Abortion, Autism and Immunization: The Danger of the Plausible Sounding Lie

Welcome, new readers!  Since this post has been recently linked to in other pieces discussing the work of Dr. Deisher as regards Planned Parenthood video footage and the anti-vaccine movement, please read our response on that topic here.

Since the publication of this piece, released the same day as Sound Choice’s press release announcing the publication of this study, I was made aware that Dr. Deisher’s child has been diagnosed with cancer.  I hope all will join me in praying for his return to health, as well as the comfort and peace of his family during this challenging time.

This month, Dr. Theresa Deisher of Sound Choice Pharmaceuticals published a study which proposed a correlation between the usage of vaccines using fetal cell culture and the increasing diagnosis of autism in children.  This hypothesis centers on the idea that rogue fetal DNA from vaccines that are grown in the cultured cells obtained from abortion could somehow go to the brain and cause autism.

I’ve read Dr. Deisher’s full study, which can be found here.  It is very clear to me how this could be alarming to any Catholic parent concerned about their children’s risk of autism.  The article is written with a whole lot of big, science-y sounding words and has a bunch of graphs to attempt to support the central argument that vaccines grown in fetal cell culture cause autism.  This serves to disguise that essentially the hypothesis being stated is that a temporal correlation between the introduction of immunizations grown in WI-38 and MRC-5 to a population  and the incidence of diagnosed autism implies a causal relationship between these two factors.

Or, if writing like a normal human being instead of using big words on purpose to confuse the issue, the authors are arguing that because two things happened at the same time that one caused the other.  

autism organic foodIt’s really easy to argue that because two things happened at the same time that one caused the other.  Correlation is very easy to show, but it does not in any way mean that causation has been proven.  I can argue that the sales of organic food or Apple products is correlated with an increased incidence of autism, but no sensible person would take that argument seriously.  However, in order to better understand why the “fetal cell culture immunization causes autism” argument is wrong, it’s helpful to go through why it would be so so unlikely to be true.

Bottom line:  before even looking at whether stray human DNA could cause autism it comes down to a question of when autism happens.  If autism is caused by a vaccine grown in fetal cell culture, it will happen after the vaccine is administered.  During the period in which this study covers*, no vaccine grown in fetal cell culture was scheduled to be given before 12 months of age.  So, in order for this to work, you would have to have all of the children in question be perfectly normal and functioning healthily until they received the vaccine and then they changed.

However, this is overwhelmingly unlikely to be true for many reasons.  The scientific consensus on autism is that autism is something that occurs before birth.  Further, early signs of autism are often present even in infancy, even though they are often very difficult to identify as such.  Autism that is present before birth cannot possibly have been triggered by a vaccine administered a year or more after birth.  

What exactly causes autism is a matter of debate, as it should be.  Research passionately done is a gift to the entire human race.  There is some evidence that folic acid may play a role, with women who take folic acid before and early in pregnancy showing an almost 40% reduction in the likelihood of their children having autism.  There are theories that pesticide exposure during pregnancy may be a factor.  The anatomy of the brain in people who are autistic is different compared to their neurotypical peers, lending even more credibility to the idea that autism caused by something (or a complex interplay of different factors) during the prenatal period.  Even the placentas of babies who go on to be diagnosed as being autistic can have major differences from their neurotypical peers.  After birth, even as early as two months of age children who will go on to be diagnosed as autistic can be identified by how much attention they pay to the eyes of someone speaking to them.

How could an immunization given months after birth cause changes in the brain of an infant before birth?  How could a vaccine given 10 months later cause a two month old to lose interest in looking into people’s eyes?  How could even three different vaccines with multiple doses each somehow come together to cause placental differences existing months earlier for the child who will go on to be diagnosed with autism?

They can’t.  There is no plausible way that this could happen.  It makes absolutely no sense with what we know to be true about autism.  Even though to the layperson it sounds convincing that foreign DNA injected into a developing child could somehow go to the brain and cause autism, there is no credible way that that could actually be the case.  Not with the overwhelming evidence that autism begins before birth.  This is yet another in a series of plausible sounding untruths about vaccines that are so convincing to the average, intelligent parent just trying to learn more.

