Viruses are not complete cells. They lack the cellular mechanisms they need to replicate. Viruses take over the protein-manufacturing processes of the cells they infect. Unlike bacteria, which only require nutrients and a suitable environment to grow, vaccine viruses must be grown on living cells. Viruses for influenza and yellow fever vaccines are grown in embryonated (fertilized) chicken eggs. Measles and mumps vaccine viruses are grown on chick embryo fibroblast cell culture.
In the past, rubella vaccines were grown on duck embryo, dog kidney, and rabbit kidney cell cultures. The current human diploid fibroblast vaccine was chosen because it is more effective than the previously licensed vaccines and because side effects occurred less frequently.
There are two human diploid cell cultures used to make vaccines. The first, WI-38 (Wistar Institute, Philadelphia) was created in 1961 from tissue from a fetus aborted in Sweden. The second cell line, MRC-5 (Medical Research Council) was created in Britain in 1966. Both WI-38 and MRC-5 are continuous cell lines that have been maintained since they were created. Neither of the abortions was performed for the purpose of creating the cell cultures. The third abortion from which the virus used to manufacture rubella vaccines was obtained was performed because the mother became infected with rubella during her pregnancy.
The viruses are separated from the cells during the manufacturing process. The vaccines do not contain cells from the cultures in which the viruses are grown.
Ethical issues regarding the use of these vaccines include double effect and cooperation.
The principle of double effect means that an action can have both good and bad results. In 1964 there was an epidemic of rubella in the United States that caused 20,000 cases of congenital rubella syndrome (CRS). Women who become infected with the rubella virus are counseled about the risks of birth defects from CRS and may be advised to consider abortion.
Because there is high measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine (MMR) coverage in this country, rubella and congenital rubella syndrome have been eliminated from the United States.
Daniel P. Maher (2002) compared the use of vaccines derived from fetal cell lines to transplanting organs from a murder victim. We would not expect the recipients of the donated organs to forgo the benefit they receive from the transplanted organs because of the act that made them available.
The principle of cooperation is more complicated. In short, a person who chooses to receive a vaccine from a fetal cell line can in no way contribute to abortions that were performed over 40 years ago. Because WI-38 and MRC-5 are continuous cell lines, using vaccines grown on these cell cultures does not create a demand for future abortions.
In response to the concerns of Catholic parents about the morality of using vaccines associated with abortion, the Pontifical Academy of Life (2005) wrote that parents are responsible for protecting their children against these diseases and that, until alternatives are available, parents are morally free to use vaccines with historical associations to abortion. With regards to rubella, the document includes the following statement:
This is particularly true in the case of vaccination against German measles, because of the danger of Congenital Rubella Syndrome. This could occur, causing grave congenital malformations in the foetus, when a pregnant woman enters into contact, even if it is brief, with children who have not been immunized and are carriers of the virus. In this case, the parents who did not accept the vaccination of their own children become responsible for the malformations in question, and for the subsequent abortion of foetuses, when they have been discovered to be malformed.
As a nurse, documentation of my immunization status has been a requirement for employment for the last 20 years. For Holly, protecting our future children from congenital rubella syndrome far outweighed any concerns we had about the vaccine's historical association with abortion.
- Immunization Action Coalition: Religious and ethical concerns resources
- Institute for Vaccine Safety: Religion and Vaccines
- National Catholic Bioethics Center: FAQ on the use of vaccines
- National Network for Immunization Information: Human fetal links with some vaccines
Finn, T. M. & Egan, W. (2008). Vaccine additives and manufacturing residuals in United States-licensed vaccines. In S. A. Plotkin, W. A. Orenstein, & P. A. Offit (Eds.) Vaccines (5th Ed.). [Electronic version].
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Plotkin, S. A. & Reef, S. E. (2008). Rubella vaccine. In S. A. Plotkin, W. A. Orenstein, & P. A. Offit (Eds.) Vaccines (5th Ed.) [Electronic version]
Pontifical Academy of Life. (2005). Moral reflections on vaccines prepared from cells derived from aborted human foetuses.
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