Aborted Fetus DNA in Vaccines?

A person commenting on one of our social media channels decided to argue that the measles vaccine (MMR: Measles, Mumps and Rubella) contains DNA from aborted fetuses in it. This is a common anti-vaccine trope, and one that has taken a piece of fact and expanded it into a lot of fiction. So let’s look back at what is the story of fetal tissue used in the development of vaccines and why it is not something to worry about.

First, we need to understand what DNA is. DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid. This chemical is what makes up the genetic material deep within our cells. That genetic material tells cells what proteins to make and how to arrange them to create just about everything in our body, from our hair to our livers. We all share very similar DNA, but the small number of differences are enough to make us all very different from one another.

Do we consume DNA from other people or animals? Yes, we do. DNA is in the cells of every living thing, including plants. We consume it when we eat meat, a salad or anything that came from a living thing. We consume DNA from other people when we consume something from another person, like when babies drink breast milk or when we inhale house dust. (House dust is made up in part from human skin cells.)

That’s not the only time foreign DNA enters your body. As stated above, DNA is in every living thing, including bacteria. When you trip and fall and scrape your knee, a lot of bacteria (and even some viruses or fungi) enter through your broken skin. When your immune system fights off the invaders, the DNA from those germs is also broken down by the cells in the immune system into the most basic particles. Those particles are then re-used — like the ones you consume — or excreted.

Now that you know what DNA is, and that you sometimes consume it by accident, or you get it inside of you by other accidents, let’s talk about fetal cells in vaccines. Is it true that some vaccines have “aborted fetuses” in them? No, it is not. There are no aborted fetuses in vaccines. However, some vaccine viruses are grown in cells that are descendants of tissue first collected from fetuses several decades ago.

The Vaccine Education Center from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia has a very good article on this that you should read:

“Varicella (chickenpox), rubella (the “R” in the MMR vaccine), hepatitis A, one version of the shingles vaccine, and one preparation of rabies vaccine are all made by growing the viruses in fetal embryo fibroblast cells. Fibroblast cells are the cells needed to hold skin and other connective tissue together. The fetal embryo fibroblast cells used to grow vaccine viruses were first obtained from elective termination of two pregnancies in the early 1960s. These same embryonic cells obtained from the early 1960s have continued to grow in the laboratory and are used to make vaccines today. No further sources of fetal cells are needed to make these vaccines.”

That’s right… It’s been over 50 years since those initial tissues were collected.

Of course, there are some people who find it objectionable that some good came from those terminated pregnancies, so they object to the use of vaccines on religious or moral grounds based on their apparently limited understanding of what these tissues are all about. But do religious authorities have an issue with the way these vaccine viruses are grown? Not exactly.

In 2005, the Vatican issued a statement on the use of fetal cell lines in the production of vaccines. It read in part:

“As regards the diseases against which there are no alternative vaccines which are available and ethically acceptable, it is right to abstain from using these vaccines if it can be done without causing children, and indirectly the population as a whole, to undergo significant risks to their health. However, if the latter are exposed to considerable dangers to their health, vaccines with moral problems pertaining to them may also be used on a temporary basis. The moral reason is that the duty to avoid passive material cooperation is not obligatory if there is grave inconvenience. Moreover, we find, in such a case, a proportional reason, in order to accept the use of these vaccines in the presence of the danger of favouring the spread of the pathological agent, due to the lack of vaccination of children. This is particularly true in the case of vaccination against German measles.”

This is very much in line with what other religious scholars from other branches of Christianity and other religions have said about vaccines: If there is no alternative, and vaccines are necessary for the protection of public health, then one may use vaccines without fear that they are compromising their moral or religious standing. But does the DNA in those cells get into the person who is given the vaccine, and can it be harmful?

Again, we turn to the Vaccine Education Center:

“Some people wonder whether the vaccines made using human embryo cells (chickenpox, rubella, hepatitis A, one version of shingles vaccine, and one version of the rabies vaccine) could cause harm if the DNA from the embryo cells “mixes” with the vaccine recipient’s DNA. This is not likely to happen:

Stability of DNA – Because DNA is not stable when exposed to certain chemicals, much of it is destroyed in the process of making the vaccine. Therefore, the amount of human DNA in the final vaccine preparation is minimal (trillionths of a gram) and highly fragmented. Because the DNA is fragmented, it cannot possibly create a whole protein.

Opportunity – DNA from the vaccine is not able to incorporate itself into cellular DNA. In fact, if this could be accomplished, gene therapy would be much easier than it has been.”

There are many reasons that people use for being anti-vaccine. Like many of those reasons, the “there is fetal DNA in vaccines” bit of misinformation has no basis in scientific reality nor in religious dogma.

Author: René F. Najera, DrPH

I am the editor of the History of Vaccines site, an online project by the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. All opinions expressed on these blog posts are not necessarily those of the College or any of my employers. Check out my professional profile on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/renenajera Feel free to follow me on Twitter: @EpiRen

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