Most parents vaccinate their children, and most do so because they trust their doctors and because it seems like a reasonable course of action. After all, no one enjoys having a sick child, and very few parents want to see the return on polio and measles. Very few parents look into how vaccines are manufactured since their decision seems so obvious.
Reasonable and responsible Catholic parents can find concern when they learn that some vaccines have a connection to abortion. So much misinformation about this connection abounds, and they wonder–can a pro-life parent fully vaccinate her child?
Before we get into that answer (the answer is yes), let’s dispel some misinformation about the connection between abortions and vaccines.
Do vaccines contain aborted fetal tissue?
The simple answer is no.
The full answer is a bit more complex, and it has to do with how vaccines work. In order for a vaccine to work, it must contain an antigen–something that makes the immune system take notice and mount a defense. This antigen comes in the form of killed or weakened viruses or bacteria (or pieces of these). To prepare a virus (or bacterium) for a vaccine, it has to grow somewhere–a place where the antigen will be weakened so that it cannot reproduce in our bodies and make us sick. Cell lines are one such growth medium for these antigens. Think of a cell line as being similar to the soil where our potatoes and our carrots grow.
Two cell lines are currently in use in the United States. WI-38 was developed in 1961 and MRC-5 in 1965. Those cell lines are derived from two different aborted fetuses, neither of which was aborted for the purpose of making a vaccine. Because of the way the cell lines are manufactured, there is no need for new fetal tissue to make new cell lines.
Our vaccines do not contain this tissue because the viruses are removed from the cell lines before they are placed in the vaccine, much the same way our potatoes don’t contain dirt.
Which childhood vaccines are grown in these cell lines?
We vaccinate against these diseases for important reasons, and these reasons are aligned with pro-life teachings.
● Rubella can be a mild childhood illness, but it poses a serious threat to unborn babies. Before the vaccine, a global rubella pandemic struck between 1962 and 1965. According to the CDC, the pandemic hit the United States and its unborn children hard, resulting in 11,520 therapeutic or spontaneous abortions, 2,100 neonatal deaths, and 20,000 babies born with Congenital Rubella Syndrome (CRS) — a syndrome that leaves a child with lifelong disability and illness. The WHO reports that 110, 000 babies are born with CRS each year.
● Hepatitis A is a serious virus that affects the liver and leaves people feeling very ill for approximately two months. about 20% of people who contract Hepatitis A are hospitalized. Because it is a liver disease, it can lead to lifelong complications and death.
● Chickenpox was once a common childhood illness. Before the vaccine, up to 13,000 people were hospitalized each year due to chickenpox, and 100-150 people died each year in the United States.
How do I weigh the life of an aborted child against my own child’s life when deciding how to vaccinate my children?
There’s no doubt that vaccines do a lot of good in the world, and they do so at very little risk to our children. But are they irrevocably tainted by the evil act of abortion? Is it fair for a parent to opt out of the vaccines grown in cell lines derived from aborted fetal tissue?
In Matthew 13:24-29, Jesus gives us the Parable of the Weeds among the Wheat: “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ His slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ He replied, ‘No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them.”
The problem with choosing to opt out of the vaccines listed above is that doing so also opts out of the good they do. We risk miscarriage, birth defects, hospitalization, and deaths in our communities due to those diseases. And because vaccines are combined (the rubella vaccine is administered with the measles and mumps vaccines), we risk outbreaks of other diseases as well.
Measles outbreaks, in particular, have caused controversy when they have been tied to religion. This year, most of the 592 cases of measles cases in the U.S. were sparked by an under-vaccinated Amish community in Ohio. Vaccine fears preached in a Texas mega-church resulted in a measles outbreak in 2013. Most horrifyingly, two churches in Philadelphia who eschewed vaccination saw multiple children die in a 1990-1991 outbreak. That these outbreaks begin in faith communities — where social justice and protecting the weak should be paramount — is shameful. And it could bring scandal upon any Catholic parish where vaccine-refusing sentiment would be spread.
Deciding to vaccinate is not favoring a parent’s child against the two children lost to abortion. It is understanding that no further abortions need occur and that the evil act is done and irreversible. It is understanding that if we try to remove this evil, we undo all the potential good, too. And we’d all be morally culpable for that.
What does the Church say?
The question of the use of cell lines derived from aborted fetuses in the manufacture of vaccines has been brought before the Vatican. The National Catholic Bioethics Center has distilled the Vatican statement wonderfully, writing:
Parents may vaccinate their children because by doing so, they are not involved in any illicit form of cooperation with the original abortion. Many Catholic experts concur that cooperation today is not really possible in an event that was over and done with many years ago. Because the abortion occurred long ago, and for reasons completely unrelated to vaccines, it is untenable to conclude that vaccine recipients today somehow cooperate in the original abortive event. Moreover, there is no ongoing use of recently aborted material for vaccine preparation; the lines obtained 30 or 40 years ago are the only abortion-derived lines being used currently for vaccine production. In sum, then, by vaccinating their children, parents do not illicitly cooperate in evil, nor otherwise engage in wrongdoing. If pharmaceutical companies or other agencies derive fetal cell lines from elective abortions, those companies or agencies, not the parents, are guilty of immoral cooperation in the evil of abortion.
Can a pro-life parent fully vaccinate her child?
If you have more questions about vaccines, talk to your child’s medical doctor.
Karen Ernst is the mother of three fully vaccinated children, and the wife of a military officer. She has a passion for good books and children’s rights. She is also the mother-in-charge of Voices for Vaccines.