Editor’s note: The following is Part 2 of a two-part essay on the complex and often disturbing relationship—scientifically, historically, and otherwise—between the creation of vaccines, the eugenics movement, and the abortion industry. Part 1 is on “The Circumstantial Evidence”.
Part 2: Underlying Principles
“Alive when researchers start extracting the tissue.” That’s how biologist Pamela Acker described aborted infants who donate tissue for fetal cell lines. In a January, 2021 interview with Lifesite News, Acker discussed COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the U.S., all of which have some involvement with human fetal cell lines. In 2012 Acker gave up her doctoral research rather than work with HEK 293, an immortalized cell line derived from the kidneys of a baby girl aborted in 1972.
In the first part of this series, I looked at the circumstantial evidence for Acker’s statement, examining her sources and then doing my own research on the vaccine industry’s longstanding connection to abortion. I waded through reams of scientific reports, congressional testimony, newspaper articles, and books on fetal tissue research.
At each foray down the internet rabbit hole, I expected to find evidence that the claim was simply sensational rhetoric. And yet the more I read, the more convinced I became that the use of live, aborted babies has been a part of vaccine research and production for almost a century.
Acker took me on a tour of vaccine history in the industry’s own words. Scientific papers from the 1930s onward documented abortion after abortion in the service of vaccine research. The most forthright, a 1952 paper from the Canadian Journal of Medical Science, described babies aborted and sent to the lab with hearts still beating. I then used Acker’s sources as a starting point for my own exploration. I frequently doubled back on my tracks as I became more familiar with biomedical terminology and began decoding the language of scientific reports. My research was by no means comprehensive, yet it was enough to convince me that Acker’s claims were not far-fetched.
However, in the interest of journalistic accuracy, I returned to a key fact: no records indicate that the baby whose cells produced HEK 293 was actually alive at the time its kidneys were removed. And I still wanted to be convinced that the brief existence of that tiny child was pain free.
Acker herself was adamant. Despite the mystery surrounding the origins of HEK 293, “The thing needs to be said in so many words: you can’t transplant a dead organ into a living body, you cannot make a cell line out of dead tissue.”
Acker then cited the late Spanish physician and bio-ethicist Dr. Gonzalo Herranz. A former member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Herranz was a member of the International Bioethics Committee of UNESCO, advisor to the European Parliament, and author of 65 articles on pathology. A celebrated author, international lecturer, and advisor on bio-ethics, he was professor emeritus of Pathological Anatomy at the University of Navarre who died on May 20, 2021. That is to say, he studied cell and tissue abnormalities, and was eminently qualified to address this subject.
Quoted in Vivisection or Science, by Italian scientist Pietro Croce, Herranz said simply: “… to obtain embryo cells for culture, a programmed abortion must be adopted, choosing the age of the embryo and dissecting it while still alive in order to remove tissues to be placed in culture media.” i
The statement by Herranz may be the most authoritative in support of the principle that live cells must come from living bodies. There are others, notably by American embryologist C. Ward Kischer, who said in “The Media and Human Embryology” (Linacre Quarterly, Vol. 64, Issue 2, May 1, 1998), referring to organ transplants from aborted babies: “The truth is that dead tissue would do nothing. The transplant must contain living cells, and the only way to ensure that is to obtain them from living fetuses.”
Kischer qualified this only slightly with respect to fetal cell research: “In order to sustain 95% of the cells, the live tissue would need to be preserved within 5 minutes of the abortion. Within an hour the cells would continue to deteriorate, rendering the specimens useless.” The incredibly short time window makes the distinction virtually moot, considering the additional time needed to operate, administer tissue preservation fluids, and remove organs.
Alvin Wong, whose 2006 paper “The Ethics of HEK 293” guided Acker’s decision to leave her doctoral research, concurs:
If in fact the embryo or fetus is still alive while tissue is being extracted from it then the one doing so commits an even more serious act of violence directly to another living human being. This might happen, since it seems to be a scientific criterion that tissue be obtained in a viable state to be suitable for research.
In the course of my own research, I spoke with Dr. Paul Byrne. Byrne is a neonatologist, past president of the Catholic Medical Association, and an authority on brain death and organ transplantation.
