaccines which do save lives.

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