Editor’s note: The following is Part 1 of a two-part essay on the complex and often disturbing relationship—scientifically, historically, and otherwise—between the creation of vaccinations, the eugenics movement, and the abortion industry.
Part 1: The Circumstantial Evidence
“The babies are still alive when the researchers start extracting the tissue.” Author and former vaccine researcher Pamela Acker’s shocking sound byte made a dramatic impression. Acker’s interview with Lifesite News, discussing fetal tissue research and vaccine development, quickly generated a wave of articles and follow-up pieces.
The podcast conversation with Lifesite’s John Henry Westen addressed the history of the fetal cell lines HEK 293 and PER.C6, involved in some respect in all COVID-19 vaccines currently available in the United States.
As the weeks passed, however, the interview disappeared in the waters of the internet , waves of successive discussion closing over it. With regards to COVID vaccines, theologians and bioethicists continued to distinguish between testing and production and degrees of cooperation, without reference to Acker’s statements, which were largely ignored or dismissed, like a remark made in poor taste in polite company.
I feel it’s time to take another look at the unfiltered statement that made the room so uncomfortable. It deserves some reflection. Doubtless there’s no need to ask why it made us so uncomfortable. Why then, was it not given more attention?
There were some who felt that focusing on the tiny victims in Acker’s scenario could sidetrack the discussion from the principle that all human life is sacred. A child is a child no matter at what stage its cells or organs may be harvested: in utero or ex utero, viable or pre-viable, before death or after death.
On the other hand, many hesitated to repeat Acker’s claims without further investigation. Obviously, exaggerated claims can harm one’s credibility. And when taking the moral high ground, credibility is essential.
Yet there may be even deeper reasons for dismissing statements about babies being dissected alive. If they are true, they may upset the delicate balance of our moral calculations. After all, we have gotten everything neatly figured out, in a way that is reassuring and satisfies our consciences.
Sensationalist or truth-teller?
Cell lines are created by culturing cells in such a way that they continue growing and multiplying in laboratory dishes, sometimes for long periods of time. I admit to feeling better when I read that although some vaccines are developed using fetal cell lines, those cell lines are practically ancient. Established in the 1970s and 80s, they have a very remote connection to the babies who donated the cells from which they came. We are told that the HEK 293 and the PER.C6 human fetal cell lines required only two abortions. Furthermore, because these two cell lines are immortalized, it is said that the unfortunate event will not need to happen again.
It’s all very neatly packaged. How could one get so worked up about two abortions decades ago, given the potential to save millions of lives?
Thus, even though I stood firmly against unethical vaccines on principle, I didn’t have a lively emotional response to the issue. Certainly not the jolt of emotion that I felt when I first saw the headline: “The unborn babies used for vaccine development were alive at tissue extraction.” My first thought was that such a sensational headline had better have really good sources. Looking for those sources, I read the transcript of Acker’s January 11, 2021 podcast with Westen, as well as follow-up articles in which she addressed criticisms and further questions spawned by the interview. I then spoke with her to discuss it in more detail.
I wanted to examine that single shocking claim—to pause the tape and zoom in, if you will. And then to ask: is this something we should dismiss? Does it have moral bearing on the issue at hand? Is it merely sensationalist rhetoric? And by examining it, are we simply making ourselves unnecessarily uncomfortable about something that has already been settled to our satisfaction?
A biologist and former vaccine researcher, the soft-spoken Acker is an unlikely candidate for sensational statements. And Acker is not a wholesale anti-vaxxer. On the contrary, her science career was motivated by a desire to create ethically sourced vaccines. To that end, she pursued a degree in biology, was involved in biological research at Washington University in St. Louis, worked briefly in drug development at Pfizer, and went on to obtain a master’s degree in biology from Catholic University of America.
It was while pursuing her PhD at Catholic University that Acker came face to face with the reality of fetal cell research. To her dismay, she learned the research project she was working on as part of her doctoral studies was using HEK 293.
The HEK 293 fetal cell line is derived from the kidney cells of a baby aborted in the Netherlands in 1972. The cell line is dubbed “immortalized” because the cells can divide seemingly without limit. It was created by biologist Frank Graham, from cells cultured by his research associate, Alex Van der Eb. Today, HEK 293 is virtually ubiquitous, used in the development or testing of numerous pharmaceuticals and even more mundane products such as food additives.
