There is some confusion today among pro‑life people (especially parents) regarding the morality of using vaccines that may have been produced using the tissue of aborted preborn babies.
Aborted Fetal Tissue in Vaccines
Of particular concern are vaccines that were developed in part using fetal tissue derived from aborted babies who died decades ago, and whose tissue is regenerated in laboratories under the names MRC-5 and WI-38. These include Varivax for chicken‑pox, Meruvax II for rubella (German measles), and Havrix and Vaqta for Hepatitis A.1
The MRC-5 and WI-38 cell lines originate from babies aborted in 1961. Their cells were regenerated by Merck and other corporations, and are used in the Varivax and Meruvax II vaccines. These cell lines are technically “immortal,” because technicians can sustain them in a laboratory indefinitely under the proper conditions. This means that the researchers who developed these relatively new vaccines bear no responsibility whatsoever for the original abortions carried out half a world away and half a century ago.2
This is in contrast to some current‑day researchers who experiment on the remains of preborn children. They cooperate so closely with abortion mills in order to receive the tissue they need that they are frequently in the abortuary at the time the abortions are being performed so they can package and preserve the organs immediately.
Our Moral Obligation
In June 2005, the Pontifical Academy for Life published a document entitled Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared from Cells Derived from Aborted Human Fetuses, which answers most questions that Catholics might have about the morality of using vaccines that are derived from the cell lines of aborted preborn children.
The document recognizes the great value of eradicating diseases that have plagued mankind for millennia, calling this a “milestone” of modern medical technology. The Catholic Church has always supported advances in all areas of medical technology as long as they adhere to moral standards. However, over the past half-century, many morally questionable ― and outright evil ― practices have surfaced. Certain procedures that attempt to derive good from evil are ethically murky and create doubt, such as producing lifesaving vaccines from a procedure (abortion) that ends life.
The primary question is: How closely do vaccine users cooperate in the evil of abortion?
There are generally three degrees of cooperation regarding the manufacture, sale and use of vaccines originating with aborted babies:
- To begin with, those who procure tissue from aborted babies in order to produce a vaccine from it are guilty of formally cooperating in abortion by approving of and taking advantage of the very act of abortion itself. They are as guilty as the boyfriend who pays for the abortion, the friend who drives her to the abortion mill, or the abortionist who performs the actual procedure.
- Somewhat removed from this direct cooperation in abortion are those who market, advertise and distribute the resulting vaccines. But these activities are also morally illicit, because they “could contribute in encouraging the performance of other voluntary abortions, with the purpose of producing such vaccines” (Moral Reflections, Section 6).
- Finally, there are the doctors and patients who use these vaccines, even though they know about their origin. They are permitted to use the vaccines when no alternative is available, in order to avoid “significant risks to their health” and “indirectly the [health of the] population as a whole.” However, this causes the “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” (Moral Reflections, Summary).
The document Moral Reflections points out our moral duty to do more than just passively resist evil; we must actively fight it. We are all obliged to “oppose by all means the vaccines which do not yet have morally acceptable alternatives, creating pressure so that alternative vaccines are prepared.”
Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, Director of Education for the National Catholic Bioethics Center, gives us some guidance on what specific actions we can take. He says that parents can “ask their health-care providers for accurate information detailing whether particular vaccines were developed using cell lines of illicit origin. This engages the health-care profession in a discussion that it very much needs to become party to. Parents can make known their disagreement by writing to the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the vaccines.”3
The Ethical “Bottom Line”
In summary, conscientious pro‑lifers are forced to weigh their own children’s health against participating in an illicit and immoral procedure that has already killed preborn children. Fortunately, the document Moral Reflections has clarified the situation:
The lawfulness of the use of these vaccines should not be misinterpreted as a declaration of the lawfulness of their production, marketing, and use, but is to be understood as being a passive material cooperation and, in its mildest and remotest sense … [is] morally justified as an extrema ratio [extreme reason] due to the necessity to provide for the good of one’s children and of the people who come in contact with the children [pregnant women].