“Is it true,” I asked, “that tissue samples for fetal cell lines, if they are to be successful, must be procured from living babies?”
“Yes,” Byrne told me, “The baby must be alive when the procedure is initiated to get living tissue. …. After death, destruction of every cell is not immediate. Observe a skeleton. But when the procedure of abortion and dissection to get organs and tissues for ‘harvesting’ is initiated, the baby is alive.” I pushed him a bit: “Is it true that tissue samples for fetal cell lines, if they are to be successful, must be procured from living babies? Not recently deceased, but living at the time that tissue or organs are harvested?” His answer: “Baby is alive when dissected to get organs and tissues.”
When I observed that medical terminology can be very confusing. Byrne responded drily, “The devil sows confusion. He is the father of lies, after all.”
Dr. Keith Crutcher, Professor of Neurosurgery at the University of Cincinnati, addressed the topic in 1993:
It is important to recognize that the fetus, or the desired organ, must be living to serve as a useful tissue donor. However there is some disagreement about the term ‘living.’ The traditional biological definition includes the concepts of metabolism, growth, respiration, etc. Certainly, prior to the abortion, the fetus meets all these criteria. The suitability of fetal tissue for transplantation depends on the manner in which it is obtained. The ideal tissue is that obtained from an intact living fetus.ii
The statement by Herranz highlighted what Acker calls the “calculated” nature of abortion for tissue donation. Prostaglandin abortion, introduced in the early 1970s, has generally replaced hysterotomy –the “mini-C section”—as the “ideal” method for fetal tissue harvesting. In fact, the use of prostaglandin to induce labor revolutionized the field of fetal tissue donation. First viewed as “the dreaded complication,” researchers soon realized the birth of a live baby following prostaglandin abortion was actually expedient: “With prostaglandins,” stated geneticist and pediatrician Dr. Kurt Hirschhorn in 1973, “you can arrange the whole abortion, so [the fetus] comes out viable in the sense that it can survive hours, or a day” (National Observer, April 21, 1973).
Feticides such as digoxin, commonly used in late term abortions, are typically not employed when fetal tissue is to be used for research because they cause “abnormal cell morphology, poor cell viability and variable RNA quality,”iii limiting tissue’s research value. In an email to the FDA’s Dr. Kristina Howard concerning fetal tissue for humanized mice research, Advanced Bioscience Resources’ Perrin Larton complains “this week we had four 21 week cases that all had been injected with digoxin on Wednesday so the tissue is unusable.”iv
Acker was criticized for stating unequivocally that abortions for fetal tissue procurement take place by C-section. The point remains: what she described is standard procedure, described repeatedly in scientific reports. Hysterotomy, induced abortion, or D&X (Dilation and Extraction)v , which is also described by euphemisms such as “dilation” and “real-time ultrasound visualization”, share the objective of delivering an intact fetus with fresh organs.
It could be argued that in a D&X abortion organs are not removed while the infant is alive. True, D&X, also known as partial birth abortion, skirts infanticide by killing the baby while he or she is still partially in the birth canal. However, as with other abortions for vital organ retrieval, the D&X abortion is an integral part of the tissue retrieval process, so much so that the fetus can be said to be killed by the harvesting process itself.
This would also apply to the most commonly used method of second trimester abortionvi, Dilation and Evacuation (D&E), also known as dismemberment abortion. While considered less than ideal for organ procurement—for obvious reasons—it is nonetheless used. The reason is simple: it is very rare for an abortionist to “induce fetal demise” before performing a D&E. And in the words of fetal tissue supplier James Bardsley, “we need tissue that is fairly fresh. We have to process the tissue within minutes of the time of death.”vii
According to legislative findings in a law drafted by the Bioethics Defense Fund (BDF):
The harvesting of organs, tissues and cells from unborn children whose deaths are directly caused by induced abortion violate the dead donor rule … because (a) the unborn children are alive when the fetal repositioning and crushing point decisions are being made by the abortion provider with the goal of procuring intact fetal heart, lungs, livers, brains and other tissues and organs; and (b) the repositioning of the fetus and crushing above and below the thorax to procure intact fetal organs, tissues and cells is itself the cause of death of the human being from whom the organs are then harvested.viii
BDF’s Vice President, Dorinda Bordlee, urged me to research dismemberment abortion more thoroughly, as a particularly brutal example of calculated abortion for fetal tissue harvesting. When I did, I was chagrined to read Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s graphic description: “The fetus, in many cases, dies just as a human adult or child would: it bleeds to death as it is torn … limb from limb.” Kennedy added that the fetal heartbeat could sometimes be seen via ultrasound “with extensive parts of the fetus removed.”ix
To spell it out in gruesome detail: fetal organs for research (i.e. transplant into humanized mice, or cell culture for cell line creation) may also be obtained from living fetuses who are aborted by D&E (dismemberment abortion). The abortion process is arranged so as not to damage the desired organs.
