Respect Life Month
More than just a simple shot in the arm
Vaccines' history offers warning for our path on stem cell research
By Patricia Kasten
Compass Associate Editor
It's just a shot, right?
What does a vaccine -- an immunization we give children against disease -- have in common with embryonic stem cell research?
According to Pres. George W. Bush, while the two share a common goal -- health benefit -- they also share a common background -- destruction of human life.
In an op-ed piece in The New York Times defending his decision to fund limited embryonic stem cell research, the president pointed out that "the only licensed live chickenpox vaccine used in the United States was developed, in part, from research involving human embryos. Researchers first grew the virus in embryonic lung cell..." (Aug. 12, 2001).
The president is correct that human cell lines were used in vaccine development; however, they were not embryonic cells, but fetal cells.
Specifically, many vaccines used today are derived from tissues of two fetuses aborted in the 1960s -- a male, aged 14 weeks, and a female, aged 3 months. They are known as MRC-5 and Wi-38 respectively, named for the research companies that successfully developed the cell lines: Wistar (a research center at the University of Pennsylvania) and the Medical Research Council in London. Vaccines developed from these cell lines include measles, chickenpox, and hepatitis A. (See sidebar article, "Human cells and vaccines"). For example, the rubella vaccine used in the U.S. is cultured on lung tissue from Wi-38.
Important to remember is that new vaccines are not made on new tissue from new abortions. Wi-38 and MRC-5 still provide the base. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control maintain these cell lines are so stable that "no new fetal tissue is needed to produce cell lines to make these vaccines, now or in the future." (CDC June 2000 fact sheet)
Yet the fact remains that two aborted fetuses are the basis for many common vaccines. Death used to save lives. And Pres. Bush is, in part, referring to Wi-38 and MRC-5 to justify proceeding with embryonic stem cell research. As a White House press spokesman said Aug. 9: "(T)he life-death decisions have already been made. And, much in the way, we approached various types of vaccines... where they've been created from fetal tissues... you still made good of them; you can use them and utilize them to help and to promote life."
Drawing parallels between the history of vaccine development and the current debate over embryonic stem cells raises interesting ethical questions. This is especially so since Wisconsin is at the heart of the debate: UW-Madison developed five of the roughly two dozen fully developed embryonic stem cell lines ready for research. These five cell lines are also the first approved (on Sept. 4) for use by government-funded researchers. In fact, early reports from U.S. Health and Human Services show that UW's cell lines may well be able to supply all the needs of all researchers.
Is it moral to use vaccines?
Both vaccines and embryonic stem cell research derive from a common source -- the death of human life at a very early stage of life. Such destruction is opposed by the Church.
"'Causing death' can never be considered a form of medical treatment,..." Pope John Paul II said in The Gospel of Life (1995). "(I)t runs completely counter to the healthcare profession, which is meant to be an impassioned and unflinching affirmation of life. Biomedical research, too, a field which promises great benefits for humanity, must always reject experimentation, research or applications which disregard the inviolable dignity of the human being" (no. 89).
Today, with some vaccines used in our country, there are no alternatives other than those developed from aborted fetuses. Therefore, some people refuse to use them on moral grounds.
The question about the moral use of vaccines came to a head in St. Louis in 1999, when food handlers were required to get the hepatitis A vaccine, one of those developed from fetal tissue. One ethicist who helped advise Catholics then was Fr. Edward Richard, professor of moral theology at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in nearby Shrewsbury. For him, the debate revolved around whether or not getting a vaccine meant that one was morally cooperating with abortion.
"There is no possible cooperation between using a vaccine and the abortion," Fr. Richard concluded. "How could there be?"
The point to remember, he says, is that vaccines are not bad. "A vaccine is not evil," he stresses, "even though it has an association to a moral evil (abortion)."
Fr. Richard hopes by realizing this association of vaccines with moral evil, people will be encouraged "to urge pharmaceutical companies to find alternatives."
Until then, the moral question patients today must keep in mind -- when they do not have those alternative vaccines -- is whether they have a morally sufficient reason to use these vaccines. Protecting their health, Fr. Richard says, "is a morally sufficient reason." In fact, it is a moral requirement.
Pres. Bush himself, in his op-ed piece, recognizes the moral dilemmas. "Many ethical and religious leaders agree" he wrote, "that even if the history of this vaccine raised ethical questions, its current use does not."
Do we know the circumstances?
