Vatican Issues Guidelines on Use of Abortion-Derived Vaccines

VATICAN CITY — The question of the morality of using vaccines derived from tissues obtained through abortions is a delicate one. It took more than two years for the Vatican to frame a reply to a request for guidance from Debi Vinnedge, head of the Florida-based Children of God for Life organization that campaigns against the use of such vaccines.

Now, the Pontifical Academy for Life has finally delivered its opinion: Catholics are permitted — and sometimes may even be obliged — to use such vaccines when no alternative exists.

But the new Vatican statement, entitled “Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared From Cells Derived From Aborted Human Fetuses,” stresses that the failure of pharmaceutical companies and health authorities to produce ethical, non-abortion derived alternative vaccines has created “a context of moral coercion” that “must be eliminated as soon as possible.”

And, it says, Catholics parents and doctors have a grave duty to pressure drug companies and health systems to develop ethical vaccines that can be used instead.

While human vaccines can be produced by other means, pharmaceutical companies often rely on abortion-derived tissues because of the relative ease of this form of production.

In the United States, according to Jameson Taylor, author of America's Drug Deal: Vaccines, Abortion, Corruption, 11 commercially available vaccines for chicken pox, hepatitis, polio, rabies, rubella, measles and mumps are currently propagated using two fetal-cell lines, known as WI-38 and MRC-5. Both cell lines were derived from babies aborted in the 1960s.

Alternatives to some of the abortion-derived vaccines are available, but no alternatives are currently available in the U.S. for vaccination against rubella, chicken pox and hepatitis A.

What's Right?

The morality of using abortion-derived vaccines has sharply divided American Catholics. A range of authorities — including the Pro-Life Secretariat of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and the National Catholic Bioethics Center — have said they can be used under some circumstances.

“Catholic moralists have concluded that individuals, when they have no practical alternative, may use vaccines to protect their health and the health of their loved ones without serious sin, even if the vaccines were cultured in fetal cells that ultimately came from an elective abortion,” the Pro-Life Secretariat said in an August 2001 statement.

Other Catholic leaders disagree. Speaking to the Register in February about a new flu vaccine being developed by Alabama-based biotech company Vaxin using an abortion-derived cell line, Bishop Robert Vasa of Baker, Ore., said, “It is not right to see good in this vaccine simply because the good is far away from the abortion. Morally, all of the fruit of that abortion is still poisoned fruit.”

In Bishop Vasa's view, the Catholic consumer should say,” I want nothing to do with that vaccine. I do not want to benefit in any way from abortions. My conscience binds me to fulfill the law of God.”

Faced with this division of opinion among faithful Catholics, Children of God for Life's Vinnedge wrote a letter to then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in June 2003, asking the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to clarify the matter.

The future Pope Benedict asked the Pontifical Academy for Life to commission a study on the topic. This June, Bishop Elio Sgreccia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, provided an English translation of the study's findings to Vinnedge, who posted it on her Web site,, on July 18.

Degrees of Evil

The Pontifical Academy for Life document distinguishes between different degrees of cooperation with evil that result from the manufacture and use of abortion-derived vaccines. All involvement in “the preparation, distribution and marketing” of the vaccines is “morally illicit, because it could contribute in encouraging the performance of other voluntary abortions, with the purpose of the production of such vaccines,” it states.

Moreover, pharmaceutical companies and researchers who fail to denounce as evil the abortions that gave rise to the fetal cell lines that they are using to produce vaccines, and who “do not dedicate themselves together to research and promote alternative ways, exempt from moral evil, for the production of vaccines,” are guilty of illicit “passive material cooperation” with the evil of the original abortions, the document says.

In contrast, doctors and parents who consent to the use of such vaccines, when no alternative is available, are involved merely in “a form of very remote mediate material cooperation, and therefore very mild” cooperation with the original act of abortion, the Pontifical Academy for Life stated.

Such remote cooperation is morally permissible, the document said. And in the case of a disease like rubella, where a failure to vaccinate children can result in a sharply increased likelihood of a future outbreak of an ailment that can have crippling effects on unborn children, the Pontifical Academy for Life's experts said “we find, in such a case, a proportional reason” favoring the use of such vaccines.

Target the Companies

However, after noting that situations do exist in which Catholic doctors and parents have reason to use abortion-derived vaccines, the Pontifical Academy for Life document stated that they also have a “grave responsibility” to use ethical vaccines instead when they are available. In such cases, it added, “[T]hey should take recourse, if necessary, to the use of conscientious objection” in refusing to use the abortion-derived vaccine.

And where no ethical vaccines are currently available, Catholics must seek to persuade drug companies to develop them, the Vatican document states.

“In any case, there remains a moral duty to continue to fight and to employ every lawful means in order to make life difficult for the pharmaceutical industries, which act unscrupulously and unethically,” the document concludes. “However, the burden of this important battle cannot and must not fall on innocent children and on the health situation of the population.”

(Register correspondent Steve Weatherbe contributed to this story)