No parent should be embarrassed or feel less intelligent for thinking that this theory sounded like it might be true, or indeed for finding almost any vaccine myth to sound convincing.  On the surface, it seems like it has an internal consistency. It contains many charts to catch the eye, and even better, it’s been published in a peer reviewed journal.  And there is something in the American psyche, particularly the American Catholic psyche, that resonates when presented with a seeming underdog standing up to Big Entity X in defense of the little guy and the purity of truth.

But science requires the humility to seek consensus.  It means replication, cross checking, controlling for biases and submitting our theories to the scrutiny of others.  For the reasons already given, and for more which time and space require me to leave for another day, there is no way that the fetal cell culture vaccines -> autism causation theory can hold up to the intense scrutiny that scientific rigor demands.  This may be why this article was found in an obscure journal from a publisher (Academic Journals) that is not held in esteem by the scientific community under suspicion of being a possibly predatory open access publisher.  Academic Journals has actually been blacklisted by the Government of Malaysia’s Ministry of Higher Education, who will not recognize any citation in their publications as valid.

I do not know why the authors of this article published the conclusions that they did, or why they chose to publish their work in such a questionable publication.  In no way do I want to impugn their characters or call into question what are probably deeply held beliefs on their parts.  However, deeply held beliefs do not make for rigorous scientific inquiry.  And pro-life parents seeking to do the best by their children and by their culture deserve better than to have a plausible sounding lie masquerading as truth.  

A later post post will address the merits of the “rogue fetal DNA causes autism and other harm” argument on its own merits.  We want to give as fair treatment to the central thesis being promoted as we can, and that requires more time and outside consultation than was possible in a short time frame.

* Pentacel by Sanofi Pasteur contains a polio vaccine cultured in fetal cell culture.  There are alternatives to its use, but many children receive it for their initial immunizations.

See the other posts on this study [updated 9/23/14]:
Problems with Deisher’s Study— Part I: The numbers
Looking a little closer at the numbers— A supplement to Part I
Problems with Deisher’s study— Part II: Biological Implausibility


38 thoughts on “Abortion, Autism and Immunization: The Danger of the Plausible Sounding Lie

  1. You know that Sound Choice has an axe to grind and is incapable of unbiased research when their website states “Sound Choice is doing the studies to demonstrate the actual dangers with each vaccine”


    • Exactly, Daniel. You cannot start with “the truth” and then go out to find “evidence” to backup your preexisting, immobile beliefs. That’s not the scientific method; that’s confirmation bias.


      • If this is the case, then wouldn’t I expect to see other posts here at Rational Catholic in which you do an analysis of the research claims of researchers whose conclusions are *pro*-vaccination?

        If you have done so, could you reply with links to these analyses?

        If you have not done so, could you explain why?


      • Hi Jim— Do you have any particular study in mind? Or perhaps you have a criticism of a study that you would like to see scrutinized?

        The fact of the matter is that there is just such an overwhelming preponderance of evidence in favor of the safety and efficacy of vaccinations and such a deficit of legitimate criticism (during my vaccine non-chalant days when I encountered the claims from “The Greater Good”, I really, really tried to find good criticisms and just couldn’t.) It wouldn’t be a prudent use of time given all the timely science-related topics unless someone had a specific study in mind or heard a criticism of a study that he wanted addressed.


      • Hi, Laura–thanks for the reply–I only today learned your blog site is relatively new, which would be reason enough for no prior analyses.

        However, I *do* suggest you take the time to do so, if only to dismiss any possible “confirmation bias” in your own work. Perhaps you can compare a pro-vaccination study’s research methods to the Deisher study research approach, to help illustrate what you perceive to be the crucial differences….


  2. I am not arguing for or against the study, but I want to point out that this portion of the article above is inaccurate:

    No vaccine grown in fetal cell culture is scheduled to be given before 12 months of age.

    The IPV portion of the WIDELY used Pentacel combination shot is manufactured using the MRC-5 fetal cell line, developed from lung tissue taken from a 14-week old male fetus who was electively aborted. The first three doses of Pentacel are given at 2, 4, and 6 months of age.