Dr. Edward J. Furton, a leading Catholic bioethicist, writes:
It seems impossible for an individual to cooperate with an action that is now completed and exists in the past. Clearly, use of a vaccine in the present does not cause the one who is immunized to share in the immoral intention or action of those who carried out the abortion in the past. Neither does such use provide some circumstance essential to the commission of that past act. Thus, use of these vaccines would seem permissible.4
Dr. Furton says that Catholics, by using these vaccines, are not approving of the original abortions in any way. He writes that it would be a “high standard indeed if we were to require all benefits that we receive in the present to be completely free of every immorality of the past.” He also points out that these vaccines certainly will not encourage any more abortions since the cell lines from the original abortions are continuing to grow and duplicate and that therefore “there is little incentive to begin new human cell lines.” In addition, he writes that we may refuse these vaccinations ourselves, but we have a duty to protect the lives and health of our children and must get them vaccinated if no other alternative is available.
If Merck or other pharmaceutical corporations were still purchasing large quantities of aborted babies from abortion mills to generate these vaccines, there would be no question as to what the correct course of action would be. But it is certainly licit to use such vaccines when the abortion in question is an act that was accomplished long ago, when no more abortions will be required, and when the lives of many children ― including, perhaps, our own ― will be saved. If the only vaccines available are those derived from aborted preborn children who died many years ago, we may use them because there is no material cooperation in the abortions. If there is any cooperation in the evil of abortion, it rests with the pharmaceutical corporations, not with the people being vaccinated.
Sources of Current Information
Anyone wishing to be more informed on the complex issue of vaccinations can refer to several reliable pro-life sources. For technical information, see the website of the organization Children of God for Life, which was founded by Debi Vinnedge in 1999. Then there is AVM Biotechnology, founded in 2008 by Dr. Theresa Deisher, who holds 23 biotechnology patents.
For the opinions of leading Catholic bioethicists, see the National Catholic Bioethics Center.
A general list of licit and illicit vaccines is published in printable form by Sound Choice Pharmaceutical Institute.
Moral Alternatives to Aborted Fetal Vaccines:
- Hepatitis-B Only: Recombivax HB (Merck) and Engerix B (GSK)
- Polio-Containing Vaccines: IPOL (Sanofi); IPOL+Any DTaP (GSK, Sanofi); ImovaxPolio (Sanofi)*; InfanrixHexa Polio+HiB (GSK); Pediacel Polio+DTaP+HiB (Sanofi); and Pediatrix Polio+DTaP+Hepatitis-B (Sanofi)
- Rabies: RabAvert (Chiron/Novartis)
Aborted Fetal Tissue in Vaccines:
- Chickenpox/Varicella: Varivax (Merck)
- Chickenpox+MMR: ProQuad (Merck)
- Hepatitis-A containing: Vaqta (Merck); Havrix (GSK); Twinrix Hepatitis A+B (GSK)
- Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR): MMR II (Merck)
- Polio: Poliovax (Sanofi) and Pentacel Polio+DTaP+HiB (Sanofi)
- Rabies: Imovax (Sanofi)*
- Shingles: Zostavax (Merck)
*ImovaxPolio (moral) is for polio, and Imovax (aborted fetal) is for rabies.
 Vaccines that use the human cell line WI-38, derived from aborted preborn children, include the following:
- Rubella vaccines Meruvax© (Merck), Rudivax© (Sanofi Pasteur, France), and Ervevax© (RA 27/3) (GlaxoSmithKline, Belgium)
- Rubella/measles vaccines M‑R‑VAX© (Merck) and Rudi‑Rouvax© (AVP, France)
- Rubella/mumps vaccine Biavax© (Merck)
- Measles/mumps/rubella (MMR) vaccines M‑M‑R© II (Merck), R.O.R.© and Trimovax© (Sanofi Pasteur, France), and Priorix© (GlaxoSmithKline, Belgium)
Vaccines that use the human cell line MRC-5, also derived from aborted preborn children, include the following:
- Hepatitis A vaccines VAQTA (Merck) and HAVRIX (GlaxoSmithKline)
- Chicken pox vaccine Varivax© (Merck) (also uses WI‑38)
- Poliomyelitis vaccine Poliovax© (Aventis‑Pasteur, France)
- Rabies vaccine Imovax© (Aventis‑Pasteur, France)
- Smallpox vaccine AC AM 1000 (Acambis)
 Experimental Cell Research 37:614‑636, 1965; Nature 227:168‑170, 1970; May 10, 1995 press release entitled “Aborted Babies Used as Source for Rubella Vaccine.” Ohio Parents for Vaccine Safety.
 J.J. Ziegler. “Dignitas Personae and Childhood Vaccinations.” Catholic World Report, May 14, 2011.
 Edward J. Furton, M.D. “Vaccines Originating in Abortion.” Ethics & Medics (journal of the National Catholic Bioethics Center), March 1999.