Further Letter to MP regarding Foetal Cell Lines in Vaccine Production and Testing

Dear & Honourable Mr Burghart,

Thank you for your response of 15 March 2021, in which you addressed my concerns that many vaccines in the UK, including those for the current covid-19 crisis, are sometimes produced and usually tested in human cells derived from aborted foetuses.

You rightly quote from the 2017 document of the Pontifical Academy for Life (which if I may compare Vatican documents to Parliamentary ones, is a kind of Select Committee report for Catholics); this states

we believe that all clinically recommended vaccinations can be used with a clear conscience and that the use of such vaccines does not signify some sort of cooperation with voluntary abortion.

Taken alone, this statement might appear to be an unproblematic invitation to Catholics to simply accept any vaccine offered. However, this statement must be read alongside the more formal 2008 document Dignitas Personae, which has a weight comparable to a manifesto committment made by a winning party. Here paragraph 35 sets out clearly that Catholics who accept a tainted vaccine for the sake of the common good must lobby Government and industry until an untainted alternative can be provided.

I am grateful that you have indicated a willingness to “explore the issue” with colleagues in the Department of Health and Social Care. Since my first letter to you, it has come to my attention that the US-based Charlotte Lozier Institute is collating research on whether foetal cell-lines are used in the development, mass production and testing of numerous covid-19 vaccines, with results tabulated online. There are now a number of vaccines available – though not yet cleared through UK safety testing – which make no use whatsoever of foetal cell-lines.

The UK is a pioneer in the field of diversity, requiring by law reasonable adjustments to accommodate disability and respecting a wide range of sexual preferences in orientation and identity. It would be entirely in keeping with our committment to diversity to recognise that adherents of certain religions are duty bound to avoid abortion-tainted vaccines whenever possible, and for the NHS to respond by ensuring that at least of one these untainted vaccines is put forward for regulatory approval and then made available for use at a small number of regional centres to which conscientious objectors could travel.

I received my first dose of the problematic AstraZeneca vaccine in March and will therefore receive the second dose as scheduled in June, but I would avail of any ethical alternative provided should booster shots become necessary in due course.

Thank you for taking my concerns seriously, and I hope this further information will be of use as you explore the issues further with colleagues at DHSC.

Yours Sincerely,

Revd Dr Gareth Leyshon

Further Moral Reflections on Covid-19 Vaccines

This week I was sent an article by Revd Dr Leon Pereira OP, a Dominican priest who was formerly a medical doctor. A version of his text can be read online, but I have uploaded the PDF I was sent as the final page’s table is clearer:

In these days of fake news and misinformation, it is important to authenticate sources; Fr Leon can be seen preaching on the same topic in this video from 14 April 2021 which was posted on Facebook alongside a copy of the corresponding text.

Fr Leon sets out clearly that there are two courses of action which are not forbidden to Catholics (and therefore to anyone who wishes to behave ethically), given that many of the available vaccines use cells derived from aborted human embryos in their development, even if not in their production.

One course is to refuse compromised vaccines, but to take personal responsibility for minimising contact with other people, insofar as this is required to continue to prevent the spread of a deadly virus.

The other course is to accept such a vaccine, but to do so under protest. He rightly points out that the most authoritative document produced by the Vatican (Dignitas Personae 34 & 35) states that:

in cases where (1) there are no other choices, (2) where the danger is real, and (3) the safety of children is threatened, then (4) on a temporary basis, such vaccines may be used (5) but pressure must be put on governments, pharmaceutical companies, researchers etc to find an ethically acceptable alternative! Furthermore (6) no one can be compelled to receive vaccination; they have the right to refuse, although they should take precautions to reduce their role in the transmission of the disease during an epidemic.

Dignitas Personae does not restrict the ethical permission to children alone; it states “for example” a parent may choose a vaccine developed using illicit material. It logically follows that there are other cases where we may choose to act for the protection of innocent third parties.

