Photo credit: Pan American Health Organization PAHO on Visual Hunt / CC BY-NC

“Am I My Brother’s Keeper?”

“Can I ethically immunize my kids with a vaccine that has been produced using cells from an aborted baby?” The caller asking the question seemed to be sincere. During Stand to Reason’s call-in podcast, the questions vary widely—the nature of God, evangelism, ethics—and host Greg Koukl does a great job thinking on his feet and

by Amy Givler, MD, FAAFP
Amy Givler, MD, FAAFP

“Can I ethically immunize my kids with a vaccine that has been produced using cells from an aborted baby?”

The caller asking the question seemed to be sincere. During Stand to Reason’s call-in podcast, the questions vary widely—the nature of God, evangelism, ethics—and host Greg Koukl does a great job thinking on his feet and applying a biblical worldview. Still, I cringed when I heard the questioner was asking about vaccines. If there was ever a subject that divides Christians, it is vaccination.

I am familiar with the caller’s qualms. Several vaccines are produced using one of two cell lines that came originally from the lungs of aborted fetuses. The first time I learned of this was many years ago, when a Christian friend posted on Facebook that she was miserable with the flu. “I’ll bet you wish you had gotten the flu shot!” I commented.

I was not prepared for the flood of negative replies from friends of hers, which included a woman who insisted vaccines were just chopped up aborted babies. That seemed so outrageous that I did some research, and then I tried to explain about “cell lines” and that those two children, who died in the 1960s, were not aborted for the purpose of obtaining their tissue. And besides, the flu shot wasn’t made that way. I’ve always been enthusiastic about vaccines as I much prefer preventing a disease to treating it, so I stayed in the discussion. But I stopped replying when it deteriorated into name-calling and a questioning of my salvation.

In the years since, I’ve continued to discuss vaccination, write about it and make comments on Facebook posts, but only when I have the emotional energy to handle the inevitable mudslinging.

Yet the caller in the Stand to Reason podcast wasn’t being contentious. He was genuinely looking for an ethical opinion from someone who has thought through countless ethical issues. The tone of the ensuing conversation, in which Greg Koukl echoed many of my thoughts on the subject, was civil and logical. Maybe future vaccine debates would be rational. It was like a fresh breeze entering a musty room.

I’ve long thought that this particular issue of using cell lines that came from aborted babies to produce vaccines is something that thinking Christians could legitimately disagree on. But my conversations with people who are refusing vaccinations are so seldom civil and logical that I am reluctant to bring up another debatable issue.

Back in 2005, the Vatican produced a statement in response to a concerned Catholic who asked about this issue. The Vatican said that in cases where an alternate vaccine is not available, the use of these vaccines is acceptable if “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.” But the statement also stresses the need to advocate for alternate vaccine production that doesn’t use the morally questionable cell lines. Though I’m not Catholic, I appreciate the statement’s coherent reasoning.

Are such alternative vaccines—vaccines not made with fetal cell lines—available? Yes, and all but two of those vaccines are licensed by the FDA, and thus obtainable in the U.S. The two not available here are the Hepatitis A and the rubella vaccines. The Kitasato Institute in Japan makes these two vaccines in cell lines derived from animal organs, but since they are not licensed by the FDA, a patient would have to travel to Japan to obtain them. That would be pricey, but that would be a way to satisfy one’s conscience while protecting one’s own health and the health of the public.

Though I deplore the loss of human life that led to the development of the fetal cell lines now in use, my conscience doesn’t tell me it’s wrong to use them to develop vaccines. The abortions were wrong, but they weren’t done in order to make the cell lines, and so the vaccine production is not morally complicit with the evil of the abortion. But—and here is why this is a subject worth revisiting as time goes by—I am troubled by China’s recent development of a third fetal cell line intending to make vaccines.

What is it about vaccination that sparks polarization and strong emotion? Why would any parent hesitate for a moment to protect their child from diseases that killed or maimed so many millions over the course of history? These were questions I truly didn’t know the answer to until the day I sat in my pediatrician’s office with my precious 2-month-old firstborn. I looked at her intact skin and felt nauseous and repulsed that a nurse would soon walk in with a needle to puncture that creamy softness and my baby would cry. She was about to experience pain I could have prevented. Though I’d been a pro-vaccine family physician for two years by then, my response was visceral. That was the day I stopped being flippant and dismissive of parents who questioned vaccination.

