Dignitas Personae and Childhood Vaccinations

If derived from aborted fetuses, can they be used?

In 1987, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, under the leadership of Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, published Donum Vitae, an instruction on respect for human life in its origin and on the dignity of procreation. Responding to queries from bishops, the CDF authoritatively brought Catholic teaching on the sanctity of human life and the nature of marriage to bear on bioethical issues of the day, including in vitro fertilization, surrogate motherhood, and artificial insemination. Perhaps most memorably, Donum Vitae articulated the principle that every child has the right “to be the fruit of the specific act of the conjugal love of his parents.”

Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI did not ignore bioethical issues in the decades following the publication of Donum Vitae, and at times, they also provided authoritative guidance on such questions. In addition, Pope John Paul established the Pontifical Academy for Life in 1994 to examine “the principal problems of biomedicine and of law, relative to the promotion and defense of life, above all in the direct relation that they have with Christian morality and the directives of the Church’s Magisterium.”

Last year, under the leadership of Cardinal William Levada, the CDF published the most important magisterial document on bioethics since Donum Vitae. Affirming that “the teaching of Donum Vitae remains completely valid, both with regard to the principles on which it is based and the moral evaluations which it expresses,” the CDF authoritatively applied Catholic teaching to newer bioethical issues, including intracytoplasmic sperm injection, the freezing of oocytes, embryo reduction, preimplantation diagnosis, gene therapy, genetic engineering, stem-cell research, human cloning, hybrid animal- human cloning, and researchers’ use of human “biological material.” Perhaps most memorably, the new document—entitled Dignitas Personae, dated September 8, and made public in December—articulated the principle that “using genetic engineering for purposes other than medical treatment” implies “an unjust domination of man over man” and thus is morally illicit.

Quoting Pope John Paul II, the CDF in Dignitas Personae saw its staunch and unpopular defense of human life in its earliest stages as being in continuity with the Church’s historic commitment to the poor.

Just as a century ago it was the working classes which were oppressed in their fundamental rights, and the Church courageously came to their defense by proclaiming the sacrosanct rights of the worker as person, so now, when another category of persons is being oppressed in the fundamental right to life, the Church feels in duty bound to speak out with the same courage on behalf of those who have no voice. Hers is always the evangelical cry in defense of the world’s poor, those who are threatened and despised and whose human rights are violated.


In the March issue of CWR, John Burger examined how leading Catholic thinkers are wrestling with Dignitas Personae’s teaching on prenatal adoption. Dignitas Personae has also brought another issue to the forefront: some childhood vaccinations are ultimately derived from aborted fetuses. Dignitas Personae discusses such vaccinations in the context of the use of cell lines derived from gravely immoral acts.

For scientific research and for the production of vaccines or other products, cell lines are at times used which are the result of an illicit intervention against the life or physical integrity of a human being. The connection to the unjust act may be either mediate or immediate, since it is generally a question of cells which reproduce easily and abundantly. This “material” is sometimes made available commercially or distributed freely to research centers by governmental agencies having this function under the law. All of this gives rise to various ethical problems with regard to cooperation in evil and with regard to scandal. It is fitting therefore to formulate general principles on the basis of which people of good conscience can evaluate and resolve situations in which they may possibly be involved on account of their professional activity.

The CDF then outlines two general principles. First, it is always gravely immoral for researchers to conduct experiments on human embryos; indeed, such experimentation inevitably kills these human beings. Second, “even when there is no close connection between the researcher and the actions of those who performed the artificial fertilization or the abortion,” researchers are under the obligation “to refuse to use such ‘biological material’,” for “the duty to avoid cooperation in evil and scandal relates to their ordinary professional activities, which they must pursue in a just manner and by means of which they must give witness to the value of life by their opposition to gravely unjust laws”—laws that permit the production of such cell lines.

The CDF adds:

Of course, 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 healthcare system make other types of vaccines available.

Magisterial reflection on this issue has come about partly because of the work of Children of God for Life, a prolife organization founded in 1999 by Debi Vinnedge. The organization originally focused on cloning and stem-cell research. “When news of the vaccines hit several Catholic publications in the spring of 2000,” she told CWR, “I immediately saw a correlation between using aborted fetal cell lines and the possibility of one day using embryonic stemcells to treat diseases.” She added:

As a pro-life parent, I was outraged to know that my own children had some of these vaccines. I believe I had a right to know the truth and then decide what is in the best interest of our family both physically and morally. I believe all parents and physicians have that right as well. Further, I believed that as a Catholic, I had an obligation to do something about it and thus, I began the Campaign for Ethical Vaccines as a means of pressuring the pharmaceutical industry and educating the public.