This is where fetal cell lines come from. We must not let our revulsion draw a mental veil over the horrific details, to the detriment of our understanding.
Parallels to organ transplantation
Returning to the principle of live cells from living bodies, a look at organ transplantation helps to connect the dots. Tissue and organs for research are susceptible to the same factors that impact organs for transplantation: namely donor health, viability of organs and transit time from donor to lab or recipient.x
The issues involved in vital organ transplantation are so complex that vital organs are generally retrieved from brain dead donors whose hearts are still beating. Now consider organ donation from donors who meet the traditional definition of death: DCD (Donor after Cardiac Death) donors. Medical literature teems with discussion of organ donation from DCD donors: it is not a simple issue; either medically or ethically. Indeed, nothing about organ retrieval for science or transplantation is simple. The window in which to retrieve vital organs from DCD donors after withdrawal from life support is extremely narrow; the procedure requires a great deal of preparation and precise timing, too complex to detail here. In short, the patient is prepped for surgery when life support is withdrawn, and the operating team is poised, eyes on the clock, to remove vital organs within minutes of cardiac death.
Because of the controversy surrounding HEK 293, let’s take a look at kidney donation in particular. Among vital organs, the kidney has a broader window of viability pre-research or transplant. However, to say that a kidney can survive for an extended period of time outside the body is not to say that it can remain in a non-heart-beating cadaver for an extended period of time and still be viable for transplant. On the contrary, the kidney must be harvested within just a few minutes after cardiac death, and steps must be taken to preserve it. Without any intervention, it begins to sustain ischemic injury caused by hypoxia (damage due to lack of oxygen) even before the heart stops beating completely.xi
Even tissue from non-vital organs, like the fetal retinas (from an 18 week old fetus) used for the PER.C6 cell line, must be harvested less than an hour postmortem if it is to survive in culture. It goes back to the principle enunciated by Dr. Paul Byrne:
After death there is ongoing destruction, disintegration, corruption of the remains of someone. It cannot be stopped. Organs, tissues and cells disintegrate at different rates….When an organ, tissue or cells are used for transplantation or tissue culture or replication, there is always a supply of oxygen as a life supporting necessity when the procedure is initiated and right up close to the time of obtaining the organ tissue or cells …xii
For our purposes, we must suppose that the infant delivered alive after abortion is equivalent to the DCD donor. However, it is naïve to think that the same standard of care applies to the tiny human non-person, the abortus. Therefore we must admit a likely scenario in which organs are rapidly extracted from a still living baby.
“You’re not dead until you’re warm and dead”
During my research, I sometimes found myself re-tracing others’ steps. A number of pro-life researchers have carefully documented the use of pre-viable, live fetuses in research. Although it was tempting to rely solely on their research, I sought out original sources whenever possible.
This approach paid off when I tried to track down an oft-cited quote from Australian immunologist and bio-ethicist Peter McCullagh. McCullagh’s 1987 book The Foetus as Transplant Donor is out of print and almost impossible to find. I had despaired of finding it when a friend unearthed a copy for me.