    Please note this reference in the Pentacel package insert:
    Poliovirus Type 1, Type 2 and Type 3 are each grown in separate cultures of MRC-5 cells, a line of normal human diploid cells, by the microcarrier method.

    Per this directive in the Vatican’s statement on the matter:
    -there is a grave responsibility to use alternative vaccines and to make a conscientious objection with regard to those which have moral problems;

    I have spoken to the manufacturer (Sanofi Pasteur)/raised my objections. They confirmed the use of the MRC-5 fetal cell line in the manufacture of the IPV portion of Pentacel.
    And long story short, after speaking to two bioethicists and our pastor, and going through four different pediatricians, I finally found a Catholic, pro-life family doctor who would accommodate my request for an ethical alternative.

    The use of Pentacel at 2, 4, and 6 months of age is referenced in the study.


      • Hi Jill,

        As you noted, Pentacel wasn’t approved for usage until 2008. Birth year 2008 is outside the years covered by the study performed by Dr. Deisher. Pentacel is widely used, but far from exclusively used and it is well within the right of Christian parents to use ethical alternatives where available. I will edit as applicable and thanks for the catch!


    • It would be excellent if we could easily, quickly and cost effectively eliminate measles and rubella through the usage of an ethically unambiguous vaccine. However I’m really not convinced that Deisher and Sound Choice would be able to do that, or that it would be prudent even if possible.

      Developing a vaccine costs hundreds of millions of dollars, possibly over one billion dollars. This is especially true in the case of a vaccine like rubella where the competing vaccines grown in other cultured cells just honest to goodness didn’t work as well. So, to get the same efficacy when multiple other cell lines (I think duck kidneys were used in one vaccine, not sure what else was used but I could find out)…. You are looking at a lot of work. A lot of people, a lot of years. And Deisher’s background is in stem cells, not vaccine development. They aren’t the same thing, and there is a reason why only the largest pharmaceutical manufacturers are the ones making vaccines.

      While all of that is happening, we are still using the current vaccine, probably for a minimum of 15-20 years, and wind up with an ethical vaccine that is expensive enough that the third world might not be able to afford it. In the meanwhile, we could take that same billion dollars and might be able to eradicate measles and rubella altogether and stop using the vaccine because the disease no longer exists.

      It is praiseworthy to work on a vaccine for a dangerous disease in culture that doesn’t involve any ethical ambiguity. But the overall picture is fairly complex. It’s far less straightforward than just “well, give us an ethical vaccine!”


      • Have you read the Vatican’s (Pontifical Academy for Life’s) statement? It is pretty clear that ethical alternatives MUST be pursued. It is also clear about the more serious levels of cooperation in the original evil that are incurred by those manufacturing, producing, and promoting the tainted vaccines. Such cooperation is obviously morally illicit, and we should pray/work to see that it ceases ASAP, for the good of the souls of all those involved.

        The following is a good summation; regarding the very remote mediate material cooperation in the original evil that befalls the users of the vaccines, the Vatican says this:
        such cooperation occurs in a context of moral coercion of the conscience of parents, who are forced to choose to act against their conscience or otherwise, to put the health of their children and of the population as a whole at risk. This is an unjust alternative choice, which must be eliminated as soon as possible.

        My son is not yet 12 months old, and again, there are ethical alternatives to the problematic Pentacel. But I can tell you that using tainted vaccines after he is a year old WILL force me to act against my own conscience which is terribly distressing. No parent should have to be forced to make such a choice – the Vatican’s language is spot-on in terms of the moral coercion involved.

        One other note: I am sure you are familiar with the Hayflick Limit. Leonard Hayflick (researcher involved with the creation of the WI-38 line) admitted/concluded that a cell line created using a population of normal cells is not immortal, stating that there will come a point where the cells will not reproduce/provide a viable medium for growing the viruses. And, at that point, to what will the researchers/manufacturers turn? This is troubling in terms of the thought that use of the vaccines may encourage future abortions, especially since the manufacturers consider the use of human cell lines to already be ‘proven’ technology with respect to the creation of the involved vaccines.

        (I know the info at http://www.historyofvaccines.org/content/articles/human-cell-strains-vaccine-development states that some cell lines have been immortalized, ones which have undergone some kind of mutation, and gives the example of the HeLa cell line (started from cervical cancer cells); however, it is known that the fetuses used to create the WI-38 and MRC-5 cell lines were considered healthy.)