I still urge my patients to be fully immunized because what the good vaccines do is far greater than the harm. In fact, unless I include “clean water” under the umbrella of medical care, I think vaccination is the best thing we do in medicine. It has saved the most lives. And what is the harm in vaccination? Anaphylaxis, though rare, is certainly the most dangerous. But otherwise, not much. The Institute of Medicine’s extensive review of 2011 could find no clear evidence linking any other adverse events to vaccines in a causal relationship. This was the product of 18 medical experts examining 12,000 peer-reviewed articles for more than two years.

But this kind of thinking—considering risk-benefit analyses by experts—is the road we as healthcare professionals walk on every day, and it is not often the path our patients travel. When I first became a mother, I grasped this implicitly. Before, I was only responsible for myself with my health decisions. Now I had another life to think about, and I was willing to sacrifice my comfort for hers. So introducing something that might harm her—no matter how slight the possibility—seemed unacceptable. I had to reason with myself on an intellectual level to get past my emotional reluctance.

In On Immunity, Eula Biss writes on the struggles so many mothers have with vaccination with clarity and a poet’s touch. A mother herself, she acknowledges the fear she feels knowing about all of the dangers her son could potentially face. She writes, “As mothers, we must somehow square our power with our powerlessness. We can protect our children to some extent. But we cannot make them invulnerable any more than we can make ourselves invulnerable” (p. 152).

For any parent who is struggling to think through the conflicting information on the internet and is trying to make a loving choice, I highly recommend On ImmunityVoices for Vaccines is another resource, and it is a website written by parents and for parents, providing accurate and understandable information. And for any patient, or healthcare professional for that matter, seeking information on any iota of minutiae about vaccines, I recommend Immunization Action Coalition’s excellent and comprehensive website.

As a nation, the U.S. has a stake in encouraging a healthy population. An epidemic sweeping through a country leads to economic consequences in addition to the suffering of the citizenry and the loss of life. But there is no federal compulsory vaccination law. The U.S. leaves it up to the individual states. Vaccination is a requirement for school entry in every state, though which vaccines, and for which ages or school level, varies widely by state. Immunization Action Coalition has compiled that information, a daunting task.

All U.S. states allow medical exemptions for school immunization requirements. A total of 18 states allow “philosophical exemptions,” though the definition of “philosophical” is not uniform. Almost all states allow religious exemptions, though there’s a difference between Connecticut, which requires an annual notarized statement detailing the religious objections for each child, and most other states, which often only ask a parent to check a box on a school entry form. This summer California joined West Virginia and Mississippi as the only three states not allowing any religious or philosophical exemptions.

Though Americans tend to see themselves as independent individuals, the fact is that we are all interconnected. One family’s decision not to vaccinate, when multiplied by a critical number, puts the most vulnerable among us in jeopardy. Eula Biss puts this well:

“One of the mercies of immunity produced by vaccination is that a small number of people can forgo vaccination without putting themselves or others at greatly increased risk. But the exact number of people this might be—the threshold at which herd immunity is lost and the risk of disease rises dramatically for both the vaccinated and the unvaccinated—varies depending on the disease and the vaccine and the population in question. We know the threshold, in many cases, only after we’ve exceeded it” (On Immunity, p. 122).

Much of the rest of the world—now, and throughout history—has an easier time than Americans in thinking of themselves as a part of a community, a tribe, a group. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians expounds on the importance of the body of Christ to the individual members, as well as the importance of the individual members to each other. Even though he is talking about the church as a whole, I think it is applicable to all larger societies. “For the body does not consist of one member but of many…If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together” (1 Corinthians 12:14,26, ESV).

