Let’s Get Busy with a Prolife Vaccine for COVID-19

The use of aborted fetuses for the development of vaccines is ethically objectionable.  For this reason, alternatives must be made available. This would enable people to keep from violating their consciences by resorting to a vaccine that utilizes aborted fetal tissue.

“What I find fascinating is that you all work with a retina taken from an aborted fetus.” Thus did Rick Nieman, presenter of the television program WNL op Zondag [in the Netherlands], begin his conversation about corona vaccines with Hanneke Schuitemaker, professor of virology and head of vaccine research at Janssen Pharmaceutica, a pharmaceutical company located in Leyden.  This statement revealed what normally remains hidden in the test tubes and petri dishes of the laboratory: the fact that a retina from an aborted child provided a unique cell line, PER.C6, each cell of which is a unique factory in which to test a vaccine.

Janssen makes use of this cell line, derived from an 18-week-old healthy fetus aborted in 1985.  The mother gave permission to use the tissue; whether she knows of the PER.C6 line subsequently developed from it is another question.  Of the cells cultured from the retina, one cell continued to divide after treatment with an adenovirus, thus forming a cell line.

Janssen used to be the Leyden-based company Crucell, owner of the cell line.  Crucell made money multiplying cells and selling them to pharmaceutical companies.  Crucell was acquired in 2011 by the US pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson.

Researchers are hard at work worldwide to produce a vaccine to combat COVID-19.  Over 160 vaccines are currently in development, of which a few are in the initial test phase. 

In vaccine development as a whole, there are only a few cases in which cell lines derived from aborted fetal tissue are used.  It is important to note that the production of a vaccine does not require repeated resort to aborted tissue, but instead uses a cell line from a single abortion.  The cells themselves are not contained in the vaccine; their distant "offspring" are used as a factory to produce the carrier virus. 

It remains to be seen whether one of the corona vaccines will actually come from Janssen and have been produced using PER.C6 cells.  Nevertheless, Janssen wants to be quick about it: even in this test phase, the company is already developing a multi-million-dollar inventory, even before certainty that the corona vaccine will work is attained.  "If we fail, we will have to destroy everything."

Three Visions

In recent years, we citizens have become increasingly aware of how "ethically" our food, our clothing, and even our technology, such as the smartphone, are produced.  Finding out is not always easy, but when we become aware of abuses, we become motivated to do something about it.  This also applies to aborted fetal tissue.  The focal point of the ethical discussion regarding the PER.C6 cell line is whether the ethics of abortion can be disconnected from the ethics of fetal tissue use.  In other words, when considering the use of tissue from the dead fetus, can the ethical issue regarding the prior abortion be disregarded?  This is being considered worldwide.  Let us review three visions on the matter:

1.  In the US, the prolife Charlotte Lozier Institute states that the use of these vaccines would be “unethical” because it exploits innocent human lives that have been cut short.  Even if cells have been propagated in a laboratory for years, that connecting line remains.  Thus, its use raises problems of conscience for anyone who could receive that vaccine and is aware of its lineage.  Even more so because vaccine development is also possible without the help of a fetal cell line.  This makes scientists, producers, policymakers and financiers equally responsible, even if they themselves are not affected in their own consciences, because of their responsibility to citizens.

2.  John Di Camillo, ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, refers to the Roman Catholic encyclical “Dignitas Personae” (2008).  Speaking about the ethics of the potential vaccines to Live Action News, which provides pro-life news and commentary, he stated: “If we are talking about the use of cell lines that were developed through the use of tissue from aborted fetuses, there is an obligation for researchers to avoid the use of such biological material, and to make use of sound materials that aren’t associated with such immorality.” Yet if a vaccine using the fetal cell lines is the only one available, Di Camillo said, “One is allowed to make use of it where there’s a serious threat to the health or life of the individual, or of the greater population.  This does not amount to a strict obligation to use it, but it certainly can be a legitimate choice in conscience if there’s that serious reason, and there’s no other reasonable alternative.”

3.  This line of thought is shared by Kyle Christopher McKenna, an associate professor of biology at the Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.  McKenna is concerned that the use of fetal tissue to do bring about some good not only leads to insensitivity to the use of this tissue but can also lead to a change of mentality whereby these cells are “only” seen as a means of culturing cells in the uterus.  That this fear is not unfounded appears from recent Mexican research, in which women were made pregnant in order to perform research on their embryos.  McKenna calls for continued opposition to the use and normalization of fetal tissue.

How are we to deal with this?  We of the Nederlandse Patiënten Vereniging (NPV: Dutch Patients’ Association) oppose abortion (unless the life of the mother is in danger), and especially the current, wide practice of abortion.  Regardless of whether useful things can be done with aborted fetal tissue, it does not justify the practice.  It is a fact that tissue from aborted fetuses is sometimes used for research.  The decision to abort was made separately. 

However, the abortion history cannot be completely separated from the tissue itself; only in the case of a medically necessary abortion is the use ethically undisputed, provided that the parents give their permission.  For example, the Medical Center in Amsterdam maintains a fetus biobank in which fetuses are kept for medical research into, for example, birth defects and fetal growth.

We must continue to address the use of embryonic and fetal tissue, even as the pressure to culture embryos for research mounts.  We stand in opposition to this and encourage alternatives.  It has now been shown that adult stem cells are "all-rounders" that can be used in place of embryonic cells.  Vaccines are also being developed worldwide without the aid of aborted fetal tissue.  Hence, it is certainly possible.


Returning to the issue of the use of aborted fetal tissue in the development of a corona vaccine: Here, a trade-off must be made between the "moral evil" of an abortion and the health concerns served by a vaccine.  Will a cell line derived from such tissue remain taboo for years to come?  This is difficult to maintain.  Much knowledge in modern medicine has come from experiments and experimental medicine that we would now ethically reject.  And not only is medicine subject to this: the economy is also full of iniquities from which we cannot (entirely) escape.  There remains a tension between our inevitable connection to things in society that run against God's commandments and the call to keep uncontaminated from the world.  For this reason, we do not reject the use of such a vaccine out of hand, if it can serve the vital interest of many.  If we did, we would show ourselves insufficiently aware that we are part of a world in which evil exists, over which we personally cannot have any direct influence, but from which we cannot entirely separate ourselves.  But we also continue to name, and oppose, the threat to human dignity from the earliest moment of life.

The use of aborted fetuses for vaccine development is ethically objectionable.  Because of this, alternatives must be used to this end.  While the personal use of such a vaccine may be ethically acceptable in itself, alternatives would also enable people to keep from violating their consciences by resorting to a vaccine that utilizes aborted fetal tissue.

Editor’s note:This article is translated from an original that appeared in the Dutch daily Reformatorisch Dagblad

Diederik van Dijk, a Senator in the Dutch Eerste Kamer der Staten-Generaal [Upper House of the Legislature], and Elise van Hoek-Burgerhart are director and manager of policy input, respectively, at NPV | Zorg voor het leven (Care for Life).


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