Aborted fetal cells used in the production of some COVID 19 vaccines

Hi I’m starting to see this creep into Facebook postings and wondered if Dr. Collins will offer suggestions on the conversation around this? I have found an article in AAAS journal that explains that some of the developing vaccines use aborted fetal cell lines from the 1960s to grow the adenovirus which is the vector for the COVID 19 antigens. I’m seeing faithful Christians post that they will not take the vaccine because of the aborted fetal cell lines that are being used in the production. Many just want to know who to believe and how to find out accurate information about this.

Hi Joni, welcome to the forum. That is an important question, and you are right to seek out more information about it. Michelle (@MOls) is an immunologist who addresses several common vaccine questions, including that one, in this article for BioLogos:

The article has a thread in the forum with further discussion, so you can see other readers’ responses and questions also:

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Thank you for this article and I’m sure I will be able to use the information and pass along the article as we head into the season of vaccinations for COVID.

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Thank you for reading an passing along my article.

For those who might be skimming through these posts and not closely reading, I’ll except the relevant sections.

Here was the section that addressed your question:

Do vaccines have aborted fetal material in them?
In terms of religious objections to vaccines, one of the main concerns is the use of cell lines derived from human fetal cells. To be clear, tissue from newly aborted babies is no longer used for current vaccine production. Cells lines, such as WI-38 and MRC-5, that continue to be used in the production of some vaccines (rubella, chicken pox and hepatitis A, shingles) have been propagated since the 1960s. Such cell lines have divided independently for years. Thus, as descendants of the cells originally taken from a fetus over 50 years ago, those cells used today are not themselves part of an aborted child.

The National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) encourages pharmaceutical companies to develop future vaccines without the use of such cell lines, and when possible recommends avoidance of vaccines developed with them. However, the NCBC also states that people are “morally free” to use such vaccines due to the need to protect public health and the life and health of children.

Note that my article was not was not about Covid-19 vaccine development, but rather about current clinically approved childhood vaccines. However, it is true that a few of the Covid-19 vaccines in development also use two different human cell lines, originally derived from aborted fetal tissue, that have been cultured and expanded for many years in laboratories. https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/06/abortion-opponents-protest-covid-19-vaccines-use-fetal-cells

Cells derived from elective abortions have been used since the 1960s to manufacture vaccines, including current vaccines against rubella, chickenpox, hepatitis A, and shingles. They have also been used to make approved drugs against diseases including hemophilia, rheumatoid arthritis, and cystic fibrosis. Now, research groups around the world are working to develop more than 130 candidate vaccines against COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization; 10 had entered human trials as of 2 June. At least five of the candidate COVID-19 vaccines use one of two human fetal cell lines: HEK-293, a kidney cell line widely used in research and industry that comes from a fetus aborted in about 1972; and PER.C6, a proprietary cell line owned by Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, developed from retinal cells from an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985.

The point still stands that newly aborted fetuses are not used for vaccine development. Those two additional cell lines mentioned in that article about Covid-19 vaccine development have also been propagated in laboratories for many decades, so they are not part of an aborted child. The original cells from the aborted baby are long gone. I agree that abortion is tragic and human beings should never be exploited. Fortunately, aborted fetuses are not being used for vaccine development.

Note that virus research and vaccine development is hard. Viruses do not grow in just any type of cell and manufacturing processes have additional challenges, so there are major limitations in cell line selection for this type of work. Where possible, some companies try to use alternatives, but alternatives are not always readily available.

Since many different types of vaccines are being developed for Covid-19 (many not using either of those two cell lines), people who still have ethical objections to taking a vaccine developed with one of those two cell lines, will hopefully, eventually have access to alternative vaccines that are effective.

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Michelle, thank you for the further clarification. The information about vaccines in general and the additional information about the production of COVID vaccine will be helpful as I encourage people to read these explanations. I appreciate having this at hand as a resource now. Your thoughtful and accurate words are very helpful for my understanding as well and will encourage me to have thoughtful conversations.

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I like the logic coherence of this argument.
Thus the descendants of Adam and Eve, born of couple of sinners/humans are not sinners/humans any more.
At last I am definitely free of being a human by common descent :slight_smile:

Now I suggest we also argue that abortion will be redefined as divine “Organ donation” in future. We could always put some positive spin on it to say that God must have wanted this to happen for the god it has done to save so many lives …

If we want to be logically as Christians claiming that Jesus has overcome death, why do we still fear it more than ever? Because we have transitioned from humans to Klingons instead by fuelling a belief in a resurrection that makes us live in eternity, just as hard holograms - or forever selfs. We could not have turned Christianity in anything worse than that.

