Michael Cook

Facing up to vaccines created with aborted fetal cells

Michael Cook
By Michael Cook
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August 22, 2013 (MercatorNet) - After decades of ignoring the issue, Nature, the world’s leading science journal, has finally acknowledged that creating life-saving vaccines from tissue from aborted foetuses is a deeply controversial ethical issue.

In 1964, an American researcher obtained cells from a Swedish foetus aborted because her mother already had enough children. He coaxed them into multiplying into a cell line which he called WI-38. Since they were normal and healthy, they were ideal for creating vaccines. Two years later, scientists in the UK obtained cells from a 14-week male fetus aborted for "psychiatric reasons" from a 27-year-old British woman. This cell line is called MRC-5.

It is undeniable that the vaccines made from WI-38 and MRC-5 cells have saved millions of lives. Scientists have made vaccines against rubella, rabies, adenovirus, polio, measles, chickenpox and shingles, as well as smallpox, chicken pox and hepatitis A.

But protests by opponents of abortion have been largely ignored by the scientific community. If you Google “vaccines” and “abortion”, only Catholic groups, right-to-life organisations and sites warning about the dangers of vaccinations mention the topic. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention barely alludes to it even though it has abundant information on vaccines. A website called Vaccine Ethics at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Bioethics fails to mention it.

The reason is clear: vaccines save lives and the abortions happened a long time ago. Get over it. Who cares? “At the time [the fetus] was obtained there was no issue in using discarded material. Retrospective ethics is easy but presumptuous,” says Stanley Plotkin, the American scientist who developed the rubella vaccine. “I am fond of saying that rubella vaccine has prevented thousands more abortions than have ever been prevented by Catholic religionists.”

But now even Nature – which supports abortion rights and reproductive technology – has expressed its misgivings. “More than 50 years after the WI-38 cell line was derived from a fetus, science and society [have] still to get to grips with the ethical issues of using human tissue in research,” its editorial declared in June.

What has changed?

If you could single out a reason, it would be the intensely moving 2010 best-seller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot. This book has nothing to do with abortion, but it highlights the deep respect, almost sacredness, that the body of a human person must command, even something as insignificant as discarded tissue.

Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman who was 31 when she died of cervical cancer in 1951. Cells from her tumour became the first human cells cultured continuously for use in research. HeLa cells have helped to make possible some of the most important medical advances of the past 60 years, including modern vaccines, cancer treatments, and IVF techniques. They are the most widely used human cell lines in existence. More than 300 scientific papers are published every month using HeLa cells.

There is no question about their usefulness – but were they obtained ethically? Is it ethical to continue using them?

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks raises disturbing questions which transcend “usefulness”. Henrietta Lacks was poor and black. Her children, it seems, are even poorer. A doctor at Johns Hopkins removed her cells without asking her. He cultivated the cells without informing her. He distributed the cells without asking permission of her family. Companies became rich by using her cells without paying royalties. Her family only learned that their mother’s cells had been scattered around the world in 1973. Their complaints were ignored for many years – after all, they were only poor, uneducated black folks.

No one cared about the woman called Henrietta Lacks who was overdosed with radium, who died leaving five children behind, one of them an epileptic housed in a filthy, chaotic institution called The Hospital for the Negro Insane. Some people even thought that HeLa cells originated with a woman named Helen Lane. Her daughter wrote in a diary, “When that day came, and my mother died, she was Robbed of her cells and John Hopkins Hospital learned of those cells and kept it to themselfs, and gave them to who they wanted and even changed the name to HeLa cell and kept it from us for 20+ years. They say Donated. No No No Robbed Self.”

It was only earlier this year that the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) negotiated an agreement with the family. All researchers who use or generate full genomic data from HeLa cells must now include in their publications an acknowledgement and expression of gratitude to the Lacks family.

Incredibly, despite all the publicity, scientists continued to ignore the concerns of the Lacks family. Just a few months ago, German researchers published the first sequence of the full HeLa genome. This compromised not only Henrietta Lacks’s genetic privacy but also her family’s. (The researchers have removed the sequence from public view.)

The story of HeLa cells, in short, is twofold: a story of towering scientific achievement and a story of exploitation by ambitious and callous scientists.