      • Genevieve, I’m digesting your comment, and Jill’s (below). I wonder if God requires us to do things which are impossible to do? That seems like a double-bind if I ever heard one. Maybe the Rational Catholic can help us out. I really appreciate your detailed reply.


      • I think that there is no morally unambiguous choice at this point, and what would be best is to see how we can create choices that are good and unambiguous.

        For example, I don’t think that an ethical alternative to the vaccines already in existence and already approved is going to happen, not easily or cheaply and perhaps not prudently. BUT, Catholics in good will could go forward using the tools we already have, tainted as they are to eradicate what we can eradicate with the existing vaccines, and demand that no further vaccines be developed using fetal cell culture obtained from abortion. That would be a noble use of the resources and energy that COG for Life offers.

        Dr. Deisher’s expertise is not in vaccines at all. It is in stem cell research. Maybe it would be a more fruitful use of her time to develop placental/umbilical cord blood cells into a new cell line that could be used for the development of vaccines against diseases that kill babies before birth. This could protect babies against CMV, group B strep, maybe listeria and other diseases before birth.

        I have tremendous hope for the future, but in the present there are broken tools as the only tools we have to try to defend the weak. I would not suggest that these are not broken tools that should have been made in a different way. These cells come from human beings who were killed unjustly. But I do somewhat wonder whether the outcry against these cells would be as great if they had come from an adult murder victim. Abortion is the direct killing of innocent human life, nothing less than that. But it isn’t *more* than that either, you know? Abortion is not Murder Plus.

        It is right, just and good that we be concerned about the proper respect owed to the body of a human being, particularly a child killed unjustly. But it is also so important to think about the other children who can, who are dying from diseases that we can prevent. Eradication stops the use of the vaccines *and* the risk to human life from these diseases, which is why that is my personal aim.

        Thanks for your comments and for following along! I’m sure we are far from done on this topic. 🙂


  3. Hi Genevieve,
    I’m just curious how you, being a mother of a large family, could have time to assemble and publish this article the very day that Sound Choice did their press release of their research article? I have six children in ten years.


    • While Sound Choice’s press release came out on 9/8, the study was available the week before. It isn’t that hard to write a blog post inside of a few days, especially if it’s on a topic you have a high degree of familiarity with. As I’m sure you know, to be a mother in a large family requires a balancing act and it is deeply important to be more than a laundry list of dishes, sweeping, cleaning, teaching and losing who God created you to be in a sea of diapers and fruit snacks. I came deeply about immunization, and it engages my mind at a high level. Engaging in pro vaccine advocacy and science dorkery is my way to try to achieve balance.

      Thanks for commenting!


  4. Refuting the Rational Catholic by a rational Protestant
    Claim: “…Other than the licensing of MeruvacII and MMRII, those other two things did not happen prior to the “change points”? In other words, the slope had already started changing before the vaccine exposure changes so the vaccines could not be the cause of the change.”
    Refute: Because the change point graphs are based on birth year, and because the children are first exposed at 12-15 months, the change point on the graph will be prior to the exposure to the vaccine.
    Claim: “…the Varicalla vaccine, Varivax, while licensed in March 1995, was not universally introduced to the vaccine schedule until 1996. Therefore, a change point of 1995.6 also would not correspond to Varivax because changes were occurring prior to the recommendation that all children get the vaccine.”
    Refute: See above.
    Claim: “While Deisher attempted to take the child’s age into account when looking at correlations between AD diagnoses and changes in diagnostic critera, she made no such attempt with vaccination.”
    Refute: False: The statistical evidence Deisher gathered from governmental agencies would generally have children who conformed to the U.S. vaccination schedule to some extent. Therefore, age is taken into account, as the schedule specified various ages various vaccines are to be given.
    Claim: “The licensure of MMRII in 1979 would mean that any child 15 months of age at that time could use MMRII to satisfy his measles vaccine requirement. The first birth year that this would affect in full in 1978. “
    Refute: Yes, it was licensed in 1979, but this is a change of vaccine, not introduction of a new vaccine. Doctors, clinics, etc. would have had a supply already of non-fetal vaccines which they would presumably use up before switching to MMRII.
    Claim: “The 1989 recommendation for a 2-dose MMR schedule is a bit tricky; from 1989 to 1997, the second dose could be administered at 4-to-6-years-old or 11-to-12-years-old. The earliest birth year that this recommendation would affect is 1978 (12 years-old in 1990…)…The latest birth year would be 1986 (4-years-old in 1990).”
    Refute: Look closely at Deisher’s graph B. There were jumps in 1978 and 1986, high deviations from the line, but not enough to constitute a major change point: There was a “triple whammy” in this time period: (1 )the addition of a second dose of MMRII at ages discussed above, primarily, I think, the 4-6 year olds, (2 )a compliance campaign for the first dose of MMRII which brought coverage from 50% to 82% during the years 1987-1989 (this could have been administered to ages 15 months and upward), and (3) introduction of fetal-contaminated Poliovax in 1987, administered at 2,4,and 6 months. These multiple factors, administered at multiple ages, do indeed give more complex results, but as we can see, the rate of autism, sadly, did continue to climb during all these events.


