Published in the Charleston Gazette-Mail, April 7, 2019

the Immortal Cells of Ignorance

If ignorance is defined as a lack of knowing, then we are all ignorant; no

matter what our qualifications, there are things even the most educated

person does not yet know. Often, the more a person learns, the more they

realize they don’t know. That’s what science and research does; it

welcomes skepticism and embraces challenge.

For some, no matter what the proof, there will still be a selective rejection of

fact based on personal bias, anecdotal hearsay, or just plain rebellion from

being told what to believe by people who seem too authoritative. But to preselect

which evidence to use to guide one’s decisions, and then to favor the

evidence that fits their personality, their party or their friends, that’s

ignorance---the willful kind.

In a public discussion responding to proposed West Virginia Senate Bill 454,

which would allow exemptions for parents who decline vaccinating their

school-age children, several comments were made by those who object to

vaccines in the belief that they are made from the tissues of aborted babies.

That rumor originates from events that occurred in the mid-1960’s, when a

research study proved that rubella (German measles) was responsible for

devastating abnormalities in the fetuses of pregnant women who contracted

it. Some women who had been infected early in pregnancy, facing the 85%

risk that their babies would be infected in utero, chose to have an abortion.

Two of those fetuses were used for research, and one was found to have

the rubella virus in its kidney. That virus was isolated by the lab, and the

virus was then mutated to create an anti-virus.

The generations of the viral strain found in the fetal tissue, known as

“Immortal Cells” due to their ability to regenerate perpetually in the

laboratory, was never part of the fetus itself. The cells were used to

produce a vaccine to protect people from rubella, and it worked. According

to the World Health Organization, measles is a leading cause of vaccine-preventable deaths among children, and due to the Immortal Cell lines

developed from those tissues, an estimated 17 million lives have been

saved worldwide.

But opposition to the vaccines made from this line (measles, chickenpox,

hepatitis A, shingles and rabies), based on a misunderstood connection to

fetal tissue, has morphed into an anti-abortion rallying cry, even accusing

pharmaceutical companies of “sacrificing aborted babies.”

In response to this misconception, in 1999 the National Catholic Bioethics

Center created guidance on vaccines that were developed using this

Immortal Cell line (also called descendent cells) of the aborted fetus.

Their website states that “Descendent cells are the medium in which

these vaccines are prepared. The cell lines under consideration were

begun using cells taken from one or more fetuses aborted almost 40

years ago. Since that time the cell lines have grown independently. It is

important to note that descendent cells are not the cells of the aborted

child. They never, themselves, formed a part of the victim's body. One is

morally free to use the vaccine regardless of its historical association with

abortion. The reason is that the risk to public health, if one chooses not to

vaccinate, outweighs the legitimate concern about the origins of the

vaccine. This is especially important for parents, who have a moral

obligation to protect the life and health of their children and those around


Yet, the rumor lives on, like an Immortal Cell of Ignorance, replicating in

infinity and determined to defy any basis of knowledge even from an

authority that denounced science as heresy hundreds of years ago. But

now, the authorities rejecting scientific discovery are not the Popes of the

Dark Ages, but individual parents who have elected to ignore the benefits

of preventative medicine, opting to endanger the life and health of their

children and those around them.

Billions of dollars have been poured into preventing communicable

diseases, and the effort to immunize globally has met opposition

elsewhere, often based on superstition, paranoia or religious beliefs.

Consider countries like Cameroon, Tanzania, Nigeria, Pakistan, and

Afghanistan, where people have been convinced that Western medicine is

trying to sterilize them, or worse---to infect them with diseases rather than

immunize them. The Taliban in Southern Afghanistan call the polio

vaccine “an American ploy to sterilize Muslims in an attempt to avert

Allah’s will.” In Pakistan, militants have killed 70 polio-vaccine workers

since 2012.

The comparisons are uncanny.

Even as the risk of antibiotic overuse is becoming one of the next biggest

health crisis, it’s difficult to convince people that viruses---which have few

therapeutic medical treatments as compared to bacterial infections ---can

be more sinister than “germs.” But now we have people who refuse to

believe any explanation that goes counter to their own unfounded,

unsubstantiated insistence that the “aborted fetus vaccine hoax” is real---

perhaps because they wish it to be true.

Of all the threats to our health, whether they are natural disasters,

preventable diseases, or lack of basic needs like clean water and air---

ignorance has always been, by far, the most dangerous. And it continues

to infect us; in this case, by fooling people into believing that they are

protecting the unborn when in fact, they are doing the exact opposite.