However, most people probably recognize the name because of the ethical controversy surrounding COVID-19 vaccines produced by Pfizer, AstraZeneca and Moderna.
Discussing the derivation of HEK 293 in testimony in 2001, Van der Eb said:
The kidney of the fetus was, with an unknown family history, was obtained in 1972 probably. The precise date is not known anymore. The fetus, as far as I can remember was completely normal. Nothing was wrong. The reasons for the abortion were unknown to me. I probably knew it at the time, but it got lost, all this information.i
After reading Alvin Wong’s 2006 article “The Ethics of HEK 293”, ii Acker decided her conscience would not allow her to participate in research that used the HEK 293 fetal cell line. Her director was unwilling to accommodate her beliefs, ultimately derailing her doctoral studies. The incident led to some soul searching at Catholic University, which issued a temporary moratorium on studies involving fetal cell lines, and Acker was “persona non grata” as her colleagues in the doctoral program were forced to temporarily halt their research.
Today Acker is a teacher and author of Vaccination: a Catholic Perspective (Kolbe Center for the Study of Creation, 2020). The slim volume is described as a resource that “touches on all the possible controversial topics about vaccines, something the average Catholic mom could hand to her physician and say ‘what do you think about this?”
Acker’s background gives her a valuable, even unique, perspective on the ethics of vaccine development. She knows her subject from the inside, adding a scientist’s perspective to that of a devout Catholic.
In the hour-long podcast January 11, Westin and Acker discussed a variety of vaccine-related topics. But Acker’s statement about halfway through the interview eclipsed the rest of the discussion. This, she said, was what happened to procure the cells for cell lines like HEK 293:
They will actually deliver these babies via Cesarean section. The babies are still alive when the researchers start extracting the tissue; to the point where their heart is still beating, and they’re generally not given any anesthetic, because that would disrupt the cells that the researchers are trying to extract. So, they’re removing this tissue, all the while the baby is alive and in extreme amounts of pain … this makes it even more sadistic.
Given Acker’s credentials, I knew better than to simply dismiss this as conjecture. But I wanted to examine her sources firsthand. Nothing I had read to date about the moral implications of fetal cell lines and the COVID vaccine had mentioned anything of the sort concerning the source of those cell lines. In fact, most accounts seemed deliberately detached, agreeing that very little was known aside from the bare facts.
Any abortion is a horrifying crime—no matter what the stage of fetal development, no matter what the circumstances. However, there was something especially horrific about what was being described here, and Acker’s word “sadistic” said it best.
Vaccines, abortions, and eugenics
Acker reassured me that far from being inference, her statements were based on solid knowledge of science, the vaccine industry, and the history of that industry. Over the course of a somber phone conversation, we examined her sources. Many were primary sources from medical and scientific literature. For much of her historical research Acker is indebted to Children of God for Life, which has been compiling information on vaccines that use fetal cell lines since 1999.
We toured the dark and troubling side of vaccine research, beginning in the 1930s and centering on the masterpiece of vaccine development: the polio vaccine of Salk and Sabin.
Medical literature from the early to mid-20th century was surprisingly frank and open about its methods. Acker began with a direct quote from a paper by vaccine pioneer Albert Sabin (1906-93). He and other scientists researching viral vaccines faced a challenge: unlike bacteria, viruses cannot reproduce on their own and require living cells to infect. Using animal subjects such as monkeys came with a risk of contamination; therefore researchers turned to human fetal tissue. Sabin described the early, critical stages of his research on the polio vaccine:
A new approach was made by the use of 3- to 4-months-old human embryos, obtained aseptically by Cesarean section. (The authors are indebted to Dr. Lance Monroe, of Bellevue Hospital, for the 2 human embryos used in this investigation.) The brain and cord, the lungs, kidneys, liver, and spleen were stored in the refrigerator, fragments of these tissues being taken for the preparation of media at 3-day intervals.iii
I expressed surprise at this quote from 1936, which was long before abortion was legal in the United States. Acker noted that the acknowledgment of Bellevue Hospital, a New York facility for “insane and feebleminded women,” was significant. This, and the reference to Cesarean section—also called “abdominal hysterotomy” in medical literature—made it “clear that this was linked to the eugenics movement.” By 1931, 38 states had adopted the Model Eugenical Sterilization Law, mandating sterilization of those deemed unfit to breed. While abortion was illegal in the United States at that time, there was a legal double standard for those whom the eugenics movement deemed “feeble-minded,” and abortions were frequently done in tandem with sterilization for such women.