After Cain killed his brother Abel, God asked Cain where his brother was. “He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’” (Genesis 4:9b, ESV). Cain was asking a rhetorical question, the answer being “no.” He was assuming, or maybe hoping, God didn’t know what he had just done. Cain was saying, essentially, that he was only responsible for himself. But even without the fratricide, the answer to Cain’s question is plain. The answer is “yes.”

We are our brothers’ keepers.

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14 Comments

  1. Avatar Bryan Stoudt on July 27, 2016 at 10:40 am

    Thanks for this thoughtful, balanced post, Dr Givler. As a parent of a son with autism, we faced this issue early and often, deciding to vaccinate for reasons similar to those you share above.

  2. Avatar Autumn Dawn Galbreath on August 27, 2016 at 10:39 am

    Excellent, thorough, and thoughtful. I, too, have had many uncivil conversations on this topic. It’s difficult to continue engaging on a topic that can elicit such a hostile response. Thanks for the great information and thoughtful conclusions!

  3. Avatar Jjm on February 15, 2017 at 10:39 am

    There are number of things in this article I take issue with but I think the worst is the latter part and much decision not to vaccinate is framed as a hit against herd immunity. That is that my decision to vaccinate, hurts you. I find this especially troublesome because reality is you’re not going to take care of my kids that have had Adverse Events. We have an establishment that basically refuses to take him on any responsibility for any possibility of Adverse Events. In fact I’ve never met a colleague who allowed even the possibility that vaccines could be detrimental even in an individual scenario. I recall being hung out to dry by hospital administrator for refusing to get live flu vaccine to a patient dying of lung cancer. I find these discussions disheartening; it’s so polarizing there’s no middle ground . It is the medical equivalent of creationism vs darwinistic atheism. Bummer

    • Avatar Stephanie Zee Fehler on July 16, 2019 at 11:51 am

      Dr Plotkin, under deposition, about the scope of babies used. this article seems facile, and maybe deliberately naive, considering the wealth of information available from publicly available medical journals.

  4. Avatar cadcoke5 on August 27, 2017 at 10:38 am

    People who are against the use of aborted children this way, are not generally opposed to the use of body parts from crime victims, for things like transplantation.

    However, the current approach to vaccines, is comparable to going to ISIS for organs to transplant. ISIS has announced that it is permissible to sell organs from their victims. They are going to die anyway. Is is morally acceptable to do business with them? If you feel that it is not, are you willing to accept the fact that around half of those needing a transplant to live will die waiting for that transplant? But, for some reason I have not read about a rush to accept ISIS’ offer by the medical community.

    You are mistaken about the current cell line being from some children killed in the ’60s. Cell lines are not immortal and must be refreshed periodically. Later lines have also been “harvested” by people approved to practice medicine, and the medical establishment has approved their work. The spirit of ISIS is alive and well, within much of the medical community.

  5. Avatar Shannon on February 26, 2019 at 10:53 am

    Are you your brother’s keeper for the thousands of children who have died or received life-long neurological injuries from vaccines? President Ronald Reagan hesitantly signed the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Act in 1986, which basically removed all liability from the vaccine makers, granted them immunity, and pushed any civil action to a “vaccine court”. The fund is paid for by an excise tax added to each vaccine dose, paid for by tax payers. Also, it’s a no-fault system, so vaccine makers don’t have to admit their product caused an injury. This is unjust!! Since then, manufacturers can push vaccines on infants with minimal testing. Vaccine manufacturers should be pressured to make safer, more ethically sourced vaccines. FYI, you claim that only “two aborted fetus” were used in the manufacturing of the vaccines, but that is false. Read the actual RESEARCH DOCUMENTATION on the creation of the vaccines. A total of over 80 separate, elective abortions were involved in the research and final production of the current MMR rubella vaccine: 21 from the original WI-1 through WI-26 fetal cell lines that failed, plus WI-38 itself, plus 67 from the attempts to isolate the rubella virus. The mothers consent and researchers have to be present during the abortion to collect the fetuses. Pharmaceutical companies continue to buy licensing rights on new fetal cell lines (i.e. new abortions). The MMR (measles, mumps, rubella), Chickenpox, and Hepatitis A vaccines all use cells from aborted infants. Cell lines don’t last forever, and pharmaceutical companies are already researching on new aborted fetuses. My dear sister, please update your article with the TRUTH!

