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The ethics and morals of vaccination

I’ve been trying to stay out of the vaccine/no vaccine debate, but it seems that I get dragged into it one way or another. It’s like I’m James T. Kirk in the “reboot” of Star Trek and I can’t get out of being the captain of the Enterprise. Destiny? Curious happenstance? Random roll of the cosmic dice? No dice, more like a random number generator?

Anyway, a friend of mine posted something on Facebook that triggered a discussion about vaccines today. Here’s the comment and link:

“I will never understand why people will purposefully put their children and the medically-vulnerable at risk for illnesses that modern medicine has successfully figured out how to prevent.” Link:

In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that she is an employee of a vaccine manufacturer… A big one.

Anyway, most of the comments were supportive. People talked about how they, also, did not understand how people could not vaccinate their children, keeping not only those children bug everyone around them safe. There was even this very sad story:

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That story right there answers, in very simple yet tragic terms, the question of “what’s the harm of not vaccinating?” It also answers the question of “why do you worry about your vaccinated child if vaccines work so well?” Contrary to instinct, vaccines are not just about the individual. They’re about all of us. It is our duty as members of society to keep each other safe. It is both the ethical and moral thing to do.

Speaking of morals, one of my friend’s friends commented thus:

“At the risk of a FB crucifixion– we have voluntarily withheld the MMR and chicken pox vaccines from our kids because of grave moral concerns. These vaccinations were created from cell lines of aborted babies, while available in other countries from different (unobjectionable) sources. We find it very hard to benefit from such sadness.”

If you haven’t heard of this before, it’s an old anti-vaccine talking point. They will tell unsuspecting, gullible parents that vaccines contain cells from aborted fetuses. Others will go as far as to claim that fetuses are being actively aborted right now to fulfill some sort of quota on fetal cells for vaccine manufacturers. Of course, none of that is real:

“In 1941, Australian ophthalmologist Norman Gregg first realized that congenital cataracts in babies were the result of their mothers being infected with rubella during pregnancy. Along with cataracts, it was eventually determined that congenital rubella syndrome (CRS) could also cause deafness, heart disease, encephalitis, mental retardation, and pneumonia, among many other conditions. At the height of a rubella epidemic that began in Europe and spread to the United States in the mid-1960s, Plotkin calculated that 1% of all births at Philadelphia General Hospital were affected by congenital rubella syndrome. In some cases, women who were infected with rubella while pregnant terminated their pregnancies due to the serious risks from CRS.

Following one such abortion, the fetus was sent to Plotkin at the laboratory he had devoted to rubella research. Testing the kidney of the fetus, Plotkin found and isolated the rubella virus. Separately, Leonard Hayflick (also working at the Wistar Institute at that time) developed a cell strain using lung cells from an aborted fetus. Many viruses, including rubella, grew well in the resulting cell strain, and it proved to be free of contaminants. The strain was eventually called WI-38.”


“Two main human cell strains have been used to develop currently available vaccines, in each case with the original fetal cells in question obtained in the 1960s. The WI-38 cell strain was developed in 1961 in the United States, and the MRC-5 cell strain (also started with fetal lung cells) was developed in 1965 in the United Kingdom. No new or additional fetal cells are required in order to sustain the two cell strains.”

So, as you can see, only two cell lines are being used, and they are both cells that are the descendants of cells collected from fetuses back in the 1960s. Is it unethical to use any products derived from these cells in order to save lives? Is it immoral?

Ethics are those things that we do, or must do, to prevent harm from coming upon others. Morals are the things, beliefs, and actions that we believe to be good. Moral vary based on what you believe. Ethics are more “universal”. It is unethical to torture and kill someone. But there are those people who see it as morally acceptable to torture and kill someone who, for example, knows where a bomb is that is about to kill a million people. (Incidentally, there is also a separate definition for what is legal.)

If you are morally opposed to abortion, I can see where you might be morally opposed to using aborted fetuses to grow vaccines. And I can even see why you would be opposed to using those vaccines. But is it really immoral to use vaccines grown on cells that are 50 years removed from their ascendants? The cells being used now are hundreds, if not thousands, of generations removed from the cells from those fetuses in the 1960’s, and there are no “abortion factories” supplying vaccine manufacturers nor researchers anywhere with fetuses today.

So let’s flip the equation around. Is it ethical to provide a vaccine that protects children from things like measles and pregnant women from the horrors of birthing a child with Congenital Rubella Syndrome? I’d say that it is. It prevents the suffering of people. Is it moral to use cells grown on tissue cultures made up of cells from a 50 year-old line? I’d say that it is. It is is perfectly moral to prevent the suffering of people, especially when no other people are being killed, when there are no “abortion factories”.

I’ve found that the debate on whether or not to vaccinate can get pretty heated. There are parents of children with developmental delays who blame vaccines 100%. Even if they are wrong — and they are most of the time — they are still parents who have to deal with their situation, and it is hard for them to have a “change of heart” about what is already in their minds and hearts. It is very much like trying to convert someone from one religion to another. It’s nearly impossible.

Still, these things that sound like facts need to be refuted because there are people out there that will be frightened away from vaccines, hurting us all.

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René F. Najera, DrPH

I'm a Doctor of Public Health, having studied at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health.
All opinions are my own and in no way represent anyone else or any of the organizations for which I work.
About History of Vaccines: I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, a project of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. Please read the About page on the site for more information.
About Epidemiological: I am the sole contributor to Epidemiological, my personal blog to discuss all sorts of issues. It also has an About page you should check out.

1 reply

  1. I remember one and only one vaccine debate that was actually valid.
    When to discontinue the near universal usage of the smallpox vaccine.
    For, among vaccines, it is singular amongst its peers.
    For, it and it alone made an entire species of virus extinct in the wild. The only surviving remnants of that particular virus are deep frozen in a small handful of laboratories.
    And it and it alone was and remains the most hazardous of our vaccines. The hazards being far lower than the death and disability rate of the disease itself, but also higher than any vaccine in use. Ever.
    The military still uses the smallpox vaccine, as well as specialist health care and research workers, its hazards still raise their heads and new treatments for progressive vaccinia and eczema vaccinatum have been developed. But, those are in a miniscule group amongst the miniscule group of the population that are vaccinated against smallpox today.
    But, the debate on when to discontinue vaccinating the populace at large was quite heated at times.

    That was and remains the only *real* debate. For, that debate was among medical professionals, epidemiologists and public health leaders.
    Not among the populace of tradesmen, tradeless and ignorant of most things medical.


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