In 2003, Vinnedge wrote to Cardinal Ratzinger, seeking clarification from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on the morality of using vaccines developed from cell lines ultimately derived from aborted fetuses. In response to Vinnedge’s request, the CDF asked the Pontifical Academy for Life to study the matter. In 2005, Bishop Elio Sgreccia, then president of the Pontifical Academy for life, replied to Vinnedge and noted that the study had been approved by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

The pontifical academy’s eight-page statement, “Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared from Cells Derived from Aborted Human Fetuses,” appears on Children of God for Life’s website. The statement couples ethical reflection on cooperation in evil with scientific data listing which vaccines are derived from aborted fetuses. The statement concluded:

• there is a grave responsibility to use alternative vaccines and to make a conscientious objection with regard to those which have moral problems;

• as regards the vaccines without an alternative, the need to contest so that others may be prepared must be reaffirmed, as should be the lawfulness of using the former in the meantime insomuch as is necessary in order to avoid a serious risk not only for one’s own children but also, and perhaps more specifically, for the health conditions of the population as a whole—especially for pregnant women;

• the lawfulness of the use of these vaccines should not be misinterpreted as a declaration of the lawfulness of their production, marketing, and use, but is to be understood as being a passive material cooperation and, in its mildest and remotest sense, also active, morally justified as an extrema ratio [extreme reason] due to the necessity to provide for the good of one’s children and of the people who come in contact with the children (pregnant women);

• such cooperation occurs in a context of moral coercion of the conscience of parents, who are forced to choose to act against their conscience or otherwise, to put the health of their children and of the population as a whole at risk. This is an unjust alternative choice, which must be eliminated as soon as possible.

Dignitas Personae’s teaching that “danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin” and that “everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available” is clearly a summary of the pontifical academy’s study.

“I believe parents must look at their own situations carefully and evaluate whether or not their child and society at large would be in danger by not using the aborted fetal vaccines,” says Vinnedge. “If a parent finds after taking the matter to prayer that they cannot use these vaccines in good conscience, then there is a greater duty to adhere to that conscience as our Catholic Church instructs in both the Catechism and numerous papal encyclicals. It would not be morally licit to use the vaccines in those circumstances.”


CWR asked three Catholic bioethicists to comment further on parents’ obligations in this matter. Dr. John F. Brehany, executive director and ethicist of the Catholic Medical Association (CMA), told CWR that “probably the single best online resource on this issue is Children of God for Life.” He offered the following advice:

While CMA has not finished developing a formal application of the principles contained in this section of Dignitas Personae, I think that parents could ethically weigh the danger of illness or death to their children and/or the public against the good of refusing to cooperate with vaccines based on cell lines obtained illicitly.

Some diseases are quite serious and potentially prevalent and, until alternative vaccines are developed, should be guarded against by immunization (for example, measles and rubella). Other diseases pose less of a potential risk to life or health (e.g., chicken pox and mumps); in these cases, some parents may legitimately conclude that they can tolerate forgoing the vaccine to avoid compromising their witness to respect for human life; or parents may choose some alternative vaccine product (such as Attenuvax for measles and Mumpsvax for mumps) that helps to avoid exposure to illicit cell lines contained in trivalent formulations such as the MMR vaccine, even if public health officials might prefer the combination vaccines.

Dr. Helen Watt, director of the London- based Linacre Centre for Healthcare Ethics, added that

the question of vaccines is a difficult one, depending not only on level of medical need but on ‘closeness’ to the original evil of the abortion and harvesting of fetal tissue. To use a vaccine created several decades ago is more defensible than using one created from a recently-destroyed unborn child. In our view, this is rather like buying property obtained through violent crime, which cannot now be returned to the original owner. It is one thing to buy stolen property directly from the criminal or go-between, and something quite different to buy it only after it has passed through many pairs of hands, and the risk of seeming to condone the robbery is more remote.

As a practical matter, Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education for the National Catholic Bioethics Center, says that “parents, in my opinion, should ask their health care providers for accurate information detailing whether particular vaccines were developed using cell lines of illicit origin. This engages the health care profession in a discussion that it very much needs to become party to. Parents can make known their disagreement by writing to the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the vaccines.”

“Right now the vast majority of both parents and physicians are unaware of the use of aborted fetal cell lines in vaccines,” says Vinnedge. “The package inserts state under the list of ingredients ‘human diploid cell lines’ (MRC-5, WI- 38 or RA273) and ‘residual DNA, cell components and proteins.’” She adds:

Quite frankly, no one knows what that means unless they do a great deal of research…. We have introduced legislation to members of Congress called the Fair Labeling and Informed Consent Act (FLICA), which would require full disclosure to patients and physicians prior to purchase so that moral alternatives can be requested…I believe pressuring Congress to pass this legislation is of paramount importance in our obligation as Catholics, along with writing to the pharmaceutical companies to express our concerns.


If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About J. J. Ziegler 55 Articles
J. J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.