Less famous, but even more important, says Nature, have been WI-38 cells. HeLa cells multiply prolifically, but they are cancerous. WI-38 cells are healthy and normal and have been used to develop vaccines against rubella, rabies, adenovirus, polio, measles, chickenpox and shingles. Their origin is even more controversial than the dark story of Henrietta Lacks.

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In 1962 a Swedish woman who was four months pregnant had a legal abortion because she did not want another child. The lungs of the foetus were removed and sent to Philadelphia. At the Wistar Institute for Anatomy and Biology they were minced up, processed and cultured by Leonard Hayflick. He had been culturing cells from aborted foetuses for years, even though abortion was technically illegal in Pennsylvania at the time, except for medical emergencies.

After he successfully multiplied the WI-38 cells, Hayflick created more than 800 batches and distributed them freely around the world to drug companies and researchers. He eventually quarrelled with Wistar authorities because he thought that his contribution was being ignored. Without permission, he took all the remaining batches to California and his new job at Stanford. This led to years of bitter legal battles over who owned the cells. No one worried about where they had come from.

The abortion connection is beyond dispute, although, as Nature points out, “until now, that story has failed to reach the broad audience it deserves.” As in the Henrietta Lacks case, no informed consent was given by the Swedish mother. Her identity is known but she refuses to talk about the case. The doctors involved are all dead. A Swedish medical historian told Nature that in Sweden, “research material like tissues from aborted fetuses were available and used for research without consent or the knowledge of patients for a long time”, both before and after consent rules were tightened later in the 1960s.

The drug companies and institutions which have used WI-38 deny that there are serious ethical concerns either with the use of cells from aborted foetuses or with the lack of consent.

The institution which has examined this issue most closely is the Vatican. In 2005 it released a meticulously researched study of the ethical issues involved in using vaccines which had been developed with tissue from aborted foetuses. Even though it contended that parents could have their children vaccinated with a clear conscience, it did not dismiss the question as irrelevant or absurd. On the contrary, it concluded that “there is a grave responsibility to use alternative vaccines and to make a conscientious objection with regard to those which have moral problems.”

And it said that the existing situation was completely unjust. “Parents… are forced to choose to act against their conscience or otherwise, to put the health of their children and of the population as a whole at risk. This is an unjust alternative choice, which must be eliminated as soon as possible.”

What is the way forward?

I am writing from suburban Sydney which long ago lost its connection to the Aboriginal tribes who once lived here. Yet at every civic ceremony we acknowledge the memory of the Cammeraygal and Wallumedegal peoples. It is a form of reparation for the dispossession, disease and death which carried them away, leaving neither names nor descendants.

Doesn’t the story of Henrietta Lacks suggest that drug companies should do something similar with their vaccine products? From now on, the NIH says, scientists who use HeLa cells must include “an acknowledgment and expression of gratitude to the Lacks family for their contributions”.

Why shouldn’t drug companies and researchers who use the WI-38 (or the MRC-5 cells) do the same? “This vaccine was developed with the cells of a Swedish child who was aborted in 1964. We are grateful for her contribution and grieve at her absence.”

Reprinted with permission from Mercatornet.com under a creative commons license.

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Thaddeus Baklinski Thaddeus Baklinski Follow Thaddeus

African researchers warn early sexual activity increases risk of cancers

Thaddeus Baklinski Thaddeus Baklinski Follow Thaddeus
By Thaddeus Baklinski

A report on rising cancer rates in Africa delivered at a conference in Namibia last week warned that oral contraceptives and engaging in sexual activity from a young age lead to an increased risk of breast and reproductive system cancers.

Researchers presented the "2014 Integrated Africa Cancer Fact Sheet & Summary Score Card" during the 8th Stop Cervical, Breast and Prostate Cancer in Africa (SCCA) conference, held in Windhoek, Namibia from July 20 to 22, noted that cancer is a growing health problem in many developing countries and that breast and cervical cancer are the most common forms affecting African women.

The report said that sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) play a major role in reproductive system cancers and that young girls who engage in sexual activity risk getting, among other STDs, the human papilloma virus (HPV), some strains of which are linked to cervical cancer.

