When a high school student recently refused the chickenpox vaccine on religious grounds, it raised the question: What exactly is the role of fetal cells in the creation of vaccines?
Jerome Kunkel is a senior at Our Lady of the Sacred Heart/Assumption Academy, a Catholic school in Walton, Kentucky, and has not been vaccinated against the very contagious disease because he says it's against his faith. Per the suit, the family believes that “the use of any vaccine that is derived from aborted fetal cells is immoral, illegal, and sinful." Kunkel's father told WLWT that “the chickenpox vaccine is derived from aborted fetuses. And, of course, as Christians, we’re against abortion.” Kunkel is suing the local health department after it barred any unvaccinated students from attending school in the midst of a chickenpox outbreak.
Kunkel claims that, by making him stay home or get a vaccine to which he objects, the Northern Kentucky Health Department is discriminating against his religious beliefs. The health department said in a statement on its web site: "We are aware of the lawsuit filed by Jerome Kunkel, and want to state that the actions taken by the Health Department with respect to Assumption Academy were done consistent with this agency’s statutory charge to protect the public health." A court date is set for April 1.
Leaving aside the legal merits of the case, is it true that the chickenpox vaccine is "derived from" aborted fetal cells? Sort of, but you also need to know what the Catholic Church actually says about these vaccines.
Is the chickenpox vaccine made from aborted fetal cells?
Several vaccines, including the one for chickenpox, are produced by growing the virus inside of human cells. "Viruses, unlike bacteria, have to grow in cells; the question is what cell type one picks," Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center and an attending physician in the Division of Infectious Diseases at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, explains in the video below.
Why use fetal cells? Viruses that infect humans tend to grow better in human cells than in animal cells and fetal cells divide many more times than other cells do. Offit goes on to say that two cell lines used for vaccines were created from cells obtained via two legal, elective abortions in the 1960s.
These fetal-derived cell lines have been growing on their own in laboratories for the past 50 years and are used to make vaccines for rubella, hepatitis A, chickenpox, one kind of the shingles vaccine, and one version of the rabies vaccine. (A polio vaccine grown in human cells was used in other countries, but never in the US.) "No further sources of fetal cells are needed to make these vaccines," according to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
What does the Catholic Church think about these vaccines?
So glad you asked. First, even the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) acknowledges that the cells used to make vaccines are far removed from the aborted cells. "There are a number of vaccines that are made in descendent cells of aborted fetuses….Since that time the cell lines have grown independently. It is important to note that descendent cells are not the cells of the aborted child."
In June 2005, the Catholic Church's Pontifical Academy for Life basically said that it doesn't like that aborted fetal cells were used to create vaccines, but acknowledged that there are no current alternatives for chickenpox, rubella, and hepatitis A, so in those cases the vaccines are morally justifiable to protect public health. (As mentioned above, there are alternatives for shingles and rabies.)
The NCBC spells this out further in an FAQ on the use of vaccines for which there is no alternative that isn't associated with fetal cells:
"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."
The NCBC does go on to say that Catholics should register their disapproval with pharmaceutical companies that there is no alternative for these vaccines.
The main symptom of chickenpox is an itchy, blister-like rash, and while the condition is just an annoyance for some, it can be dangerous for others. Serious complications from chickenpox include pneumonia, bloodstream infections like sepsis, and swelling and infection of the brain. The complications are more likely to occur in infants, pregnant women, and people with weakened immune systems, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
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