    • Avatar Geraldine Holguin on April 6, 2019 at 1:54 pm

      I’m appalled by this article. I can expect it and stomach it if it were written by a person who has no fear of God but since it was written through the lens of a believer, it breaks my heart. The approach that you have taken is to justify something that should be black and white for believers. The fact that these abortions took place 40 or 60 years ago does not make it any less immoral and wicked.

      I stand with you Shannon, I too have done my research and it is clear that it was not only 2 aborted fetuses that were dissected in order to obtain the very cell lines that were acquired for the many (DTap-IPV/Hib (pentacel), Hep A (Havrix & Vaqta), Hep A/Hep B (Twinrix), MMR (II & ProQuad), Varicella (Varivax), Zoster (Shingles) vaccines we use today. I can imagine how difficult it may be to come to grips with the fact that the very techniques that are used in medicine today are darker than they were decades ago. But there is an entire community of brave doctors, scientist, CDC members, lawyers, former pharmaceutical representatives, journalist, and thousands of parents joining forces to expose the truth about vaccines.

      This article was helpful in revealing the power of distorted views. Dr. Amy you have a great responsibility to your medical board and governmental officials but don’t forget that your responsibility is far greater to our father in heaven and misleading an entire flock (having knowledge of God) has eternal consequences.

    • Avatar Neville Newman on June 9, 2019 at 1:19 am

      Shannon, could you post more details from your research about aborted fetal cell lines involved in vaccination research/production, especially ongoing licensing and procurement of aborted fetal tissue for these purposes. I have family members to whom I would like to provide this information. If you cannot post it here, then please suggest another means of contact.

  6. Avatar Amy Givler on March 20, 2019 at 5:23 pm

    Here is an excellent article by Gene Rudd that speaks to this exact issue.
    https://cmda.org/article/is-vaccination-complicit-with-abortion/

  7. Avatar Amy Givler on June 18, 2019 at 6:34 pm

    Here is an article from Christian Coalition which speaks to the morality of vaccines, particularly for Christians.
    https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/what-christians-should-know-vaccines/

  8. Avatar Eldon Martin on August 14, 2019 at 8:43 am

    Thanks for the well-thought out article on this issue. Here is the line that stood out to me “But—and here is why this is a subject worth revisiting as time goes by—I am troubled by China’s recent development of a third fetal cell line intending to make vaccines.” That is the main reason why I’ve come out on the side of refusing vaccinations that use fetal cell lines, even when no alternatives are available. If everyone accepts these vaccinations, then there will be no reason for medical researchers to seek out more ethical cell lines in the future. If all believers would simply be unified in refusing vaccines from abortion-derived cell lines, the medical community would quickly obtain FDA approval for ethical alternatives, and would be wise enough never to use fetal cell lines again.