The report said although HPV infections are common in healthy women, they are usually fought off by the body’s immune system, with no discernible symptoms or health consequences.

The Cancer Association of South Africa points out that of the scores of HPV types, 14 of the more than 40 sexually transmitted varieties are considered "high risk" for causing serious illness, while two, HPV-16 and HPV-18, are linked to cervical cancer.

“Long-term use of oral contraceptives is also associated with increased risk [of cancer], and women living with HIV-AIDS are at increased risk of cervical cancer,” the report said.

Dr. Thandeka Mazibuko, a South African oncologist, told the conference attendees that when an 18-year-old is diagnosed with cervical cancer, “this means sex is an important activity in her life and she indulged from a young age.”

Mazibuko said the standard treatment for cancer of the cervix is seven weeks of radiation therapy.

“After the treatment they cannot have sex with their husbands or partners. They cannot bear children because everything has been closed up. Some may still have the womb but radiation makes them infertile,” Mazibuko said, according to a report in The Namibian.

Statistics from the Cancer Association of Namibia show that cases of cervical cancer have risen from 129 in 2005 to 266 in 2012.

The SCCA Conference theme was, "Moving forward to end Cervical Cancer by 2030: Universal Access to Cervical Cancer Prevention."

In his keynote address, host and Namibian President Hifikepunye Lucas Pohamba urged African countries to help each other to expand and modernize health care delivery in the continent.

"Within the context of the post-2015 Development Agenda and sustainable development goals, the provision of adequate health care to African women and children must be re-emphasized," said the president, according to AllAfrica.

The Namibian leader urged mothers to breastfeed their children for at least six months as a measure to prevent breast cancer.


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Hilary White Hilary White Follow Hilary

Allow ‘lethal injection’ for poor to save on palliative care: Lithuanian health minister

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By Hilary White

Euthanasia is a solution for terminally ill poor people who cannot afford palliative care and who do not want to “see their families agonize” over their suffering, Lithuania’s health minister said last week.

In an interview on national television, Minister Rimantė Šalaševičiūtė added that the Belgian law on child euthanasia ought to be “taken into account” as well. 

Šalaševičiūtė told TV3 News that Lithuania, a country whose population is 77 percent Catholic, is not a welfare state and cannot guarantee quality palliative care for all those in need of it. The solution, therefore, would be “lethal injection.”

“It is time to think through euthanasia in these patients and allow them to make a decision: to live or die,” she said.

Direct euthanasia remains illegal in the Balkan state, but activists tried to bring it to the table in 2012. A motion to drop the planned bill was passed in the Parliament in March that year in a vote of 75 to 14. Since then the country has undergone a change in government in which the far-left Social Democrats have formed the largest voting bloc.

Šalaševičiūtė is a member of Parliament for the Social Democrats, the party originally established in the late 19th century – re-formed in the late 1980s – from Marxist principles and now affiliated with the international Party of European Socialists and Socialist International.

Fr. Andrius Narbekovas, a prominent priest, lecturer, physician, bioethicist, and member of the government’s bioethics committee, called the suggestion “satanic,” according to Delfi.lt. He issued a statement saying it is the purpose of the Ministry of Health to “protect the health and life, instead of looking for ways to take away life.”

“We understand that people who are sick are in need of funds. But a society that declares itself democratic, should very clearly understand that we have to take care of the sick, not kill them,” he said.


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Islamists in Mosul mark Christian homes with an Arabic "N" for Nazarene.
Gualberto Garcia Jones, J.D.

We must open wide our doors to Iraq’s Christians

Gualberto Garcia Jones, J.D.
By Gualberto Garcia Jones J.D.

On July 18, the largest Christian community in Iraq, the Chaldean Catholics of Mosul, were given a grotesque ultimatum: leave your ancestral home, convert to Islam, or die.

All but forgotten by the 1.2 billion Catholics of the world, these last Christians who still speak Jesus’ native tongue of Aramaic and live in the land of Abraham and Jonah are being wiped out before our very eyes.

As a way of issuing a thinly-veiled threat, reminiscent of the Nazi persecution of the Jews, the Arabic letter “N” (for Nazarean) has been painted on the outside of the homes of all known Christians in Mosul.