Fr Leon argues that there is ‘no moral difference’ between vaccines grown (for commercial mass production) in cells derived from aborted foetuses and those mass-produced by other methods once the vaccine has been developed using foetal cell-lines. I would disagree, since ‘degree of co-operation’ is relevant in ethical analysis. If illicit cells are used to create a recipe but no such cells are used in production, there is a real difference. The moral problem becomes one of knowledge obtained unethically rather than use of a physical product. If the use of foetal cell-lines were banned in the future, the knowledge would still exist and could be used. There is also an ethical difference between producing vaccines in cell-lines which are immortalised (in principle, no further abortion is needed to replenish the cell-line) and those which are not (the cell-line will eventually die out and will need to be replaced, requiring either a future abortion or use of modified adult stem cells from a consenting donor).

The final page of Fr Leon’s article summarises a more detailed table developed by the Charlotte Lozier Institute showing sourced research on which vaccines use foetal cells for their development, mass production and testing. This is a very helpful document and shows that some vaccines now exist which raise no pro-life objections at all – but these are not the vaccines being made available in the UK through the NHS.

Of course, the sanctity of the unborn human is not the only ethical issue which must be taken into consideration. The German CureVac virus is greenlisted from a pro-life standpoint but uses HeLa cells for quality tasting – cells used for research without permission after being taken from Henrietta Lacks, an African-American woman dying from cervical cancer. This raises another kind of ethical question. A third thorny issue is raised by the use of animals in medical research, but here Pope Francis (Laudato Si 130) repeats the teaching in the Catechism that humans may use animals for research “if it remains within reasonable limits [and] contributes to caring for or saving human lives”.

For the record, I received my first dose of the ChAdOX1 AstraZeneca vaccine on 29 March 2021. I did so only after enquiring whether ethical vaccines were available and writing a letter to my MP urging the UK to seek and provide alternatives which are not derived from foetal cell lines. It is in the spirit of my ongoing duty to campaign and seek such alternatives that I publicise Fr Leon’s article and make known the existence of vaccines which have no association with abortion.

In the homily posted above, Fr Leon asks a stark question. Would Jesus or Mary take a vaccine knowing it had been sourced from the killing of a human child in the womb? Before you leap to a particular conclusion on that question, remember that idolatry is a moral crime as heinous as murder. You might well ask whether Jesus or Mary would use a Roman coin bearing the head of an emperor and an inscription proclaiming him to be a god? In fact the Pharisees did ask Jesus precisely that question, and received a surprising answer!

Letter to MP regarding Foetal Cell Lines in Vaccine Production and Testing

The Vatican has advised Catholics that they may use any covid-19 vaccine produced or tested using cell lines which originate in historic abortions, as long as they have a serious reason for doing so. Given the lethal potential of this virus, the impact on one’s dependents and the capacity of the health service, as well as the growing evidence that vaccines reduce a person’s ability to spread covid-19, such a serious reason exists in this case. But Catholics are also asked to put “pressure on the political authorities and health systems so that other vaccines without moral problems become available”. I recently sent this letter to my MP and am happy to make the text available for others to use freely.

Dear (MP Name), I am a constituent resident at (give your address, as the MP must known you are a constituent to deal with your message.)


The rush to produce and deploy vaccines on a global scale has brought a new focus on the ways in which vaccines are manufactured and tested using products derived from aborted human foetuses. This applies not only to covid-19 vaccines but other vaccines which have been in routine use for children and adults, for many years. 

I am sure you will recognise that this is distasteful to many, and a moral red line for some, even though it has been a scientific ‘necessity’ to achieve the ends of life-saving vaccinations for much of the last 50 years. Should the Government move to introduce any kind of vaccine ‘passport’ scheme, this will place conscientious objectors to such vaccines in a very difficult position.

Let me make my own stance clear: when I am called to receive a vaccine, I will accept it as the socially responsible thing to do, but with a heavy heart; I will seek to receive an mRNA vaccine (not developed, only tested, in embryo cell lines) rather than the other options if I have any freedom to do so; and I am raising my voice in protest at the limited options available by the act of writing this letter.

