Facing up to vaccines created with aborted fetal cells
by Michael Cook
Thu Aug 22, 2013 09:54 EST
Leonard Hayflick examines WI-38 cells which were derived from an aborted Swedish girl.
August 22, 2013 (MercatorNet)
- After decades of ignoring the issue, Nature, the world’s leading
science journal, has finally acknowledged that creating life-saving vaccines
from tissue from aborted foetuses is a deeply controversial ethical issue.
In 1964, an American researcher obtained
cells from a Swedish foetus aborted because her mother already had enough
children. He coaxed them into multiplying into a cell line which he called
WI-38. Since they were normal and healthy, they were ideal for creating
vaccines. Two years later, scientists in the UK obtained cells from a 14-week
male fetus aborted for "psychiatric reasons" from a 27-year-old
British woman. This cell line is called MRC-5.
It is undeniable that the vaccines made
from WI-38 and MRC-5 cells have saved millions of lives. Scientists have made
vaccines against rubella, rabies, adenovirus, polio, measles, chickenpox and
shingles, as well as smallpox, chicken pox and hepatitis A.
But protests by opponents of abortion have
been largely ignored by the scientific community. If you Google “vaccines” and
“abortion”, only Catholic groups, right-to-life organisations and sites warning
about the dangers of vaccinations mention the topic. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
barely alludes to it even though it has abundant information on vaccines. A
website called Vaccine Ethics at the
University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics fails to mention it.
The reason is clear: vaccines save lives
and the abortions happened a long time ago. Get over it. Who cares? “At the
time [the fetus] was obtained there was no issue in using discarded material.
Retrospective ethics is easy but presumptuous,” says Stanley Plotkin, the
American scientist who developed the rubella vaccine. “I am fond of saying that
rubella vaccine has prevented thousands more abortions than have ever been
prevented by Catholic religionists.”
But now even Nature – which supports
abortion rights and reproductive technology – has expressed its misgivings.
“More than 50 years after the WI-38 cell line was derived from a fetus, science
and society [have] still to get to grips with the ethical issues of using human
tissue in research,” its editorial declared in June.
What has changed?
If you could single out a reason, it would
be the intensely moving 2010 best-seller, The Immortal
Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. This book has
nothing to do with abortion, but it highlights the deep respect, almost
sacredness, that the body of a human person must command, even something as
insignificant as discarded tissue.
Henrietta Lacks was an African-American
woman who was 31 when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. Cells from her
tumour became the first human cells cultured continuously for use in research.
HeLa cells have helped to make possible some of the most important medical
advances of the past 60 years, including modern vaccines, cancer treatments,
and IVF techniques. They are the most widely used human cell lines in
existence. More than 300 scientific papers are published every month using HeLa
There is no question about their usefulness
– but were they obtained ethically? Is it ethical to continue using them?
The Immortal Life of Henrietta
Lacks raises disturbing questions which transcend “usefulness”.
Henrietta Lacks was poor and black. Her children, it seems, are even poorer. A
doctor at Johns Hopkins removed her cells without asking her. He cultivated the
cells without informing her. He distributed the cells without asking permission
of her family. Companies became rich by using her cells without paying
royalties. Her family only learned that their mother’s cells had been scattered
around the world in 1973. Their complaints were ignored for many years – after
all, they were only poor, uneducated black folks.
No one cared about the woman called
Henrietta Lacks who was overdosed with radium, who died leaving five children
behind, one of them an epileptic housed in a filthy, chaotic institution called
The Hospital for the Negro Insane. Some people even thought that HeLa cells
originated with a woman named Helen Lane. Her daughter wrote in a diary, “When
that day came, and my mother died, she was Robbed of her cells and John Hopkins
Hospital learned of those cells and kept it to themselfs, and gave them to who
they wanted and even changed the name to HeLa cell and kept it from us for 20+
years. They say Donated. No No No Robbed Self.”
It was only earlier this year that the US
National Institutes of Health (NIH) negotiated an agreement with the family.
All researchers who use or generate full genomic data from HeLa cells must now
include in their publications an acknowledgement and expression of gratitude to
the Lacks family.
Incredibly, despite all the publicity,
scientists continued to ignore the concerns of the Lacks family. Just a few
months ago, German researchers published the first sequence of the full HeLa
genome. This compromised not only Henrietta Lacks’s genetic privacy but also
her family’s. (The researchers have removed the sequence from public view.)
The story of HeLa cells, in short, is
twofold: a story of towering scientific achievement and a story of exploitation
by ambitious and callous scientists.
Less famous, but even more important, says Nature,
have been WI-38 cells. HeLa cells multiply prolifically, but they are
cancerous. WI-38 cells are healthy and normal and have been used to develop
vaccines against rubella, rabies, adenovirus, polio, measles, chickenpox and
shingles. Their origin is even more controversial than the dark story of
In 1962 a Swedish woman who was four months
pregnant had a legal abortion because she did not want another child. The lungs
of the foetus were removed and sent to Philadelphia. At the Wistar Institute
for Anatomy and Biology they were minced up, processed and cultured by Leonard
Hayflick. He had been culturing cells from aborted foetuses for years, even
though abortion was technically illegal in Pennsylvania at the time, except for
After he successfully multiplied the WI-38
cells, Hayflick created more than 800 batches and distributed them freely
around the world to drug companies and researchers. He eventually quarrelled
with Wistar authorities because he thought that his contribution was being
ignored. Without permission, he took all the remaining batches to California
and his new job at Stanford. This led to years of bitter legal battles over who
owned the cells. No one worried about where they had come from.
The abortion connection is beyond dispute,
although, as Nature points out, “until now, that story has failed to
reach the broad audience it deserves.” As in the Henrietta Lacks case, no
informed consent was given by the Swedish mother. Her identity is known but she
refuses to talk about the case. The doctors involved are all dead. A Swedish
medical historian told Nature that in Sweden, “research material like
tissues from aborted fetuses were available and used for research without
consent or the knowledge of patients for a long time”, both before and after
consent rules were tightened later in the 1960s.
The drug companies and institutions which
have used WI-38 deny that there are serious ethical concerns either with the
use of cells from aborted foetuses or with the lack of consent.
The institution which has examined this
issue most closely is the Vatican. In 2005 it released a meticulously
researched study of the ethical issues involved in using vaccines
which had been developed with tissue from aborted foetuses. Even though it
contended that parents could have their children vaccinated with a clear
conscience, it did not dismiss the question as irrelevant or absurd. On the
contrary, it concluded that “there is a grave responsibility to use alternative
vaccines and to make a conscientious objection with regard to those which have
And it said that the existing situation was
completely unjust. “Parents… 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.”
What is the way forward?
I am writing from suburban Sydney which
long ago lost its connection to the Aboriginal tribes who once lived here. Yet
at every civic ceremony we acknowledge the memory of the Cammeraygal and
Wallumedegal peoples. It is a form of reparation for the dispossession, disease
and death which carried them away, leaving neither names nor descendants.
Doesn’t the story of Henrietta Lacks
suggest that drug companies should do something similar with their vaccine
products? From now on, the NIH says, scientists who use HeLa cells must include
“an acknowledgment and expression of gratitude to the Lacks family for their
Why shouldn’t drug companies and
researchers who use the WI-38 (or the MRC-5 cells) do the same? “This vaccine
was developed with the cells of a Swedish child who was aborted in 1964. We are
grateful for her contribution and grieve at her absence.”
Reprinted with permission from
Mercatornet.com under a creative commons license.