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Another way it could help to think about this is to know: It is also possible to make human cell lines from adult stem cells or from surgically resected human cancer tissue. (But note, that it is not possible to take just any type of cell from a human body and make a cell line. The types of cells that can be used to generate cell lines, cancer or stem cells, have particular properties that enable them to continue growing and dividing)


When scientists take cells from an adult skin, blood or cancer and turn them into a cell line, we do not say that those cells are still the person that they came from. Those cells do not have a soul or personhood. They are just cells that have been transformed in such a way that they continue to divide and can be continually cultured under special conditions in the laboratory. We have no ethical challenges using them.

Likewise with the fetal-derived cell lines. It is a tragedy that the abortion happened. However, that baby, that person, died decades ago. I believe that their soul is in heaven with Jesus now. The cells derived from the deceased baby were taken from one of the baby’s tissues after the baby died. Now those cells have been cultured under special conditions in the laboratory for decades. The ethical issue that people need to grapple with is the abortion, not the propagation of individual cells derived from individual tissues (like the human embryonic kidney, HEK cell line used in research laboratories). In my opinion, getting vaccinated does not make someone complicit in an elective abortion that happened decades ago.

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Just to be clear, I would also say that from an ethical standpoint people should make sure that abortion providers can never profit from aborted fetal organs or tissues

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Would it be alright for the CCP to donate the organs of chinese prisoners to Communist party leaders, as long as the CCP doesn’t profit?

Of course not! There is no ethical quandary in the example you gave. Such a human rights abuse would be clearly wrong. As I already stated above:

Why are you asking this? What does your question have to do with decades old fetal cell lines being used in vaccine production in the United States?

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I’m getting at what it means for human beings to be exploited. Profit is a secondary concern. Aborted fetal organs should not be used for medical research, just like the organs of executed prisoners should not be used for medical research.

We agree that unethical things have been done in the past and we should fight to make sure those practices do not continue in the future.

Abortion is legal and ongoing in this country. Debating which cell lines are used in vaccine development will not change that fact. The cultural acceptance of abortion is where the focus should be. In my opinion, focusing on which decades old cell lines are used for vaccine development is a misplaced effort, because it will not save the future lives of any pre-born children, and rather only endangers public health.

I empathize with the concern you raise. The use of organs from recently aborted babies in medical research has different ethical implications than using decades old cell lines in vaccine development

By analogy, the murder of adults is also wrong. However, if the murdered adult had volunteered to be an organ donor, then it should be ethical to donate their organs. The use of the organs is a separate ethical question from the crime of murder. The person receiving an organ from a murder victim is not morally culpable for the murder.

@moderators
I would suggest that this discussion is off topic for this thread. If people would like to debate the ethics of using organs or tissues from newly aborted fetuses, I think that should become a new thread. Thanks!

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Not a good analogy, since aborted babies do not consent to donate their organs.

Unfortunately, their parents do. So the analogy does tragically hold

Again, this is off topic to this thread

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@MOls Actually, we would prefer not to start a thread dedicated to abortion and organ donation, since we discourage discussions of abortion. The fetal cell line discussion is relevant to vaccines and this thread, but if you want to talk specifically about abortion ethics, do it via PM, please.

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This post was flagged by the community and is temporarily hidden.

This thread is about the cell lines used in current covid-19 vaccine development. What you are describing is not what is happening in vaccine development. Thus, while your question is an important ethical question that has been debated elsewhere, it is off topic here

BTW: The technical terminology for how you are interchangeably using the words “stem cell” and “cell line” also isn’t quite accurate in such a way as would be difficult to reply precisely to your question

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Wow, this is the first time I’ve started a forum question line on Biologos. I appreciate the opportunity to receive resources, information and opinions that will help me as I engage in conversations with people in my world. I am going to bow out of the conversation at this time as it has moved beyond the inquiry I made. Thanks again.

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Very insightful question indeed.

I see why he’s asking, I think it a very insightful question that makes a good analogy… I could rephrase and ask it this way:

Would it be alright for scientists in the United States to use decades old stem cell lines imported from China, that were harvested (without consent) from the organs of Chinese political prisoners, in order to develop vaccines?

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Ever hear of Henrietta Lacks? The point being, just because unethical things were done in the past doesn’t make all actions that are in some way derivative or dependent on some past unethical event unethical in the present. If you want to go down that road, you’d have to agree it is unethical for anyone to currently benefit from land that was once stolen from indigenous people or from businesses that at one point benefited from slavery. Are you going to argue for reparations?

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