ABORTED FETAL CELL USE IN RUBELLA VACCINES: A MEDICAL AND ETHICAL CONFLICT
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. 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. 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
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
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. 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. Another cell line used is MRC-5, obtained from the lung of
a 14-week-old male aborted fetus in 1966. 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.
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. 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
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*
VACCINE 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
MURUVAX (Rubella) WI-38 (fetal cell line) uses RA 27/3 virus derived
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
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:
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