Questions raised about whether a COVID-19 vaccine will be linked to aborted fetus

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

A coalition of Catholic bioethical groups is urging the Canadian government to invest in COVID-19 vaccine research that doesn’t use cells derived from electively aborted fetuses.

“Manufacture of vaccines using such ethically-tainted human cell lines demonstrates profound disrespect for the dignity of the human person,” said a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Health Minister Patty Hajdu.

Representatives of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute, the Catholic Civil Rights League and the National Association of Catholic Nurses are among the signatories to the letter.

Vaccines produced using the WI-38 cell line derived from an elective abortion in the 1960s have been prominent for decades in virology research. This cell line has been used to develop vaccines for adenoviruses, rubella, measles, mumps, varicella zoster, polio, hepatitis A and rabies.

Modern equivalents of WI-38, also derived from aborted fetus tissue, include PER.C6, MRC-5 and HEK 293.

In 2005 the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, with backing from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ruled Catholics, in the absence of other options, may use vaccines with a distant historical association with abortion for the grave reason of preserving life, but they should encourage the development of alternatives.

Canadian research into COVID-19 vaccines has thrown up a possible alternative in the work of Vancouver immunologist Dr. Wilfred Jeffries of the University of British Columbia. Vancouver Archbishop Michael Miller has invested a small sum in Jeffries’ research to develop a COVID-19 vaccine that does not use aborted fetal cells.

Jeffries’ team is in the animal testing phase, necessary before their vaccine goes to human clinical trials, which may happen before the end of this year. More information is available at

The letter to Trudeau doesn’t say the government should reject a vaccine developed using cell lines from an aborted fetus if it is the first effective vaccine available.

“We endorse the earliest possible development of safe, effective anti-viral vaccines and the broadest uptake of vaccination,” said the letter.

But it would be better to develop a vaccine that will not force Canadians who object to abortion to make a moral choice.

“On the one hand the wide uptake of vaccines is essential to protect citizens from the transmission of disease. On the other, a vaccine produced using abortion-derived cell lines raises conscience concerns for anyone who might be offered that vaccine and is aware of its lineage,” said the letter.

“The letter is saying that for people who don’t want to have them (abortion-derived vaccines) there should be an alternative,” said Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute executive director Moira McQueen. “I think the letter is really asking them to make sure that people who are objecting conscientiously are also taken care of… We know everybody will be taking up the first effective vaccine. At the same time, I don’t see why the other side can’t be accommodated.”

In a survey of 16 leading COVID-19 vaccine research projects, Dr. James Sherley found that 10 of them were using ethical alternatives, five were relying on abortion-derived cell lines and one could not be easily classified into either category. Sherley worries that academic researchers and pharmaceutical companies too easily accept cell lines without asking where they came from.

“The industry has gotten comfortable with using these cells,” Sherley told The Catholic Register. “Many people were not aware of their origin.”

The associate scholar of the Charlotte Lozier Institute in Arlington, Va., and founder and chief executive of Asymmetrex, a Boston bio-tech start-up, said that despite being vehemently anti-abortion, he discovered he had been using WI-38 cell lines in his graduate research in the 1970s and ’80s.

“These cells are pervasive in research,” he said.

“We hear scientists say, ‘Well gee, yeah it’s a bad thing that that fetus got electively aborted, but let’s make good from it. Let me do some research with this and give everybody some benefit.’ That ideology is so destructive to us as humanity,” Shirley said.

“It’s an aborted fetus. It’s a deliberate termination of life,” said McQueen.

Research that takes advantage of a killing can’t be considered ethical, she said.

“It’s going back to the whole thing of the indignity of using parts of somebody’s body who didn’t ask to be killed in the first place and definitively cannot give consent.” McQueen said.