Acker then said quietly “This is hopefully not going to make me cry as I read it.” From a report in the Canadian Journal of Medical Science, the next quote dated from 1952:
Human embryos of two and one-half to five months gestation were obtained from the gynaecological department of the Toronto General Hospital. They were placed in a sterile container and promptly transported to the virus laboratory of the adjacent Hospital for Sick Children. No macerated specimens were used and in many of the embryos the heart was still beating at the time of receipt in the virus laboratory.iv
Again, a eugenics link: the maternity ward at Toronto General Hospital was once headed by renowned eugenicist Dr. Helen MacMurchy (1862-1953), who established the Canadian eugenics policy that would continue for decades. It was a place where those considered unfit to be mothers were sterilized and their babies aborted, in order to prevent another generation of the feeble-minded.
Continuing our tour, Acker quoted from a 1952 paper on the propagation of polio myelitis viruses:
[Tissue] was obtained under sterile precautions at the time of abdominal hysterotomy for therapeutic indications. Embryos of between 12 and 18 weeks gestation have been utilized. Rarely tissues were obtained from stillborn fetuses, or from premature infants at autopsy… In the experiments on prolonged propagation of virus three sorts of embryonic materials were used: elements of skin, connective tissue, and muscle; intestinal tissue; brain tissue. Embryonic tissues were prepared in the following manner. Whenever possible the embryo was removed from the amniotic sac under sterile precautions, transferred to a sterile towel and kept at 5 C until dissected.v
The use of a few medical terms can obscure plain facts. “Is he saying”, I asked in horror, “that these babies—3 to 4 ½ months gestation—were born alive, and were still alive when they were sent to the lab…?” Acker finished my sentence: “They were placed in a sterile container and shipped to a lab. And then they were dissected.”
She clarified, “The removal of their organs was probably the immediate cause of death, although they would probably have died anyway given their gestational age.” To my question, “How can you call that abortion? That’s infanticide. Or worse, vivisection,” she responded “That’s the euphemism. That’s the word that doesn’t evoke the idea of the brutality of what’s going on.”
Acker explained “Just as you can’t transplant a dead organ into a living body, you cannot make a cell line out of dead tissue. This baby was not dead when they put it in the refrigerator.” The process of procuring human fetal tissue “has to be done in a methodical kind of way in order to obtain the kind of tissue—live tissue—that will be successful for this kind of research.” These were not isolated instances, but “part and parcel of the medical research that was going on in the 1950s and 60s.”
Spontaneous abortions—miscarriages—are generally not a good source of fetal tissue, Acker said, because the baby frequently dies at an undetermined time before delivery. Therefore it is highly unlikely that a miscarriage would supply the fresh tissue needed for successful cell culture, and “even if the other conditions were in place, getting consent from her at that moment is completely out of the question.” It is also probable that genetic abnormality, disease, or bacterial contamination will make fetal tissue from a spontaneous abortion unsuitable.
For their work pioneering the tissue culture method in vaccine research, these scientists received the Nobel Prize in 1954. In his acceptance speech, Thomas Weller admitted to “fishing in troubled waters,” using fetal “intestine, liver, kidney, adrenal, brain, heart, spleen, and lung” to culture polio virus.
There was no need for Acker to continue listing graphic details. I went looking for more, and found them without too much trouble.