  9. Avatar Maria Copenhagen on October 17, 2019 at 10:28 am

    Restore Ye to Its Owners: on the immorality of receiving vaccines derived from abortion by Fr. Michael Copenhagen
    “Take heed lest perhaps it be stolen: restore ye to its owners, for it is not lawful for us to eat or to touch anything that cometh by theft.” -Tobit 2:21
    Such is the warning given by the just man Tobit, who suffered mockery, persecution, and tribulation at the hands of his own people because he sought to keep God’s law, to alone refuse idolatry and corruption in an evil age. He insisted on honoring God and neighbor by burying the dead at a time when the desecration of their remains was the state mandate. For this great deed, he was forced to flee and placed under a sentence of death. Holy Scripture relates this account because burying the dead is more than just a corporal work of mercy, it is a grave obligation so that the creature whom the Creator loves so much, fashioned after his own image and likeness, is not abandoned at the wayside to be disfigured and dishonored while the rest of us callously step over his remains to go about our daily commerce. Was not the dignity of the human body and soul elevated still more after the time of Tobit when our nature was assumed by the Son of God who took flesh of the Virgin and came in our likeness that we might be irreversibly elevated above the angels? Tobit’s predicament stemmed from honoring human nature and its Creator, and Tobit’s predicament now belongs to those who refuse vaccines made from aborted children.
    How is this so? It is best to set aside sterilizing semantics to look at the plain truth. A child is torn from its mother’s womb, and then immediately dissected, if possible alive with beating heart so that the sample is fresh. A piece of the child’s organ is then taken to a laboratory, immersed in an enzyme to break the tissue down into individual cells, and when a continually reproducing “immortal” cell line has been obtained after many such abortions, it is patented and the cells industrially multiplied in vats to become viral factories.1 When a sufficient amount of the infectious virus is grown in the cells, the brew is processed in a way which destroys the whole cells but leaves behind the virus along with significant amounts of the child’s DNA and cellular protein. In the various states and territories, parents are required to administer this into the bodies of their children for the sake of the public good even though the vaccine could be produced in an alternative and ethical manner. Those who refuse it are banned from the public square.
    Any healthy conscience has a natural revulsion to this ghoulish process and closer moral analysis certainly justifies that reaction. In determining the moral liceity of using vaccines derived from abortion, an assessment of cooperation with evil in terms of distance from the original abortion is a necessary but ultimately insufficient criterion because there is another distinct and more immediate category of sin involved. To conclude, as some have, that there is only mediate remote material cooperation in abortion by the vaccine recipient is a red herring. It shifts emphasis away from the specific moral character of possessing and using the cell line itself toward “historical association” with the original abortion, obscuring the central problem while even causing it to go unnamed. The recipient is an immediate participant in the commission of continuous theft of human remains obtained through deliberate killing, their desecration through exploitation and trafficking, as well as ultimate omission to respectfully bury them. While the original killing establishes the illicit character of using the remains, their possession and use becomes a distinct evil in itself, the circumstances of which do not cease as a form of theft, desecration, exploitation, and refusal to bury, regardless of the consumer’s
    1 A lengthy account of the development and use of this process is given by Dr. Leonard Hayflick in an interview where he explicitly discusses his creation of the WI-38 fetal cell line.

    distance in time from the abortion, or the number of cell divisions, or the merely sub-cellular fragmentary inclusion of the child’s DNA and protein in the final dose.
    Two sanitizing mischaracterizations contribute to this unwarranted shift in emphasis away from immediate continuing theft toward “historic” completed abortion. Firstly, the broadness of labelling human remains obtained through violence as “illicit biological material” is not only insufficient but dehumanizing and offensive. Although the vast majority if not all of the cells currently used did not physically constitute part of the child’s original body, these cells still belong to the child. They are a living remnant of the child’s life in this world. If they are not the child’s cells then whose cell’s are they? Is it possible to stretch jargon so far as to say that these are no one’s cells? No person donating their tissue for cell culture and knowingly encountering the resultant cells in a lab would identify them as anything other than “my DNA, my cells.” The child has been silenced, the parents have forfeited by abortion any right of consent to respectful scientific use of the body, the scientists and patent holders have no right to possess or use the cells: these human remains belong to God, must be respectfully reposed, and it is not for Caesar to say otherwise.
    Secondly, “historical distance” from the abortion does not distance us from the possession of something stolen. If I am the beneficiary of a violent bank robbery where the clerk was murdered to secure funds, my personal distance from the robbery does not make it licit to possess or spend those funds or even other monies made playing the stock market with them. If this is the case with lifeless currency, how much more with the body of an innocent human being. If a copyrighted film is captured, reproduced, and sold through the internet, it does not somehow become licit to possess and use it simply because it has been copied many times over from the original, even if I have provided the means of copying, storage, and playback. The copyright protected item is the original artistic creation. Our artist is the Divine Author of human nature who produces a unique biological and spiritual work in His own image and likeness. It is absurd to say to public consumers that everyone must indefinitely use stolen work to help lessen the likelihood of a potential future problem even though a perfectly fine substitute can be easily and ethically provided. How much more with cannibalizing human remains obtained through violence. No one is bound to participate in one sin in order to avoid another. It is never permissible to do evil for a good purpose.
    For those who argue that participation becomes licit if receiving the vaccine is looked at as a temporary solution to a significant public health danger, they should know that it is not temporary but expanding and that it will be forced regardless of whether it helps public health or not. Public authorities who support public murder cannot be taken seriously as guarantors of public health. If immortality through medicine is the new religion then the insurance card is our baptismal certificate, psychiatry its confession, doctors its priests, the medical bureaucracy its hierarchy, research its contemplation, euthanasia its anointing, and its eucharist is the pharmaceutical solution, particularly vaccination. One person is sacrificed that the nation might live, their body multiplied and distributed by the priests. “Those who do not eat the flesh and drink the blood of this sacrifice will not have life in them.” So we are told. It seems there is little more than a lab coat between this and human sacrifice as medicinal witchcraft.
    And there is an inquisition coming for those who contradict the new dogma. In one Washington Post article, we are put on notice:
    “The initial steps we have taken are essential: prohibit non-vaccinated children from public spaces, including schools; promote educational efforts; and, in extreme cases, force isolation on pockets of populations…Viewed through the lens of public safety, it is the parents who should be punished. Why not

