Why Some Christians Refuse Vaccinations Over Use of Fetal Cells

For certain Christians, the decision of whether to vaccinate comes down to the origins of the vaccines themselves. Some pro-life parents cite a moral disgust and a deep lament over the use of 58-year-old aborted fetal cell lines in development for several recommended immunizations, including MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) and chickenpox.

“The use of fetal cells in vaccine study and creation is one of the primary reasons we do not vaccinate,” said Mandy Reynvaan, a mother of five in Oregon, where a measles outbreak has flared over the past few months. “The methods used to obtain these cells are horrifying.”

This week, Reynvaan traveled to the state capital to lobby against a bill that threatens to remove a parent’s right to refuse vaccinations for school-age children unless there is a medical reason. If passed, Oregon will be the fourth state to remove non-medical exemptions.

Furthermore, Reynvaan, who teaches fourth grade, is concerned that the state is not far off from mandating all teachers be vaccinated, which would put her job at risk. She and her husband have filed philosophical exemptions to vaccines for each of their children.

The bill making its way through the state legislature comes in response to 14 measles cases in Oregon and 73 in neighboring Washington state, which Tuesday passed a bill to the governor’s desk that would limit personal and philosophical exemptions for the MMR vaccine (but not religious exemptions).

Across the country, there have been over 600 casesin 22 states, spurring several state proposals that, in an effort to protect against the spread of disease, would restrict parental rights and religious freedoms for families who skip immunizations due to their faith convictions. Measles has seen a 30 percent increase globally, something the World Health Organization (WHO) attributes to vaccine hesitancy in countries that had practically eliminated the disease.

Christians who refuse to vaccinate are part of a larger trend, as younger parents in general are more likely than previous generations to believe the benefits don’t outweigh the risk. Only 78 percent of 30- to 49-year-olds support an MMR vaccine requirement for school children, compared to 90 percent of those over 65, according to a 2017 Pew study.

While many evangelicals—both in favor of vaccines and against—see their faith as compatible with science, the questions they raise over immunizations coincide with some distrust around the medical industry and human authority.

Overall, American confidence in the medical community has fallen from 60 percent to 37 percent since the ’70s. Fewer than half of adults don’t believe scientists fully understand the MMR, according to the General Social Survey, despite the scientific consensus in favor of vaccines. Those who put their trust in the Holy Spirit and Scripture may be wary of embracing secular authority and expertise, BioLogos has noted, which could influence how they view scientific findings on topics like vaccine safety. Pew Research found that white evangelical Protestants are more likely than other Christians and Americans in general to favor allowing parents to decide what to do about childhood vaccines.

The abortion that started it all

The fetal cells that disturb parents like the Reynvaans actually originate from material procured from two abortions that took place in the 1960s, an era when measles was so common it often went unreported. There were roughly a half million reported cases in the US from 1956–1960. While about 450 of those people died, there were many more severe complications from measles, including 150,000 with respiratory complications, 4,000 cases of encephalitis, and thousands hospitalized each year. Doctors were eager to develop an effective vaccine.

For immunizations to work, they require the virus to be hosted in a living cell. Cell biologist Leonard Hayflick, working at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, reasoned that fetal cells would be protected from outside pathogens and the “cleanest” type to use in vaccines. He partnered with a Swedish scientist to procure the fetal tissue from an elective abortion in a country where it was legal.

In the recent bookThe Vaccine Race, journalist Meredith Wadman describes the patient, “Mrs. X,” who requested an abortion due to her “run-down husband,” an alcoholic who was rarely around to help with the young children they already had. Days after her abortion in June 1962, Hayflick had the fetal lung cells he needed for testing.

Hayflick previously discovered that as cells divided and grew into subsequent generations they lost the youthfulness of the original cells. (This was contrary to popular scientific thought at the time. The discovery is now named after him.) So he grew the cells, dividing them just eight times, and froze enough in storage. Vaccine-makers still use the cell lines called WI-38 today.

These fetal cells from the “Mrs. X” abortion were used to grow weakened or inactive viruses in the development of two vaccines: the rubella vaccine (the R in the MMR vaccine) and one version of rabies vaccine and are used around the world. Around the same time, the British Medical Council in the UK also produced vaccines from fetal lung cells. Using cells procured through an abortion in 1966, a culture called MRC-5, they created vaccines for hepatitis A, chickenpox, and shingles. A polio vaccine was also made and used in other countries but not the US. Researchers did experiment with other fetal tissue samples in their development, but the human fetal cells in current vaccines all stem from these two abortions.

Just one bottle of cells from Hayflick, Wadman writes, “would produce 87,000 times more vaccine than is made by a typical vaccine-making company, setting out today to make one year’s worth of a typical childhood vaccine that it will ship to more than forty countries.”

An ethical dilemma

Pro-life proponents of immunization point out that vaccines no longer rely on abortion to provide further fetal cells—and that the initial two abortions were not conducted to supply vaccine makers with fetal tissue in the first place. Such circumstances would be immoral—an argument on the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) blog.

The Catholic Church also concluded, in a 2005 statement, that those who receive vaccines are not culpable in the original abortions. Focus on the Family’s Physicians Resource Council, which last updated a statement in 2015, suggests that Christians have the moral freedom to receive vaccines, though it also respects those Christians who come to a different conclusion after consideration and prayer.

National Institute of Health director Francis Collins suggests comparing it to organ donation after a child was shot. “There was a terrible, evil loss of life of that child and yet I think we would all say that if the parents decided and they wanted something good to come of this and gave their consent, that’s a noble and honorable action,” he said. “Does that translate into a parent, after going through a pregnancy termination, deciding that they would like the fetal tissue to actually help somebody?” ERLC makes a similar comparison to organ donation not condoning murder.

Consent poses another ethical dilemma. The tissue from “Mrs. X” dates back to an era when scientists often failed to secure permission from donors or their families to use the cells. Think too of Henrietta Lacks, the African American cancer victim whose cells were secretly used in decades of research. Researchers today are expected to obtain informed consent.

“It is easy to condemn out of hand the scientists who conducted these experiments on the most voiceless and powerless among us. And their actions were in many cases horrifying and inexcusable,” Wadman wrote, noting the “deep moral abhorrence” abortion opponents and other vaccine skeptics may feel. “But it is more instructive—and perhaps more likely to prevent similar betrayals in the future—to try to understand why they did what they did.”

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Source: Christianity Today