The first was from 1969, from a report on the development of the rubella vaccine by Stanley Plotkin and colleagues:
Explant cultures were made of the dissected organs of a particular fetus aborted because of rubella, the 27th in our series of fetuses aborted…. The fetus was surgically aborted 17 days after maternal illness [rubella] and dissected immediately. vi
The same article noted that the resulting rubella vaccine “was tested on orphans in Philadelphia.” The unabashed eugenics link continues throughout 20th-century vaccine research. Plotkin, known as the “godfather of vaccines” for his work on the rubella vaccine, spelled out his philosophy in a 1973 letter to the New England Journal of Medicine:
The question is whether we are to have experiments performed on fully functioning adults, and on children who are potential contributors to society, or are to perform initial studies in children and adults who are human in form but not in social potential.vii
In line with this philosophy, the patent application for Plotkin’s intranasal rubella vaccine revealed that he tested it first on mentally handicapped, “orthopedically handicapped,” orphaned, and deaf children before testing it on school children.viii
At least 99 elective abortions were reported in the research and production of Plotkin’s rubella vaccine: 32 from fetal cell lines that failed, and 67 from attempts to isolate the rubella virus.ix The resulting virus strain was named from the series of attempts: “RA 27/3” indicates “rubella abortus, twenty-seventh fetus, third tissue extract.”x
While Plotkin methodically detailed the abortions involved in his work, later sources were less forthright, “full of obfuscation,” said Acker. After Roe v. Wade in 1973, there was no reason to suppose that the scientific establishment would suddenly develop a respect for human life that was absent before the ruling. However, after decades of federally funded fetal research, in the early 1970s some horrific reports came to the public’s attention: research on live aborted babies in Sweden, still moving babies packed on ice in Pittsburgh to be shipped to the lab, dissection of a live baby for experimentation at Yale. The outcry led to a moratorium on fetal tissue research for transplantation that remained in place for over fifteen years; however, other areas of fetal tissue research were not impacted.xi
Down the rabbit hole
I still had many questions, so back down the internet rabbit hole I went. It was indeed a rabbit hole, into a shadowy world that left me exhausted after each sobering trip. One report led to another. It became clear just how little I knew about the abortion industry. I waded through many things I simply didn’t want to know, didn’t want to see, and then wanted to forget. Some corridors branched off into the sad catalogue of abortion methods and protocols, tissue procurement; quite a few opened into the world of organ donation and transplants. Often I would turn a corner and find that someone had been there before me; in fact, it was clear that others had been conscientiously researching and writing about the subject of fetal tissue research and the vaccine industry for many years. What puzzled me was why their research—well documented, using industry records, not conjecture or vague rumors—was not better known, even among people who were ardently pro-life and otherwise well informed.
The candor of certain reports on fetal tissue research, even as the scientific establishment became more reticent in the early 1970s, was often surreal. Not all of the instances I found involved vaccine research, but they had a common thread: painful research on live babies who survived abortion.
In this parallel universe, newspapers reported matter of factly on fetal vivisection, as in this article from the San Francisco Chronicle, April 19, 1973, entitled “Operations on Live Fetuses:”
Dr. Jerald Gaull in periodic trips to Finland injects a radioactive chemical into the fragile umbilical cords of fetuses freshly removed from their mothers’ wombs in abortions. The fetus in each case is far too young to survive, but in the brief period that its heart is still beating, Gaull, chief of pediatrics research at the New York State Institute for Basic Research in Mental Retardation on Staten Island—then operates to remove its brain, lung, liver and kidneys for study.
The article continued:
Dr. Robert Schwartz, chief of pediatrics at Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital, goes to Finland for a similar purpose. After a fetus is delivered, while it is still linked to its mother by the umbilical cord, he takes a blood sample. Then, after the cord is severed, he ‘as quickly as possible,’ operates on this aborted being to remove other tissues and organs.’
Gaull’s rationale: “Rather than it being immoral to do what we are trying to do, it is immoral, it is a terrible perversion of ethics-—to throw these fetuses in the incinerator as is usually done, rather than to get some useful information.”
The article, which discussed potential funding restrictions on such research, was frank in what it described and in its lack of moral approbation.
Potential funding restrictions was a trip down another long corridor, lined with articles, scholarly papers and congressional testimony about fetal tissue research and resulting ethical issues. I found discussions of proposed federal restrictions to be revealing.
A 1988 article in the Hastings Journal assumed that tissue removal from live, nonviable fetuses was already taking place:
Perhaps the most pertinent federal restriction is the ban on research of any kind on a live nonviable fetus ex utero that would prematurely terminate the fetus’ life. This ban may be significant because the procedure required for removing fetal brain tissue transplantation would hasten the death of a live fetus. Thus, if a similar restriction were imposed on fetal tissue transplants, it would prohibit the removal of fetal brain tissue and, potentially, other types of tissue, from live nonviable fetuses.xii
A 1976 report by drug manufacturer Batelle-Columbus Laboratories acknowledged the role of live fetal research in four medical advances: amniocentesis, respiratory distress syndrome, and, significantly for this article, the rubella and Rh vaccines: “It is apparent from a study of the development of the four selected cases… that research on living human fetuses played a significant role in each.”xiii The report recommended against restrictions on such research.
