A Pope, a Fetus, and a Vaccine

October 12, 2015

A seasoned pediatrician learns something new after a mother offers a moral defense against the Varivax vaccine for her son.

It sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, “A Pope, a fetus, and a vaccine walk into a bar and ...”  But as I found out one afternoon, there actually is a connection here.

I was finishing a12-month well child exam and started to talk about the recommended vaccines for that visit including the MMR and Varivax vaccines among others. Mom had not voiced any concerns about previous vaccines the child had received, but this encounter happened at the height of the MMR-autism connection fears in the early 2000’s so I was not surprised when she told me she did not want her child to receive the MMR. I was, however, a little taken aback when she also refused the Varivax. 

Given the political environment, I did not launch into my 10-minute refutation of the Wakefield study (the “soapbox” approach) but instead asked mom what her concerns were (the “motivational interview” approach). She said that she had heard from a fellow Catholic at her church that the MMR and Varivax vaccines were made with aborted fetal tissue and she did not feel morally comfortable using any vaccine made that way. I told mom that I was unaware of this fact and would get back to her. After a little research, I found that she was right. Seven vaccines today are indeed grown in cell lines obtained from two fetuses aborted in the 1960's for therapeutic reasons.

1. There are four vaccines in addition to MMR, Varivax, and Proquad (MMRV) that require fetal cell lines for production. Which of the following are they? (Please choose 4)


B. Hep A

C. Hep B

D. Rabies

E. Zovirax


For answer, discussion, and next question, please click here.

Answer: B. Hep A; D. Rabies; E. Zovirax; and F. IPV.

Only one form of IPV that is in Pentacel is grown in cultured human fetal fibroblast lines. Not surprisingly, these are all viral vaccines which require cells to grow. Also not surprisingly, human viruses grow better in human cells than animal cells. No new fetal tissue has been used since the fetal lines do not die out. Nor were these two elective abortions performed with the intent to obtain tissue for culture and study.


2. The official position of the Catholic Church on this matter is:

A. An official statement/policy has not been issued.

B. The Church is opposed to the use of any vaccines derived from aborted fetal tissue.

C. The Church says that the decision not to use these vaccines is morally worse than the decision to use these vaccines.

D. The Church considers it a sin to use these vaccines, but a sin that is easily forgiven since these parents are doing what is best for their child and society.

For answer and discussion, please click here.

Answer: C. The Church says that the decision not to use these vaccines is morally worse than the decision to use these vaccines.

Under Pope Benedict XVI in 2005 a statement was issued saying that parents who chose not to use vaccines made in aborted fetal tissue would be in “more proximate cooperation with evil” than parents who chose to protect their children and society with the use of vaccines.  Other Catholic organizations including the National Catholic Bioethics Center and United States Conference of Catholic Bishops agree that while a moral transgression occurred more than 50 years ago, the greater good is to use these vaccines today.

When I shared this information with the mother, she agreed to go ahead and get all the recommended vaccines.  So as it turns out, a Pope, a fetus, and a vaccine were not the beginning of a bad joke but instead a kind of trinity that continues to save thousands of lives around the world every year.


 â–º Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared from Cells from Aborted Human Fetuses. Sacred Congregation of the Doctrine of Faith. 2005.

 â–º Consenting to vaccination for Rubella.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 1994.

 â–º Human Fetal Links with Some Vaccines. National Network for Immunization Information. 2008.