I got an email out of the blue the other day. It was from an acquaintance who wanted to know how to respond to her friend who is a self-described “Bible-believing, evangelical Christian” who is “extremely and unapologetically pro-life.” And by pro-life, she was referring to a belief that abortion, in any form and for any reason, is murder and therefore morally abhorrent. This friend, apparently, does not vaccinate her children for two deeply held reasons :1) Vaccines come from aborted fetuses and 2) God does not need our help improving our immune systems. And so, my friend writes me, How do I respond? Is there any merit to her argument?
Wow. This is heavy stuff. I’m not a religious scholar. I don’t have the audacity to say that I can speak for God. I don’t have all (or really any) of the answers on morality. But I have heard this argument a lot, and I feel like a response is needed.
1. Abortions and Vaccines
Let’s just get this out there on the table. Yes. Some vaccines we use today have a link — a distant and long ago link — to two aborted fetuses. In the 1960s, a genius of a man named Stanley Plotkin was trying to figure out how to stop pregnant mothers from passing rubella onto their unborn children. Congenital rubella syndrome (CRS), it turns out, is a terrible for a fetus because it can not only lead to miscarriage but also to deafness, blindness, heart disease, and mental retardation. For infants infected during the first trimester, 85% will develop some form of birth defect. And some women, who found out they were infected with rubella during early gestation elected to terminate the pregnancy. Please note. The woman chose an abortion for personal reasons, but not for any reason related to creating or formulating a vaccine.
Seeing the devastation that CRS could cause, Dr. Plotkin set up a research lab devoted to studying rubella. One of the aborted (infected) fetuses, was sent to Plotkin’s lab, where he was able to isolate the virus from the fetal tissue. But he needed someway for the virus to replicate itself. So, using a cell strain created from a different aborted fetus, Dr. Plotkin was able to replicate the rubella virus. And after he grew it roughy 25 times through the cell strain, the virus was no longer able to cause illness in a living person, but it was able to invoke a protective immune response. And a protective immune response (your body saying, “I recognize this disease, and now I will appropriately fight it off”) is exactly what we want vaccines to do. And once Dr. Plotkin’s vaccine went into routine use, the rates of rubella (and therefore, CRS) dropped. In 2005, the United States was declared rubella free.
Think of the lives that just this one vaccine has saved. It has prevented disease and disfigurement in countless infants. Women who might have tearfully chosen to abort a fetus infected with rubella do not have to make that terrible decision. And think of all the miscarriages that were avoided because of this vaccine. (Over a three year time period, pre-vaccine, during the a global rubella epidemic, there were about 12,000 abortions (many spontaneous) caused by CRS. The vaccine stops that. How much more “pro-life” can we get?
But don’t take my word for it. Ask the Vatican. Abortion is pretty much a “no no” in the Catholic Church, right? And yet, even the Catholic Church does not oppose the use of vaccines that have a distant association with an abortion (Yes. The cell line I mentioned was made from a single aborted fetus, not hundreds, or even ten, or even five). And, over the last 40 years, as these cells have multiplied and divided so many times, “it is important to note that descendent cells are not the cells of the aborted child.” (The National Catholic Bioethics Center’s words, not mine). Indeed, the NCBC further points out that “one cannot accurately say that the vaccines contain any of the cells from the original abortion.”
But wait. Here is where we get to the heart of the issue. Using vaccines, regardless of origin, is pro-life:
One is morally free to use the vaccine regardless of its historical association with abortion. The reason is that the risk to public health, if one chooses not to vaccinate, outweighs the legitimate concern about the origins of the vaccine. This is especially important for parents, who have a moral obligation to protect the life and health of their children and those around them. (NCBC, 2006).
And that brings me to my second point.
2. Vaccines save lives. And this makes them pro-life — regardless of a distant link to aborted cells.
Between 1962 and 1965, there was a global rubella pandemic. During that time period, 20,000 babies were born with CRS and 2,200 newborns died in the U.S.. After routine use of the rubella vaccine, we don’t have rubella here anymore. Lives saved! Devastating complications averted! If you are so inclined, then thank God for the intelligence he gave humans that would allow them to create vaccines.
Life is precious. That’s why public health officials and doctors urge vaccination for everyone, but especially children. Surely, if you feel an obligation to protect the unborn, then you must also have an obligation to protect the living as well. And that, my friends, is the promise given by vaccines.