Aborted Fetal Cell Use in Rubella Vaccines: A Medical and Ethical Conflict

Author: Laurence F. Roberge


by Laurence F. Roberge, M.S.

Recent media reports from England and from the group, Ohio Parents for Vaccine Safety, have stirred a conflict amongst pro-life groups. In England, a Catholic prep school refused to participate in the British government program to vaccinate children against Rubella (German Measles) because the Rubella component was originally derived from aborted babies.[1] Dr. Kristine Severyn, director of the Ohio Parents group, reported that the US version of the Rubella vaccine (MERWAX, manufactured by Merck & Co.) also is manufactured with components originating from aborted fetuses.[2] This conflict is further complicated by the fact that no vaccine alternative exist in the United States. In the UK a Rubella vaccine made from chicken egg exists, but it is less reliable and is subject to serious side effects.

Over the past 50 years, vaccine technology has provided children and adults with protection from epidemics that kill or permanently injure. Rubella, although not usually fatal if contracted during childhood, can severely injure or kill a preborn child during the first trimester of the pregnancy. Children born with Congenital Rubella Syndrome may be blind, deaf, mentally retarded, or have heart defects.

Vaccine production

During the 1964 Rubella epidemic, many women were advised to abort babies if the mothers contracted Rubella during pregnancy. The Rubella virus strain, RA 27/3, was obtained from an infected aborted fetus.[3] Since the 60's, this virus strain has been used as the chief component of the Rubella vaccine. To make this vaccine, the Rubella virus is cultivated in a weakened or "attenuated" state, so as to not cause the disease but to stimulate an immune response in the recipient and prevent subsequent Rubella infections.

The production of the Rubella virus requires the culture of human cells, referred to as a cell line. As the human cells grow in a specific nutrient-rich solution (AKA culture medium), the virus grows within the cells and is later released into the culture medium. The virus is purified from the medium for subsequent use as a vaccine. The human cell lines used in Rubella vaccine manufacture were obtained in the '60s from aborted fetuses. Human cell line WI-38 was obtained from the lung of an aborted three- month-old female fetus.[4] Another cell line used is MRC-5, obtained from the lung of a 14-week-old male aborted fetus in 1966.[5] Most other vaccines produced do not require human cell lines. Only viral vaccines require cells within which the virus will reproduce. Many viral vaccines (e.g. Polio, Mumps) can use chicken embryos or monkey kidney cell lines. Bacterial vaccines (e.g. Diphtheria, Tetanus) require the cultivation of the bacteria in a culture medium only.

Moral issues

Various moral dilemmas arise from this issue. A position adopted by the bioethics committee of the British Catholic Bishops' conference stated that there is considerable separation between the abortion act and the current production of the vaccine.[6] Since the tissue was removed after the aborted fetus was clinically dead, individuals involved in the vaccine production were not involved in the abortion. As long as there is no support for abortion, then it would be morally acceptable for individuals to use the vaccine.

The British Catholic Media Office stated that Catholic teaching would oppose the development of new vaccines, therapies, and studies from aborted fetal tissue. Catholic teaching is clear that we may never do harm so that good may come of it. Unfortunately, many would be tempted to justify or reduce the evil of abortion with the reasoning that aborted tissue saves lives. This reasoning could be used to make palatable future abortions used for harvesting fetal tissue for research or medical products.

This issue is further complicated in light of the fact that tissue from "spontaneous abortions" is useless for cell culture for vaccine manufacture. This is because the cause of the spontaneous abortion (e.g. viral or bacterial infection, chromosome defect, etc.) would render the tissue useless for the strict standards of vaccine manufacture.

Also, the present stocks of cell lines will eventually be depleted in the future. Yet if the population is not maintaining a certain level of vaccinations, the return of viral epidemics may become a reality. Future vaccine manufacturing needs may require development and testing of new cell lines. Eventually, we may see cell biologists return to experiment on aborted fetuses to obtain them.


Fortunately, alternatives to fetal cell lines do exist for some vaccines. These include use of animal-based cell lines, such as monkey cell lines or chicken embryo egg culture. Further research is warranted, especially as the vaccine needs of our society increase with the appearance of new diseases and the development of antibiotic resistance by known disease organisms.

The greatest promise to remove fetal tissue completely from the vaccine picture lies in biotechnology. At present, the viral vaccine for Hepatitis B is made from yeast. Since the Hepatitis B virus is difficult to culture, biotechnology used a protein from the outer coat of the virus as the vaccine. This protein is made from yeast that has the gene for the Hepatitis B protein inserted into the yeast genetic code. The yeast is easily cultured and subsequently the protein is extracted, purified and packaged.

It will be dependent upon Catholic and other pro-life advocates to encourage (or pressure, if necessary) the vaccine industry and government regulatory agencies (e.g. U.S. Food and Drug Administration, World Health Organization, British Ministry of Health, etc.) to adopt alternative strategies to avoid returning to aborted fetuses for vaccine components. Encouraging alternative vaccine research for vaccine development will provide a strong incentive to dissuade the future justification of further abortions and fetal research for vaccine components.


Vaccines and their source cell lines*


BIAVAX (binary vaccine) rived (Rubella & Rubella Mumps) WI-38 (fetal cell line) uses RA 27/3 virus de from fetus for the part of the vaccine

MURUVAX (Rubella) WI-38 (fetal cell line) uses RA 27/3 virus derived from fetus

MUMPS line uses chick embryo cell

POLIO uses bacterial culture

HEMAPHILLUS B uses bacterial culture

PERTUSSIS uses bacterial culture

TETANUS uses bacterial culture

* from , 49th ed. (Medical Economics: Montvalle, NJ, 1995).


1 "Catholic school refuses vaccinations," Milwaukee Sentinel, 27 October 1994. "Rubella vaccine creates problems," Daily Citizen, 17 November 1994. "Vaccine breeds moral dilemmas in Britain," Daily Citizen, 19 November 1994. "Rubella vaccine riles pro- lifers," Sunday Star-Times (New Zealand), 27 November 1994. "Shot down: prep school rejects rubella vaccine," Atlanta Constitution, 27 November 1994.

2 "Aborted babies used as source for rubella vaccine," Press Release, Ohio Parents for Vaccine Safety (251 West Ridgeway Drive, Dayton, OH 45459; tel: 513-435-4750), 9 December 1994.

3 S. A. Plotkin, "Development of RA 27/3 attenuated rubella virus grown in WI-38 cells," , London 1968; Symp. Series , 11, 249-260, Karger, Basel/New York 1969.

4 L. Hayflick and P. S. Moorhead, "The serial cultivation of human diploid cell strains," 25 (1961), 585-621.

5 J. P. Jacobs, "Characteristics of a human diploid cell designated MRC-5," , November 1994, 26-28.

Taken from the May 1995 issue of "HLI Reports." To subscribe contact: HLI Reports, 7845 Airpark Road, Suite E Gaithersburg, MD 20879