At this point in my rabbit hole wanderings, I still struggled with a jarring sense of unreality. Perhaps I was misunderstanding something. Research on living human fetuses? Aren’t there laws about this sort of thing? Much is made of restrictions on fetal use and research in the United States. Yet while federal restrictions in the United States wax and wane depending on who occupies the White House, it is clear that research on live, nonviable fetuses continues, with the purpose of obtaining the freshest tissue samples possible, for transplant or research. It may take place without federal funding, by going overseas, or simply by obscuring those critical few minutes between delivery of the baby and the time the tissue is sent to the lab. As journalist Suzanne Rini says in her 1993 book Beyond Abortion: A Chronicle of Fetal Experimentation,
Researchers… who receive tissues from hysterotomy and from second trimester abortions by methods notorious for producing live babies, too glibly state that their tissues come from ‘dead fetuses.’ There is an intermediate stage about which few will talk. xiv
British sociologist Julie Kent, discussing fetal tissue research in the U.K., says “‘sanctioned non-compliance’ characterizes current practices…”xv This would seem to be the case in the U.S. as well.
Sanctioned non-compliance may go all the way to the top, as evidenced by an investigation into human fetal trafficking involving the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA spent thousands of dollars between 2012 and 2018 to obtain liver and thymus tissue for research on humanized mice. Hundreds of pages of emails, obtained by legal accountability group Judicial Watch, document arrangements for human fetal tissue, gestational age 16 to 24 weeks, to be delivered “fresh, shipped on wet ice.”xvi
On the other hand, there are certainly industry standards: “Good Clinical Practice” standards, “Good Manufacturing Practices” (GMP), and the like. I soon realized these are meant to protect the consumer and ensure the purity of the end product; they have nothing to do with protecting the fetus. The words “immediately dissected” and “fresh” appeared frequently, usually under “materials and methods”. Again, the intent was to reassure the consumer that the product was uncontaminated.
`I don’t know what you mean,’ said Alice.`Of course you don’t!’ the Hatter said, tossing his head contemptuously.xvii
The vocabulary of scientific and medical research is euphemistic, to say the least. Like Alice trying to understand the Mad Hatter, it’s possible for the layman to read research accounts and not fully realize what is being described. For instance, “isolate” means “cut off”, as does “dissociate.” Even when dealing with non-humans, the literature is reluctant to use certain terms. Therefore a pregnant rat, after having her uterus removed under anesthesia, is “sacrificed”—not killed.
Thus, I puzzled over a report from the journal Liver Transplantation that described a technique for obtaining fetal liver cells. The study in question “was performed with donated tissue from 15 medically indicated abortions.” The article described “the cannulation of the fetal portal vein with microsurgery techniques and the subsequent in situ vascular perfusion of human FLs [fetal livers] at 18 weeks of gestation and later.”xviii It went on to describe the procedure for tissue dissociation and subsequent liver removal in detail.
My suspicions were confirmed by a textbook entry, which described the procedure more accurately as a “five-step in vivo perfusion method by umbilical vein cannulation to isolate liver cells from fetuses at the late second trimester”xix
Translated: After abortion, liver tissue was removed from 15 live babies. The phrase in vivo (“in the living”) helped confirm that the microsurgery and liver tissue removal were performed on living babies.
Although the procedure was performed to obtain cells for liver cell transplant, not cell culture, the rationale was exactly the same: to obtain the freshest tissue possible.
At this point in my research, incredulity took over. I simply couldn’t believe what I was reading online. A few clicks, and I owned my own copy of Hepatocyte Transplantation, where on page 283 I found the in vivo procedure described, with full-color photos on page 288.