These threats, issued by the fanatical Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) known for its bloodthirsty rampage of executions, have been taken very seriously by the several hundred thousand Christians in Mosul who have left with little more than the clothes they were wearing. 

At least most of these Christians were able to flee and find temporary protection among the Kurds in their semi-autonomous region.  However the Kurds do not have the resources to defend or shelter the Chaldean Christians for much longer.

On Monday, during an interview on Fox News, Republican U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf, who recently joined with 54 other members of the House of Representatives in a letter to President Obama asking him to act to protect these communities, stated that while Iraqi President Maliki had sent military flights to Mosul to evacuate Shiite Muslims, the US has done nothing to protect the Chaldean Christians.  Rep. Wolf also stated emphatically that President Obama has done “almost nothing” about the genocide taking place.

The silence from the White House is deafening.  But the lack of leadership from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in America has been shocking as well.

Nevertheless, the plight of these Iraqi Christians is beginning to be taken seriously.   This is due in large part to the heroic efforts of local Iraqi religious leaders like Chaldean Patriarch Sako, who has gone on a whirlwind tour of the world to alert us all of the plight of these Iraqi Christians.  In a statement demonstrating his character, he told the Christians of Iraq last week, “We are your shepherds, and with our full responsibility towards you we will stay with you to the end, will not leave you, whatever the sacrifices.”

Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq was launched there were approximately 1.5 to 2 million Christians living in Iraq.  Today, there are believed to be less than 200,000.  The numbers speak for themselves.

Now that the world is beginning to be aware of the genocide in Northern Iraq, many of us ask ourselves: what can we do?  As citizens and as Christians blessed to live in nations with relative peace and security, what can we do?

The answer is quite simple and unexpected.  Demand that our government and church pull its head out of the sand and follow France. Yes, France.  

Yesterday, in a heroic gesture of Christian solidarity that would make Joan of Arc proud, the government of France opened wide its doors to the persecuted Iraqi Christians.  

”France is outraged by these abuses that it condemns with the utmost firmness," Laurent Fabius, France's foreign minister, and Bernard Cazeneuve, France's interior minister, said in a joint statement on Monday.

"The ultimatum given to these communities in Mosul by ISIS is the latest tragic example of the terrible threat that jihadist groups in Iraq, but also in Syria and elsewhere, pose to these populations that are historically an integral part of this region," they added. "We are ready, if they wish, to facilitate their asylum on our soil.  We are in constant contact with local and national authorities to ensure everything is done to protect them.”

The French statement drives home three crucial elements that every government, especially the United States, should communicate immediately:

  1. Recognize the genocide and name the perpetrators and victims.

  2. Officially condemn what is happening in the strongest terms.

  3. Offer a solution that includes cooperation with local authorities but which leads by making solid commitments such as offering asylum or other forms of protection.

With regard to the Church, we should look to the Chaldean Patriarch and the Iraqi bishops who shared their expectations explicitly in an open letter to “all people of conscience in Iraq and around the world” to take “practical actions to assure our people, not merely expressions of condemnation.”  Noticeably, the last section of the letter from the Iraqi bishops, before a final prayer to God, is an expression of thanks to the Kurdish government, which has welcomed them not just with “expressions” of goodwill but, like France, with a sacrificial hospitality.

On Friday, July 25, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops did issue a statement, but unfortunately it lacked much in terms of leadership or solutions.  We should encourage our bishops to do better than that, be bolder and stronger for our persecuted brothers and sisters, name names and offer concrete sacrificial aid. In a word, be more like the French.

In 1553, Rome welcomed the Chaldean church into the fold of the Catholic Church.  Nearly 500 years later, Catholic Americans must find ways to welcome these persecuted people into our country, into our churches, and into our own homes if need be.

I say, I am with you St. Joan of Arc.   I am with you, France.  I am with you, Chaldeans!

Gualberto Garcia Jones is the Executive Director of the International Human Rights Group, a non-profit organization based in Washington, DC, that seeks to advance the fundamental rights to life, the natural family, and religious liberty through international law and international relations. 


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