Monday, January 19, 2009

Vaccination & abortion

I’ve been asked a question regarding the morality (or not) of vaccination in light of the fact that some vaccines made use of aborted fetal tissue in the course of their development. I ran my reply by a number of people before posting it. Of those that responded, John Frame and Scott Klusendorf agreed with me. Paul Manata had an extended reply which I will include (in lightly edited form) at the end of my own.

[Steve Hays]

1.From what I’ve read (and I’m no expert), the use of aborted fetal tissue in vaccines goes back to just two babies from the 60s. That’s an evil, but it’s not an ongoing evil. It’s not as if babies are currently being aborted to supply the raw material for vaccines. Or so I’ve read.

2.It’s also possible for medical science to avoid the use of aborted fetal tissue. So it’s not as if we’re committed to this process. Or so I’ve read.

3.The issue of moral complicity is more complex. In a fallen world, many of us are beneficiaries of past wrongs. That’s often unavoidable, and even if it were avoidable, it isn’t necessarily wrong to be a beneficiary of a past wrong.

That confuses being a party to the wrongful act with being an incidental beneficiary of the effect of the wrongful act.

Suppose I serve in the Air Force. I’m competing for a promotion with one of my comrades. His chopper is shot down. Because he died, I get the promotion instead of him.

In that case, I benefit from the effect of a wrongful act (i.e. the action of the enemy, killing my comrade). But I’m not party to the wrongful act itself. And it would be illogical to refuse the promotion. It’s fine to feel bad about how I got it, but I’ve done nothing wrong in accepting the promotion, even if tragic circumstances made it possible.

Now, obviously there are some cases in which it would be wrong to benefit from a past wrong. If I find a stash of stolen money from a bank robbery, it’s my duty to return the money.

My point is that one can’t reject a vaccination simply because the process by which it was produced was morally tainted at some point along the way.

After all, even if the vaccine were not the result of aborted fetal tissue, from long ago, medical science is populated by sinners (like the rest of us), and there are sinful factors that invariably figure in the process.

Suppose the medical scientist who developed a particular vaccine was able to pay his student loans because his wife worked a full-time job to bankroll his education. But after he graduated, he divorced her and married a trophy wife. That’s a gross injustice, but would you refuse a vaccine just because the man who produced the vaccine was a cad?

4.A vaccine isn’t like cosmetic surgery. Although a vaccine is generally an elective procedure, we undergo vaccinate as a precaution against grave illness. Parents vaccinate their children for their health and wellbeing. That’s good parenting. It would be an act of negligence to deny your children that protection. Likewise, parents have themselves vaccinated, in part because they have dependents (children) who need their parents to be strong and healthy.

[Paul Manata]

i) It’s wrong to lay a guilt trip on a parent who was unaware of the issue before it was brought to his/her attention. To make the parent feel guilty ex post facto is improper in this case, IMO. The intent needs to be taken into account. Even if using aborted fetuses was happening, and even if it was immoral to use vaccines developed from aborted fetuses, the parent who vaccinated his/her children not only didn't know about any of this, but he/she didn't intend any harm. Didn't intend to violate any ethical principle. The parent intended good, actually.

ii) A slightly analogous case can be made from the "torturing" of animals. Surely the Christian isn't cold-hearted about animals. There's a proper way to treat them. Many advances - medical, cosmetic, etc., have been made by animal testing. It is no secret, as hidden videos have shown, that many of these animals have been mistreated. Researches have wronged them unnecessarily. Beat them for no reason, etc. Videos have shown Butterball employs literally torturing Thanksgiving turkeys, and laughing about it. These are wrongs, so I believe. Should the woman become a vegan? Refuse medical treatment borne out from scientists and industries known to have mistreated the animals beyond what the purposes of testing and experiment required? Not only that, the companies that don't do these things are where they are at because of the prior mistreatment and abuse. They rest on the prior knowledge.

iii) Should we throw out our textbooks and accumulated knowledge of hypothermia? The best data comes from the experiments the Nazis did on Jews: Go back to ground zero? Should victims of hypothermia who receive medical treatment gained by these horrible experiments be made to feel guilty? Should they reject any treatment?

iv) In the real world, abortions are going to happen. Assume vaccines are made from currently aborted babies. Assume it's an ongoing evil. In one very real sense, these babies were murdered, just like other people are murdered. They are murdered for various reasons, just like other people are. Some are killed for convenience, just like other people are. Financial gain (a woman doesn't want to be held down with a kid), just like other people are. Vanity (no stretch marks, etc). So, these are murder victims. Should others not benefit from their tragedy?

Theoretically, I don't see why not. Don't patients receive organs from murder victims sometimes? Should patients reject them? If we object, then, ironically, we seem to be treating the fetal murder victim unlike other humans! Also, many murder victim cadavers are used in med school. Should the doctor's knowledge gained from working on murder victims not be put to use on living humans at the hospitals? If not, what's the relevant difference here?


  1. I appreciate these comments. It is interesting you bring up the point about animal cruelty. I have a friend whose social views are quite liberal, and she is a vegan for just this reason. And in fact, she has done and continues to do a lot of research to find out which companies are guilty of mistreating animals in the testing of their products, or in the manufacture of their products, and she will not buy products from these companies. I was actually quite impressed with her commitment to her position, even though I don't agree with her position on animal rights and what constitutes "cruelty" to animals.

    I think the apostle Paul's teaching concerning meat sacrificed to idols is quite relevant to this issue. The fact that the meat was used as part of a pagan sacrifice does not mean we aren't free to eat it, as people renounce all false gods, and who use it for our nourishment. Likewise, aborted fetuses were used to create vaccines, and we use them to meantain our health, which has nothing to do with the abortions themselves.

