Activists Say Bush Has No Policy on Avoiding Fetal-Source Vaccines

PITTSBURGH — Being pro-life can be costly — quite literally, in Lina Bird's case.

The 18-year-old Catholic from Mason Town, Va., was willing to sacrifice a $21,000 scholarship to Duquesne University, which the university threatened to revoke for her refusal to get a shot for measles, mumps and rubella.

Part of the vaccine in question, like many others commonly used in the United States, was produced using the tissue of an aborted baby. Bird refused to have anything to do with it and began looking at other schools.

Fortunately, Duquesne relented. But the ethical problem faced by pro-lifers like Bird might only increase in years to come. The U.S. government is about to develop or purchase a host of new vaccines to protect against bio-terrorism, but the administration has no policy to avoid vaccines produced using fetal tissue.

President George W. Bush announced Project BioShield in his State of the Union address Jan. 28. The $6 billion initiative is intended to overhaul the nation's supply of vaccines and drugs during the next 10 years. It will include a safer smallpox vaccine as well as new vaccines or drugs for anthrax, botulism, ebola and plague.

Debi Vinnedge, executive director of Clearwater, Fla.-based Children of God for Life, said the administration has no policy to avoid vaccines produced using tissue from aborted babies or to provide alternatives. Children of God for Life is a pro-life organization working to make alternative vaccines available for those Americans who refuse to accept vaccines connected to abortion.

Vinnedge said the government's recent purchase of a patent for a new ebola vaccine, which uses tissue from abortion, shows there is no policy to avoid such vaccines.

The Register asked an official at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which is re sponsible for implementing Project BioShield, and Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson's spokesman for the project whether the administration has a policy on the matter. The institute did not follow through on repeated promises to respond, and the Health and Human Services representative said he was unsure whether there was a policy.

Vinnedge has asked Thompson to develop a policy. She has also sent a letter, signed by more than 300 doctors, scientists and Cath olic organizations, to the president, noting that more than 475,000 Americans have signed a petition for ethical vaccines. The Catholic Medical Association is supporting Vinnedge's efforts.

It is not known what Bush's position is. While he is pro-life, he cited the precedent of vaccines produced using fetal tissue as a justification for his decision in 2001 to provide funding for embryonic stem cell research, which had caused the destruction of embryos.

However, the president's stem cell decision limited funding to projects which would use existing stem cell lines so the government would not be complicit in any future unethical practices. Following this logic to its conclusion, it would be preferable to avoid new vaccines produced using fetal tissue.

In late 2001 the government announced it would purchase two new smallpox vaccines to quickly stockpile enough for every American. One of those vaccines is made using animal tissue. Vinnedge said this decision is evidence pressure from pro-lifers has been effective.

In 2000, the Register covered the debate among Catholics on ethically questionable vaccines. The largest number of authorities, including philosopher Janet Smith, ethicist Edward Furton of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and pro-life convert Bernard Nathanson, said Catholics are not obliged to refuse vaccines produced using fetal tissue.

However, most authorities also said no new vaccines should be produced in this way, and alternatives can and should be pursued.

The Archdiocese of St. Louis' Pro-Life Office said using a hepatitis vaccine produced using the tissue of an aborted baby was morally ac ceptable since no other vaccine was available.

In the archdiocesan newspaper, St. Louis Review, moral theologian Father Edward Richard said, “There's no alternative if we want to prevent the spread of disease. … The use of the vaccine itself is not intrinsically evil. Certainly the origins are, but the person who uses it wants to do something positive.”

“The Church wants to do all it can to promote life and the respect for life,” he added, and people who refuse vaccines for pro-life reasons “have very legitimate feelings about their re spect for life, and that is to be commended.”

The Archdiocese of Chica go Respect Life Office has given its “official endorsement” to Vinnedge's efforts.

“We're blessed to cooperate with their wonderful work,” said director Mary Louise Kurey. The archdiocese is helping distribute pamphlets from Children of God for Life, among other things.

Vinnedge said only the chickenpox vaccine currently has no ethical alternative available anywhere in the world. In every other case, her organization can help parents obtain ethical vaccines or to locate a pro-life doctor who will assist.

David Curtin writes from Toronto.

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