Using Vaccines Obtained From Intentionally Aborted Human Embryos

Further Clarification Needed for Parents, Researchers

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WASHINGTON, D.C., JAN. 12, 2011 ( Here is a question on bioethics asked by a ZENIT reader and answered by the fellows of the Culture of Life Foundation.

Q: I would love to see some more discussion or advice on the use of vaccines. […] If my memory served me correctly, in the United States, all of the vaccines for Chicken Pox and the standard MMR [measles, mumps, rubella] protocols are developed from aborted children. Considering the ubiquity of these particular vaccines, I believe it is an issue that needs further exploration, discussion, and guidance from the Church and her thinkers. — C.G., Charleston, South Carolina, USA

William E. May offers the following response:

A: The reader’s question is specifically the one used in the heading of this article. However, that issue was addressed earlier in response to another reader’s question (ZENIT, DEC. 15, 2010). It therefore seems proper here to raise the following question: “Is it ever morally licit to use biological material of illicit origin?”

I offer below a review of relevant Church teaching regarding this question and other helpful sources. 

Relevant Church Teaching 

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s 2009 document “Dignitas Personae” (The Dignity of the Person) addresses the question regarding the use of “biological material” of illicit origin in numbers 34 and 35, and in doing to refers to relevant teaching of Pope John Paul II in his encyclical “Evangelium Vitae” (The Gospel of Life) and to the congregation’s 1987 document “Donum Vitae” (Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and the Dignity of Procreation). 

Number 34 of “Dignitas Personae” says the problems are cooperation in evil and giving scandal. Number 35 says that a different situation exists when researchers use “biological material” of illicit origin produced apart from their research or commercially obtained and refers to John Paul II’s “Evangelum Vitae.” It declares that “Donum Vitae” (Part I, No. 4) articulated the principle to be followed: “The corpses of human embryos and fetuses […], deliberately aborted or not, must be respected just as the remains of other human beings. In particular, they cannot be subjected to mutilation or to autopsies if their death has not yet been verified and without the consent of the parents or of the mother. Furthermore, the moral requirements must be safeguarded that there be no complicity in deliberate abortion and that the risk of scandal be avoided.” 

Number 35 of “Dignitas Personae” considers “the criterion of independence.” According to it, the use of “biological material” of illicit origin would be ethically permissible if there is a clear separation between those who produce, freeze, and cause the death of human embryos, and the researchers involved in scientific experimentation. “Dignitas Personae” expresses caution here, saying that of itself this criterion might not be sufficient. 

It declares: “There is a duty to refuse to use such ‘biological material’ even when there is no close connection between the researcher and the actions of those who performed the artificial fertilization or the abortion, or when there was no prior agreement with the centers in which the artificial fertilization took place. This duty springs from the necessity to remove oneself, within the area of one’s own research, from a gravely unjust legal situation and to affirm with clarity the value of human life. Therefore, the above-mentioned criterion of independence is necessary, but may be ethically insufficient.”

But it goes on to note that “within this general picture there exist differing degrees of responsibility. Grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such ‘biological material.’ Thus, for example, danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their health care system make other types of vaccines available. Moreover, in organizations where cell lines of illicit origin are being utilized, the responsibility of those who make the decision to use them is not the same as that of those who have no voice in such a decision.” 

“Dignitas Personae” seems here to follow the position taken by Elio Sgreccia regarding use of a measles vaccine developed by making use of aborted fetuses; for a summary of Sgreccia’s position, see “On Vaccines Made from Cells of Aborted Fetuses: Pontifical Academy for Life Response,” (ZENIT, JULY 25, 2005). 


Christian Brugger offers important observations on the treatment in “Dignitas Personae” of this issue (see E. Christian Brugger, “Strengths and Weaknesses of ‘Dignitas Personae,'” in “Symposium on ‘Dignitas Personae,'” National Catholic Bioethics Quarterly. Vol. 9.3. Autumn, 2009, 487-481). Commenting on the passage in number 35 about the duty to refuse to use such “biological material” even when there is no close connection between the researcher and the actions of those who performed the artificial fertilization or the abortion, he wonders whether this “would this apply to an epidemiologist in 2009 doing research on … cell lines … or vaccines derived from those lines, given that both were taken from electively aborted fetuses? The moral wrong — the grave evil of abortion — was done nearly forty-five years ago. […]

“Is a researcher’s duty to refuse to work on those materials exceptionless, even when the refusal could result in harms to the researcher and to his or her family? The text [of “Dignitas Personae”] indicates that it is not [exceptionless]. It states that grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such ‘biological material.’ But the Instruction [“Dignitas Personae”], following the 2005 Pontifical Academy for Life text, “Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared from Cells Derived from Aborted Human Fetuses,” only mentions parents consenting for grave reasons to their children’s immunization. Where does this leave morally conscientious researchers?” 

I think that if the research is the kind that reasonably promises to provide a great benefit to unborn human subjects who are vulnerable to specific kinds of pathologies from which the research will protect them, as was the case of the research to which Brugger refers, then the kind of exception allowed for by “Dignitas Personae,” (No. 35) is present. In all likelihood this kind of exception may simply not have occurred to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in preparing the 1987 instruction “Donum Vitae.”

This is a subject that needs further clarification by the Church. 

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William E. May, is a Senior Fellow at the Culture of Life Foundation and retired Michael J. McGivney Professor of Moral Theology at the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C.

[Readers may send questions regarding bioethics to The text should include your initials, your city and your state, province or country. The fellows at the Culture of Life Foundation will answer a select number of the questions that arrive.]
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