Ironically, I never found the quote in question. However, McCullagh’s impeccably researched book confirmed many of my conclusions, starting with the parallels between organ transplantation and vaccine research. He recounts the history of fetal tissue use in vaccine research, outlines the use of prostaglandin abortion and hysterotomy to obtain fresh tissue for cell culture, and documents the use of live, pre-viable infants in research. McCullagh finds it suspicious that scientific reports do not detail what happens to the live born fetus “between expulsion and experimentation,” when “survival of the foetus after hysterotomy… could reasonably be expected to be of the order of hours rather than seconds.”xiii
Then McCullagh goes a step further. Pre-viable babies, he says, have a unique tolerance to hypothermia. In addition, “the vital signs of the foetus ex utero are much more susceptible to external influences than are vital signs in adults of the same species.” And:
Any cooling of the foetus … will tend to curtail deterioration of fetal tissues. It will also … decrease the detectability of any vital signs that were in evidence at the time of delivery. It may not be unreasonable to suggest that, under some circumstances, judicious cooling of a prospective donor (perhaps as a result of ‘benign neglect’) could conveniently fulfil a double intent.xiv
In other words, cooling–even such as might occur in the delivery room—suppresses the infant’s vital signs, yet, by the same token, prolongs its life.
McCullagh cites a 1961 study in which 23 pre-viable aborted infants were studied under various temperatures. At normal body temperature (37 degrees Celsius) the infants survived about 3 hours. However, reducing the body temperature to 4 degrees Celsius “increased the survival time by a further 1-2 hours.” xv
As I read this, I remembered Acker’s statement, “the baby was not dead when they put it in the refrigerator.” I could still hear the slightly exasperated tone of her voice. She had just read to me from a 1952 paper on the cultivation of the polio virus, describing fetuses of 12 to 18 weeks gestation, aborted, then stored for later dissection. I understood now why she was so certain:
Whenever possible the embryo was removed from the amniotic sac under sterile precautions, transferred to a sterile towel and kept at 5 C until dissected; usually dissection was carried out 1 to 3 hours after hysterotomy, but on one occasion virus was successfully propagated in tissues from an embryo that had been stored in toto for 24 hours at 5 C. xvi
The difficulty of determining death in a pre-viable infant brings to mind the emergency room axiom “You’re not dead until you’re warm and dead.” Coupled with the temptation to prolong life for research purposes, as suggested in the quote above, it forms McCullagh’s most compelling argument against fetal tissue harvesting.
It is a serious likelihood that fetal tissue extraction occurs more often than not while the infant abortion survivor is alive. This is based on evidence of past practice as documented in scientific papers, and on the conditions necessary for successful cell culture or organ donation. Add to this the pre-viable infant’s unique response to ambient temperature, and one has a complex situation that cannot, in good conscience, be ignored.
The myth of immortality
My conversation with Acker and ensuing research had changed many of my assumptions. Yet, given that some fetal cell lines, including HEK 293, are immortal, can we assume their use will not increase demand for new tissue? Could it actually decrease demand? Once one gets past the circumstances surrounding the cell line’s creation, it is reassuring to think that the regrettable event will not re-occur.
It’s important to note that many vaccines are derived from human fetal cell lines that are not immortal. Common vaccines for polio, MMR, chickenpox and others are derived from WI-38 and MRC-5, neither of which are immortal, although they can admittedly produce an almost unlimited number of cells from a single source.
Regarding the so-called immortalized cell lines, Acker says the term “immortal” is misleading:
Although these cells are called ‘immortalized’, an immortal cell line is not immortal, although it has an indefinite life span: a longer life span than primary cell cultures. If you take cells directly out of me and you don’t immortalize them, they’ll live in a petri dish for a short amount of time. If you immortalize them, they’ll live for a large number of cell cultures, but they won’t live forever. They will eventually die and you will no longer be able to sub-culture them. And at that point you will need another cell line.
Regarding HEK 293, used in the production of vaccines and a myriad of other products, Acker says “it was a particularly successful immortalization. Some [cell lines] have longer life spans than others, just like some human beings have longer life spans than others…. This happened to have been a very successful one.”
Although many take the concept of cell line “immortality” at face value, scientists acknowledge that the term is not literal. Cell biologist and vaccine pioneer Leonard Hayflick (responsible for the WI-38 human fetal cell strain), admitted that “alleged ‘immortal’ cell lines, like HeLa, that have been cultivated continuously for decades, but never studied as isolate cultures, cannot be assumed to be immortal.”xvii He continued “A more recent assumption of immortality has been assumed for embryonic stem cells, yet proof that these cells can be propagated continuously for years, with retention of normal properties, even in the absence of genetic recombination, has yet to be demonstrated.” And both types of cell lines, says Acker, can “accumulate mutations after replicating in vitro over time.”