  5. Dear rational Catholic,
    You refer to a “The Danger of the Plausible Sounding Lie” in your heading.
    A lie is a deliberate attempt to deceive with words; it is a sin. Are you calling
    Dr. Deisher a liar?


    • I think you can repeat a lie without being the one who started the lie. If pressed I would say that Andrew Wakefield (no longer Dr. Wakefield, since having his license stripped due his profound lack of ethics) is the liar in question and would say that Dr. Deisher, in spite of all her expertise in the realm of stem cell research has been herself deceived. I do not think it makes her stupid, bad, evil or a terrible scientist or human being to have been taken in. That is specifically why I’m referring to this as the danger of a plausible sounding lie, because it sounds plausible enough that even someone with the credentials of Dr. Deisher was drawn in. Plausible sounding lies are dangerous because they sound so believable. They sound convincing. And they are dangerous because they cause rational people to behave contrary to how they might otherwise act if they knew the truth.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I heard Dr. Deisher on the radio a few days ago say that the MMR vaccines used in the autism study were ethical vaccines available only in Japan and not contaminated with human DNA. An article on her web site says, “There is a genetic component to autism, yet it is not from a single gene. [snip] Studies have also clearly shown that there is an environmental component, a trigger, that is required.What this means is that some children have a genetic predisposition such that when they experience some other stress or damage they develop autism, while children without this genetic predisposition who are exposed to the same stress or damage do not develop autism.” Of course, this also means that many children with the genetic predisposition are fortunate enough not to endure stresses which trigger the autism. So it is false to argue that genetic links to autism disprove the vaccine links.


      • Hi Cathy,

        Thanks for your comment. This post that you are commenting on is only one in a series of several posts looking at precisely what is wrong with Dr. Deisher’s hypothesis. We do not quarrel with her expertise in her specific field of research, however she is not an expert in autism or in vaccines. People who are experts in those fields find her hypotheses to be not plausible, regardless of how skillful her work in other areas of biomedical research.

        You may be interested to know about a study that was recently released looking at the idea that MMR could somehow trigger autism in susceptible individuals. The study authors found that this was not the case. The difference was too small to have any meaningful real world significance, but going just by the numbers the MMR would look like it reduced the likelihood of autism, not vice versa.


        And I still stand by the observation that if there are specific brain changes present in autistic people that happen during the gestational period that it cannot be from a vaccine administered significantly after that period of time. Thanks for reading!


  6. I find it interesting that researchers are working so hard to find evidence of autism at birth and before birth. Wouldn’t that be a convenient way to dispel all that stuff about vaccines causing autism? I wonder, though, how anyone can make the claim that vaccines (in general, not just those derived from fetal cell lines) don’t cause autism, since autism can be detected at/before birth, when more than 50% of babies receive Hep B vaccines within 48 hours of birth.

    Further, in any discussion of vaccines, I think it’s important to remember that they are not just about health and science. They are also about money and big business: http://online.wsj.com/articles/SB125417905531847679 and conflicts of interest do exist: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/18/health/policy/18cdc.html


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