For the non-scientist, reading about research on non-humans can provide clarification. Thus, seeing a report on cardiac stem cell research in which human fetal hearts were hooked up to a Lagendorff assembly—which can keep a heart beating artificially outside the body-—I did not at first realize that these hearts must come from live subjects. After reading of hearts being extracted from live, anesthetized rats for a similar procedure, it became clear that the rats must be euthanized after, not before, the procedure.xx
Reports of tissue extraction from laboratory animals generally note the animal’s death and whether the death occurred before or after organ extraction. Sometimes they detail how the animal was killed. Reports on baby humans do not mention signs of life in the aborted fetus; nor mention its demise. One wonders why fetal demise is not noted, particularly when an abortion has been arranged to deliver an intact fetus.
Yet studies of second trimester infants indicate the median length of survival outside the womb, without intervention, is about an hour. A British study of 1306 live births between 20 and 23 weeks’ gestation noted that while “many died within minutes of delivery,” at 20 weeks the median survival time was 80 minutes; at 23 weeks, it was 6 hours. (This study excluded 437 babies who survived termination of pregnancy.)xxi
To sum up: The vaccine industry has a longstanding and troubling connection to the abortion industry, and that connection continues strong today. The public is often fed comforting half-truths, even gaslighted into thinking the abortions that gave us today’s vaccines were an aberration or a way of salvaging hope from an unavoidable tragedy.
Yet a few persistent voices continue to insist that the reality is much grimmer. But are these claims exaggerated? The fact that babies are deliberately aborted so as to produce an intact, living fetus, is indisputable and supported by medical literature from the 1930’s to the present. The fact that scientists have had no scruples about dissecting babies alive for research purposes is also documented. Is it probable or even indisputable that this brutal action led to the creation of cell lines used for today’s vaccines? Acker and other experts claim that it is, based on the simple principle that living cells for cell lines cannot be derived from a dead body.
Can I prove this? Not without a shadow of a doubt. Yet it is clear that research on living, unwanted babies—“human non-persons” has gone on for many years and continues today. The evidence is there for those who want to find it.
i Alex van der Eb, Testimony before the Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee, May 16, 2001
iii Albert B Sabin, Peter K. Olitsky, “Cultivation of Poliomyelitis Virus in vitro in human embryonic tissue” Proceedings of the Society for Experimental Biology and medicine, 1936, 34:357-359)
iv Joan C. Thicke, Darline Duncan, William Wood, A. E. Franklin and A. J. Rhodes; “Cultivation of Poliomyelitis Virus in Tissue Culture; Growth of the Lansing Strain in Human Embryonic Tissue,” Canadian Journal of Medical Science, Vol. 30, pg 231-245, 1952
v Thomas H. Weller, John F. Enders, Frederick C. Robbins and Marguerite B. Stoddard; “Studies on the Cultivation of Poliomyelitis Viruses in Tissue Culture : I. The Propagation of Poliomyelitis Viruses in Suspended Cell Cultures of Various Human Tissue;” Journal of Immunology, 1952
vi “G. Sven, S. Plotkin, K. McCarthy, Gamma Globulin Prophylaxis; Inactivated Rubella Virus; Production and Biological Control of Live Attenuated Rubella Virus Vaccines,” American Journal of Diseases of Children Vol. 118, Aug. 1969
vii Letter to the editor, “Ethics of Human Experimentation,” Dr. Stanley Plotkin, New England Journal of Medicine, #593,1973
viii U.S. Patent Application, Intranasal immunization against rubella, 1968
x S.A. Plotkin et al., “Attenuation of RA 27/3 Rubella Virus in WI-38 Human Diploid Cells,” American Journal of Disabilities of Children 110.4 (October 1965): 381-382.
xi From the amici curiae brief in support of the National Abortion Federation’s suit against David Daleiden, the Center for Medical Progress, Biomax Procurement Services, LLC, and Troy Newman and the Center for Medical Progress, June 7, 2016
xii Mark W. Danis, “Fetal Tissue Transplants: Restricting Recipient Designation,” Hastings Law Journal, 7-1988
xiv Suzanne Rini, Beyond Abortion: A Chronicle of Fetal Experimentation, TAN Books; 1993
xvii Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Chapter 7, “A Mad Tea Party”
xxi PI McFarlane, S Wood, J Bennett, “Non-viable delivery at 20–23 weeks gestation: observations and signs of life after birth” BMJ Journals, ADC Fetal and Neonatal Edition, Vol. 88, Issue 3
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