Thus there is a continued demand for human fetal cell lines, both finite and immortalized. “As long as we continue to use aborted fetal cells in vaccines,” Acker predicts, “that will contribute to a demand for additional aborted fetal cell lines. People who say that it will not, are speaking out of naiveté of the science involved.”
To illustrate, Acker points to a new human fetal cell line. Walvax-2, created in China because of the age and diminishing supply of the MRC-5 cell line, involved nine abortions. Ultimately, a baby girl of three months’ gestation supplied the cells. Induction of labor was used to provide an intact fetus. Research literature notes that induction of labor was used and the “tissues from the freshly aborted fetuses were immediately sent to the laboratory for the preparation of the cells.” xviii
The abortion industry and its allies confidently anticipate greater demand for fetal tissue: “Scientists are confident that fetal tissue is key to more preventive medicine, new vaccines and identifying treatments for today’s most devastating conditions; research continues, and its course is impacted by global health threats.” That statement seems prophetic in light of today’s pandemic. It is from the 2016 amici curiae brief in the National Abortion Federation’s suit against David Daleiden’s Center for Medical Progress.xix
Re-inventing the wheel and ethical alternatives
Catholics have grappled with the issue of vaccines derived from human fetal cell lines for decades. Yet ethical alternatives are still pitifully few.
Acker attributes this partly to reliance on trial and error. “When you do vaccine research, there’s no standard formula for how to go about creating a vaccine. You’re not establishing, if you will, the first principles of medical research. You’re just trying something to see if it works. If something works in an aborted fetal cell line, then you’d better use an aborted fetal cell line, because that’s worked before. Using ethically sourced cell lines often means reinventing the wheel. It makes no sense, from a secular researcher’s perspective.”
She feels there is another reason as well. Years ago, as a researcher facing an ethical dilemma, Church documents—in particular 2008’s Dignitas Personae—gave her clear guidance. “The Church was very clear in Dignitas Personae that researchers cannot use these cells. It’s not complicated. It’s right there.” She thinks recent Vatican statements are less helpful:
That is one of the primary problems with some of the recent statements on vaccines by the Vatican: they are not addressing the people who can actually make the change; they’re just trying to provide some guidance to the average Catholic sitting in the pew. It’s a band-aid solution, because when the average Catholic quietly accepts the use of these vaccines, and then makes some kind of verbal or written protest, their actions speak far louder than their words.
A singular opportunity
On the other hand, Acker sees today’s situation as a unique opportunity. Just a few years ago, the use of aborted fetal cells in vaccine production was hardly acknowledged. Today, it is finally getting attention. “The COVID vaccine has blown the lid off the aborted fetal cell industry. Now a lot of people who have never heard that there are aborted fetal cells in vaccines, are aware.” She says:
This is probably the vaccine that has gotten the most attention in terms of its manufacturing process, because it’s being manufactured as we watch, so to speak. Everybody has been waiting with bated breath for the vaccine that’s going to end the lockdowns and the pandemic. Prior to this, you walked into a doctor’s office to get a vaccine …and you didn’t really think about where it came from. [As COVID-19 vaccines have been developed] there have been real time updates in terms of safety testing and efficacy testing: it’s all a lot more transparent. I think that’s really helpful. It’s making people aware that vaccine research is an area that has a lot of problems.
Acker also credits the efforts of organizations like Children of God for Life, which has been sounding the alarm about vaccine production since 1999. In the past few months we have become accustomed to reading about fetal cell lines, in both the religious and secular press. Yet, until recently, pro-life voices claiming that vaccines are derived from fetal cell lines were dismissed as crazy scaremongers. Not surprisingly, those who suspect the story goes even deeper are also dismissed.
Although many products besides vaccines rely on fetal cell lines, today’s situation is unique in that one product is being urged on the entire population. In an industry that typically has few competitors, dozens of COVID-19 vaccines are currently being produced, more are in development, and booster vaccines are on the horizon. Ultimately the vaccine industry, like every other industry, is about making money. If the consumer pushes back, vaccine manufacturers will listen. We have an opportunity to effect change. But if moral pronouncements are designed to soothe consciences rather than register informed moral outrage, the vaccine industry can be forgiven for ignoring them.