    make them pay for the harms they are causing?…Fines for the increased public safety burdens put on
    these communities by a few ought not to be the responsibility of all. In many states, when hikers ignore
    warnings that certain trails are too dangerous and then have to be rescued, the fees for the rescue must be
    paid by the hikers. It’s a fine for making a self-centered decision that placed an unreasonable burden on
    a larger community. Measles should be no different…In the same way we have created sex-offenders
    lists to protect our children, communities can inventory families that choose not to be vaccinated,
    notifying employers of these parents as well as neighbors who may choose not to expose their children.” 2
    Isolation, fines, public humiliation, and blacklisting. There is historic precedent as to where this leads. Despite the public threat in his own day, Tobit proceeded in his work under the command that he be slain, obeying the law of God rather than the unjust law of men while risking his life to do so. God made him an example of faithfulness amidst hardship. When he was mocked by his kinsmen for adherence to these good works and told that his deeds were hopeless, he rebuked them: “Speak not so. For we are the children of saints, and look for that life which God will give to those that never change their faith from Him.”3 I remind all those who imitate Tobit’s naysayers and persecutors that the God of heaven and earth is very much alive and very much offended, that He loves each of these murdered and exploited children as His particular creatures, that He will restore life to their bodies in the Resurrection on the last day, rejoining body and soul in these innocents who were denied baptism and the chance to live based on the whim of tinkerers trying to extend our finite years, that He will restore this “biological material” to its rightful place and its rightful owner on that day, and we will all meet these children face to face.
    2 Julliette Kayyem. Anti-vaxxers are dangerous. Make them face isolation, fines, arrests. 30 April 2019.

  10. Avatar Miriam Wheeler, MD on January 5, 2020 at 9:55 pm

    Excellent article! Thank you for courage and insight! I served as a missionary physician in a hospital in Africa for 5 years in the 90’s. I still vividly recall the horror of watching children die from tetanus and measles and other vaccine-preventable diseases, trying to comfort grief-stricken mothers, seeing the burden of paralysis from polio and other adverse effects of vaccine-preventable disease. We live in a sin-cursed world, dealing with inevitable illness and pain. In this fallen world, nothing in medical science is 100% effective or 100% free of adverse events, but it is amazing what we can accomplish medically now compared to 100 years ago. As a family doctor, I want to use the skills and tools God has given us to prevent disease and treat illness where possible, and comfort the sick. May all our words and deeds glorify our Creator and LIfe-giver!

  11. Avatar Philip A Schembri on January 9, 2020 at 11:23 am

    You miss a critical point. God commands us to have nothing to do with the unfruitful deeds of darkness. By justifying the use of vaccines derived from fetal cells you are merely compromising, incrementally that is. This justification is heretical. The word says that the blood of the innocent cries out to God for vindication. He hears.

    God does not change, His word does not change. For example, homosexuality was an abominable sin when Paul warned against it in Romans 1. Over the years because of incremental justification with all of its flowery babble, it’s now become acceptable in the church.

    As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.

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