Is it right to use aborted foetal tissue for research?

For medical researchers, the expected surge in foetal material represents a considerable source of pathological bounty

The vote to repeal the Eighth Amendment of the Irish constitution has overturned a manifest injustice. One outcome will be a rise in the number of foetuses aborted in Ireland.

For example, 26 lawful terminations were performed in Ireland in 2014, while, in 2016, an underestimated 3,265 women and girls who attended abortion clinics in England and Wales gave addresses in Ireland.

For medical researchers, the expected surge in foetal material represents a considerable source of pathological bounty. But is it right to use foetal tissue that would otherwise be destroyed?

In the 1980s, while working in a hospital diagnostic virology lab, I helped to dissect a legally aborted foetus. Blood tests confirmed that the mother had contracted rubella virus infection in early pregnancy. The aim of the dissection was to remove a small piece of tissue from each of certain specified organs and attempt to isolate rubella virus. After processing, the aborted foetus was destroyed according to laboratory protocol.


Rubella virus, at that time, was difficult to grow in cell culture, and we failed to isolate it. But what if that foetus had facilitated a minor advance in scientific understanding or even a major discovery that conferred lasting benefit on mankind? Would it have been immoral?

Pioneer of cell culture

Consider the case of Prof Leonard Hayflick of the University of California, San Francisco, who celebrated his 90th birthday last May. A pioneer of cell culture, Hayflick entered the field in the 1950s as a young researcher at the Wistar Institute in Philadelphia, a decade that has been called the golden age of virology.

His enthusiasm to test a variety of cells for their susceptibility to viruses led to him recruiting his wife and unborn daughter. Hayflick’s laboratory was close to the University of Pennsylvania Hospital, where, in 1958, his wife gave birth to their third child. Having arranged with the obstetrician to obtain the placenta and amnion, Hayflick returned to the lab and set up his cultures. After several weeks, he observed that these normal amnion cells had converted to an immortal cell population. He named the cell line WISH (Wistar Institute Susan Hayflick), and it proved to be a popular research tool.

Four years later, however, Hayflick made a further and more significant scientific advance. In 1962, following a legal abortion at a Swedish hospital, the lungs from a female foetus were flown from Stockholm to Hayflick's laboratory. From these, he established the WI-38 cell strain of the first "normal" human cells to provide licensed human virus vaccines against poliomyelitis, measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, shingles, adenovirus, rabies and hepatitis A.

Hayflick’s work coincided with the finding that monkey kidney cells, then used to manufacture poliomyelitis vaccines, were contaminated with simian viruses and thus his WI-38s were a timely alternative. WI-38s are derived from a single donor; free from contaminating viruses; can be frozen indefinitely; and can be safety-tested before use in large-scale vaccine production.

Last year, Hayflick co-authored a reportwith Prof Stuart Olshansky which estimated that, globally, the number of cases treated or averted with WI-38-related vaccines, and the number of deaths averted were 4.5 billion and 10.3 million, respectively.

Colluding with evil

Yet, (the then) Bishop Elio Sgreccia, emeritus president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, was unimpressed when he described Hayflick's achievements as "evil". Thus, in a letter from the Vatican, dated June 9th, 2005, to the executive director of an organisation called Children of God for Life, Sgreccia scolded parents who permitted aborted tissue-derived vaccines to be used on their children, saying that such behaviour amounted to colluding with evil: "Would it not be a matter of true (and illicit) cooperation in evil, even though this evil was carried out 40 years ago?" Sgreccia listed three categories of evildoers: "a) those who prepare the vaccines using human cell lines coming from voluntary abortions; b) those who participate in the mass marketing of such vaccines; c) those who need to use them for health reasons."

Hayflick and Olshansky detect an irony in the fact that, despite the apparent pall of evil enshrouding it, "the rubella vaccine (which is produced in the WI-38 cell strain that originated from an aborted human foetus) is vigorously opposed by anti-choice advocates, even though this vaccine prevented over 633,000 miscarriages in the US alone, and countless more across the globe, and it has prevented tens of millions of clinical health issues in children (eg, encephalitis, autism, deafness, diabetes, etc) linked to congenital rubella syndrome."

Any hope that (the now) Cardinal Sgreccia and his followers might concede that WI-38-derived vaccines are a public health success story remains forlorn if their views are based on dogma rather than reason. After all, it’s difficult to manoeuvre one’s way out of a position that has been shaped by dogma rather than reason.

Hayflick and Olshansky note that when the former’s WI-38 research was undertaken in 1962, federal funds were available to study tissue derived from aborted human foetuses. However, that funding was withdrawn under several subsequent administrations: “If that prohibition had been in effect in 1962, it is unlikely that in the subsequent 55 years, there would be billions of people who benefitted from virus vaccines produced in WI-38.”

I concur with Prof R Alta Charo, who wrote in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2015: "We have a duty to use foetal tissue for research and therapy."

But, meanwhile, it is a worthy topic of serious debate.