The Noonday Devil
Acknowledging the more horrifying aspects of fetal research helps us wake up both intellectually and emotionally. What motivates Acker is that “people are so desensitized to the intrinsic horror of abortion.” We need to look honestly at the vaccine industry’s longstanding, unscrupulous relationship with abortion, at its continued dependence on aborted fetal tissue, and at the barbarous methods commonly used to procure that tissue. We need to keep asking questions.
A few weeks ago, our parish priest gave a sermon on acedia—indifference, sometimes called the “noonday devil.” To lull us into midday slumber, he said, the devil sometimes leaves us to our own devices. He skulks around behind the scenes, letting us go along in untroubled oblivion. Because when good people come face to face with real evil, it snaps them out of their indifference. And that’s the last thing the devil wants.
That’s why, for the devil’s purposes, it’s important that we distance ourselves emotionally, phrase by carefully chosen phrase: Historic fetal cell lines. Two elective abortions. Thousands of generations removed. Ancient cell lines. Fetal cell lines, not fetal tissue. Aborted voluntarily. Remote and indirect connection. Distantly linked.
If we were to pause and actively confront and acknowledge the reality of the grave evil that has so often purchased our vaccines, it might change everything.
I understand those who do not wish to place a burden of guilt on those who are at grave risk from Coronavirus. However, those who can make their voices heard—namely bishops, bioethicists, moral theologians—should be posing questions and waving the red flag when it comes to the vaccine/abortion partnership. We should be enraged and embarrassed that the scientific establishment has conducted often unthinkable research, right under our noses, for almost a century.
And we should be afraid, very afraid, to join the company of those who, in the words of Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, “professionally guide the unthinkable on its passage through the debatable on its way to becoming the justifiable until it is finally established as the unexceptionable.”
i Pietro Croce, Vivisection or Science, pp. 99-108, Zed books, 2000.
iii Noah Gimbel, “Fetal Tissue Research and Abortion: Conscription, Commodification, and the Future of Choice”, Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, Vol. 40, Winter 2012.
iv Edie Heipel, “Federal Government Caught Buying ‘Fresh’ Flesh Of Aborted Babies Who Could Have Survived As Preemies”, The Federalist, April 15, 2021.
vii G. Kolata, “Miracle or Menace?”, Redbook, Sept. 1990.
viii Dorinda Bordlee, “Post-Abortion Organ Harvesting Ban: BDF Model Bill Enacted,”(June 23, 2016).
x McCarthy, Janine, Edward LeCluyse, Sharon Presnell, Gina Dunne Smith, Timothy L. Pruett, Ann Lam, Elizabeth Baker, Thomas Buersmeyer, and Kristie Sullivan, “Increasing the Availability of Quality Human Tissue for Research”, ALTEX – Alternatives to Animal Experimentation Vol. 37, No.4, 2020
xi Luciano De Carlis, Riccardo De Carlis, Paolo Muiesan, “Past, Present and Future of Donation after Circulatory Death in Italy”, March 12, 2019.
xii Peng-Yi Zhou, Guang-Hua Peng, Haiwei Xu, Zheng Qin Yin, “c-Kit+ cells isolated from human fetal retinas represent a new population of retinal progenitor cells”, Journal of Cell Science, 2015.
xiii Peter J. McCullagh, The Foetus as Transplant Donor: Scientific, Social and Ethical Perspectives. John Wiley and Sons, 1987.
xiv Ibid., p. 115
xvi Thomas H. Weller, John F. Enders, Frederick C. Robbins and Marguerite B. Stoddard; “Studies on the Cultivation of Poliomyelitis Viruses in Tissue Culture: I. The Propagation of Poliomyelitis Viruses in Suspended Cell Cultures of Various Human Tissue”; Journal of Immunology, 1952.
xviii Bo Ma, et al, “Characteristics and Viral Propagation Properties of a New Human Diploid Cell Line, Walvax-2, and its suitability as a candidate cell substrate for vaccine production”, College of Life Sciences, Wuhan University, 2015.
xix Amici curiae brief in support of the National Abortion Federation’s suit against David Daleiden, the Center for Medical Progress, Biomax Procurement Services, LLC, and Troy Newman and the Center for Medical Progress, June 7, 2016.
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