Part of the key to this ethical conclusion about vaccines is our distance from those abortions in the 1960s. Both in time and circumstances. We really do not know the circumstances surrounding those abortions. Richard Doerflinger, assoc. director for policy development for the U.S. Bishops' Pro-life Secretariat, says, "I don't think that one can claim that the person who accepts a vaccine for themselves or their child is willing those abortions (which happened so long ago)."
But the moral connection, the moral taint, does remains.
"It must be remembered," Doerflinger adds, "that some people may make the moral decision to refuse a vaccine -- for themselves, since refusing to vaccinate their child endangers that child, something a person cannot morally do. But that decision is not morally required by the Catholic Church. Some Catholics may choose to refuse a vaccine (for themselves) as part of their moral convictions. That's an additional heroic act."
Any moral cooperation is further diluted, Doerflinger says, since we have no real alternatives in the case of many vaccines. For example, there are no alternative vaccines against hepatitis A, rubella or chickenpox approved for use in this country. So we are, in a way, forced to use them.
"And that's the dilemma we're trying to prevent now," Doerflinger adds, addressing embryonic stem cell research.
What he and others fear are the new moral questions we will have to face if they develop a cure derived from embryonic stem cells.
"Some say we should have done more in the 1960s (when these vaccines were being developed) and we wouldn't be where we are today," he says. "We have the opportunity to speak up now to see that that New World doesn't occur. In this case (stem cells), there are very promising research alternatives -- like adult stem cells and umbilical cord blood cells."
What's our intent?
Another point to remember when comparing vaccine development to embryonic stem cell research is our complicity in the events that cause death. While we don't know the circumstances behind Wi-38 and MRC-5 -- such as why the abortions happened and how researchers got possession of those tissues -- we do know exactly what's going on today.
"There are a lot of questions we can't answer about how the current users (of vaccine tissues) tied in to what happened at the time (the 1960s' abortions)," Fr. Richard says. "(However,) now people are deliberately choosing -- and will choose -- to destroy embryos to carry our research... There's no question that this is a moral evil."
John Huebscher, executive director of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, agrees that the connection to evil is far more direct with embryonic stem cell research today than with vaccine development.
"A lot of the research that happened in the past was largely accidental," Huebscher says. "Children were aborted, tissue was made available for research. What you've got now is a whole industry -- creation of life, destruction of life, research. It's conscious, deliberate destruction of human life... Here, it's a more personal connection. You know it's being used to benefit you directly."
So, with embryonic stem cell research, we directly face the question of moral cooperation. Federal funding of such research involves each of us more directly. And intimately, if any medical treatments derive from this research.
Where do our plans lead?
Doerflinger warns that our connection is far less morally remote than with vaccines. "It'll be like saying, 'Would I buy a heart from Dr. Kevorkian?' when Kevorkian had killed a patient for his heart," he says. (In June 1998, Dr. Kevorkian offered for sale the kidneys of Joseph Tushkowski, a 45-year-old Las Vegas quadriplegic in whose death he had assisted.)
A macabre connection? Or a realistic look at where our plans will lead?
Pres. Bush has pledged $250 million to all types of stem cell research. Several sources have noted that as much as $100 million of this could be earmarked for embryonic stem cell research.
Additionally, under the new federal funding, UW-Madison -- through the Wisconsin Alumni Research Fund (WARF), a non-profit group that manages its patents -- will share in those grant moneys.
"It's going to be tough in Wisconsin," says Fr. Kevin Fitzgerald, SJ, a geneticist and ethicist at Georgetown University. "The promise of the big bucks will be hard to argue with."
This implication disturbs many.
"Once this becomes a business enterprise and not a scientific one, it falls into the marketing value, the monetary value, question," says Dr. Paul Wadell, an ethics professor at St. Norbert College in De Pere, and a former instructor at the Catholic Theological Union, Chicago. "I don't like the assumption that we are the ones who determine the value of an embryo. It becomes a question of justifying your existence because you can serve us."
Heubscher agrees that Wisconsin's control over patented cell lines brings us a unique twist to the ethical questions of embryo stem cell research, one he describes as "rather unseemly."
"Did Dr. Salk, in developing the polo vaccine, speak of economic windfalls as widely as we do?" he asks. "I don't think so."
Taking a cold, hard look at the economic element present in the debate about embryonic stem cell research, paired with the fact that we know -- from the start -- about the use of human life for our own purposes, helps us understand the Church's stand against such research.
Vaccines may have many questions that make the question of ethical taint a bit blurred. With embryonic stem cells, the issue is much more clear.