  2. Craig,

    Regarding animal testing, there are certain things that would be cruel no matter what standard you have. However, by an large I agree with you that most of the animal rights activists have interesting definitions of what constitutes "cruelty."

    We can also think about whether or not the level of "cruelty" inflicted upon an animal is warranted by the ends too. For example, I'm more inclined to let animals "suffer" if it's for medical research than I would be if it were for cosmetics.

  3. Also, going back to Steve's portion of the post, I think that anyone who would offer this "problem" as an objection to the pro-life position is really grasping at straws. (I understand that there are some people with legitimate moral concerns regarding this; however, I sense that this will be employed more as a tactic against pro-lifers, as if it somehow makes us hypocritical to benefit from the evils man has done in the past.)

    Steve answered the fact that this is an exception rather than the rule in his first two points. I would just also add that moral standards aren't derrived from the exceptions anyway. It would be like saying one time a person stole money from someone who was going to waste it and because he stold the money he was able to use the proceeds to build a better steam engine which benefited all of mankind, therefore we should no longer concern ourselves with opposing theft. That would be the wrong lesson to draw there.

  4. Wouldn't an argument against vaccinating one's children because the vaccines were originally derived from aborted fetal tissue back in the 1960's be an obvious example of the genetic fallacy? (No pun intended.)

  5. LTB,

    I'm not sure.

    It does have this assumed premise:

    (*) For any good, G, if G is derived from a murdered human, then for any human person, S, S is immoral if S benefits in any way from G.

    I'd love to see an argument for (*), especially considereing the small problem that (*) is absurd. besides other problems, a big one for the Christian is that it seems to undermine receiving Christ's imputed righteousness.

  6. Thank you for writing this and please allow me to share this study I found at
    where your points are further validated. I actually had a mother corner me in the bathroom at church regarding this very issue and the "moral standard" at which I was participating; it was really upsetting. I was completely ignorant of the research done via aborted fetal tissue and of course responded with misplaced guilt. After studying it further I realized that she was certainly more ignorant for basing her argument on a circumstantial experiment and not the common practice for developing vaccines.

  7. Well, the chicken pox vaccine -- according to the package insert, "was initially obtained from a child with natural varicella, then introduced into
    human embryonic lung cell cultures, adapted to and propagated in embryonic guinea pig cell cultures and
    finally propagated in human diploid cell cultures." "Human diploid" is a fancy way of saying aborted baby; as is "embryonic lung cell cultures"; although I suppose it could technically come from a miscarriage rather than an induced abortion. And this vaccine is fairly new (say, 10 years or so), so the initial aborted baby was not back in the 60s; nor, I daresay, the "diploid cell cultures," that the virus currently grows in. The Hepatitis A vaccine is also grown in human diploid tissue, in addition to the MMR vaccine, which seems to be the one this article is referring to.

    I still have a huge ethical problem with having vaccines being made from aborted babies. The difference between this and knowledge gained from the inhumane experiments performed on Holocaust victims is that the experiments are not still on-going -- only the *knowledge* is still with us. Vaccines are not just knowledge derived from past abortions, but are still very much physically tied to them.

    And I think more vaccines made from aborted babies are to come. After all, why should they not be, except for moral outrage? which doesn't exist from most quarters -- whether people know about it or not.

    As for Craig's comment about "eating meat sacrificed to idols" -- we may be "free" to do so, but Paul also goes on to say (either there, or in another place), that if a brother is offended or weakened by (seeing you) eating meat sacrificed to idols, then you ought not to do it.

    Finally, vaccines are one part of the abortion problem. If the line is not drawn here, then where? I oppose abortion-derived vaccines for the same reason I oppose embryonic stem cell research. There is a lot of money being made from abortions -- and not just on the front end of mothers and fathers paying abortionists to kill the babies. I have heard reputable reports of at least one abortion doctor dissecting a live-born victim of abortion, to sell the body parts. Hopefully, this is rare, but it's probably more common than we think -- although hopefully the victims are usually dead before being dismembered.

    I agree that there is a difference between participating in an abortion and profiting from an abortion "on the sidelines," as it were -- as in the case of a murdered adult's organs being donated to save the life of an innocent person. But there is a difference even here between the murder of the unborn and the murder of the born -- namely, that abortion is a legally protected practice, and is even widely promoted; while the murder of the born is not. Would you feel comfortable accepting the "organ donation" of a fetal heart to transplant into your baby, knowing the baby was murdered specifically for its organs? If doctors stand to gain financially from abortion (such as selling tissues or organs from aborted babies), then they have an even firmer reason never to refuse to perform an abortion, but to counsel -- even lie to -- women to get them to have an abortion.

    No, the moral ramifications of this are still too troubling for me to accept.

  8. Kathy,

    The biological material (human diploid cells) used in vaccinations can be (and all available sources say they are) reproduced without needing further tissue from an aborted child. Cellular reproduction is fairly basic biology at this point. This misunderstanding makes most of the objections you raised moot.

    You also argue that this is a "slippery slope issue," (the more abortions will result from the use of certain vaccines) though demonstrating that a slope actually is slippery can be... well, slippery. :)

    You also seem to be arguing that the possibility of offending your conscience, as a "weaker brother," is more important than preventing my child from getting polio.

    Recognize that when you declare yourself to be a "weaker brother," but that everyone else needs to alter their behavior to keep from offending your conscience, at that point you're acting less like a "weaker brother" and more like a Pharisee.

    Two cents...

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