Due to my own religious and moral views, I would very much prefer that abortion were outlawed; but I recognise that this is not an achievable goal in the UK in the foreseeable future. Based on scientific evidence, I recognise that there are strong advantages to the pharmaceutical industry in comparing new products against well-established standards derived from embryo cell lines; moving away from these standards is not technically impossible but requires the force of funding and legislation to overcome inertia.

As my Parliamentary representative, I would therefore ask you to work towards two goals, which would at least move towards minimising the issues for conscientious objectors and maximising the uptake of future vaccines. These goals are:

 (1) Requiring prioritised Government funding to develop ethical cell lines which can be used for developing and testing vaccine products;

 (2)  As soon as these ethical cell lines are sufficiently developed, requiring by legislation that these cells, rather than embryo-derived cells, be used for quality control checks on any vaccine made available in the UK.

I attach a short paper setting out the rationale for each of these steps.

As your constituent, I assure you of my prayers for your work and well-being in these strange times.

Yours Sincerely,

YOUR NAME


Cell lines are used to develop and test vaccines because they are human cells detached from a living human body which can be grown at scale in a laboratory. Some vaccines rely on modifying a mild virus to resemble part of the dangerous virus; these mild viruses must be grown in human, not animal, cells for maximum effectiveness. Other vaccines – the innovative mRNA vaccines – can be synthesised chemically, but still need to be tested for safety and quality by their effect on human cells.

Some of the available cell-lines are ‘immortalized’ – they have been manipulated so that they will keep reproducing indefinitely (the successful strains represent ‘happy accidents’ since our ability to manipulate is currently based on limited knowledge). These strains include[1] the HEK293 cells used to test vaccines and to grow the anticovid AstraZeneca/Oxford vaccine – and the PER.C6 strain for the Johnson & Johnson one shot vaccine recently authorised in the USA. Insofar as the abortions which gave rise to these cell lines are irreversible historic events, these cells can be used without ‘encouraging’ future abortions.

Vaccines for other serious diseases are gown in cell lines which are not immortalised. The British MRC-5 line, the American WI-38 line and Chinese Walvax-2 line are regularly used, but these cells, like all non-cancerous cells in the human body, can only reproduce themselves a limited number of times. In the UK,[2] the MRC-5 and WI-38 lines are used to produce the rubella component of the MMR vaccine, and vaccines against chickenpox and shingles. These cell lines will eventually lose their capacity to reproduce, and will need to be replaced – but by what? By procuring cells from a fresh abortion?

We now have the ability to take cells from consenting adult donors and regress them to a near-embryonic stage – such cells are known as induced pluripotent stem cells. These are less ideal candidates for growing vaccines because (at our current ability to manipulate them) they will not retain their pluripotent status forever; they also impede scientists’ ability to match ‘like with like’ in reviewing historical data against current research. Nevertheless, if there were sufficient reason to do so (positive funding, and legislation restricting the use of embryonic cell lines), ways could be found to use these totally ethical cell lines to produce and test vaccines at scale.

The UK Parliament has always recognised that there is a grave issue of conscience around abortion. Free votes are permitted to MPs; there is a (limited) right of conscientious objection by medical practitioners who do not wish to perform terminations. We should therefore recognise that similar grave issues of conscience apply to those who wish to take a vaccine for the common good but do not wish to be tainted in any way by co-operating with a historic abortion, still less consuming a limited resource which may one day require replenishment by a future abortion. This should be sufficient reason to implement goal 1 now (fund research to enable ethical adult-derived cells to become useful for growing and testing vaccines) and goal 2 as soon as technically feasible (where the Government requires quality control testing, this must be done using ethical cells).


[1] https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2020/06/abortion-opponents-protest-covid-19-vaccines-use-fetal-cells 

[2] https://vk.ovg.ox.ac.uk/vk/vaccine-ingredients#human-cell-strains and https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/use-of-human-and-animal-products-in-vaccines/guide-to-the-use-of-human-and-animal-products-in-vaccines