Those with an anti-vaccine ideology come from various starting points. There are those who just hate vaccines – because they don’t trust the system, they don’t like the idea of injecting something into their children, or they blame vaccines for their child’s illness or disorder. There is also the “mercury militia” – those who blame environmental mercury for all ills, and whose attention was drawn to vaccines through the mercury-based thimerosal connection. I wrote recently about another group – radical environmentalists who see vaccines and just another environmental exposure the government is trying to cover up.

There is another group that has been around for a while but about which I have not written before – some elements of the right-to-life group. What is their connection to vaccines? – the false belief that vaccines contain cells from aborted fetuses. Recently Lifenews published an article with the following headline: Study Suggests Link Between Autism and Use of Cells From Abortions in Vaccines. The study, of course, does nothing of the sort.

The EPA Study

LifeNews editor, Steven Ertelt, was referring to a recent EPA study published in Environmental Science Technology called Timing of Increased Autistic Disorder Cumulative Incidence. If you read the paper you will find no mention of vaccines, let alone fetal cells in vaccines. The study simply looked at databases of autism diagnosis to see if there was a point at which the increasing cumulative diagnoses was most sharp – any turning points in the data. The point of this exercise is to suggest where to look for a potential environment factor contributing to autism – because that’s what the EPA does, look for environmental exposures that are causing human disease.

They found that in the California, Danish, and worldwide datasets the turning point happened around 1988-1989, while in the Japanese dataset the turning point was spread out more from 1988-1996. Therefore, they conclude, if we want to look for an environmental factor we should look for things whose exposure began around 1988-1989. That is the extent of their conclusion – nothing about vaccines or abortions.

In fact, their study did not even establish that the rising rates of autism are due to any environmental factor. In the discussion they give a nice summary of other documented contributors. These include diagnostic substitution, expanding the diagnostic criteria, younger age at diagnosis, influx of children with the diagnosis to areas with good services, and increased awareness and surveillance. No one of these factors can explain the entire increase, but it is possible that all of them together can, and it is certain that they explain at least part of the rise of autism diagnosis. A real increase cannot be ruled out, but is not necessary to explain the data – and this study does not change that.

The Abortion Link

Ertelt demonstrates the ability of dedicated ideologues to transform a study beyond all recognition. He reports:

The 1988 date is significant because, as pro-life blogger Jill Stanek notes, the Sound Choice Pharmaceutical Institute indicates that’s when the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices added a second dose of the MMR vaccine, containing fetal cells from aborted babies, to its recommendations.

That’s it – a second dose of MMR vaccine was added. Since the vaccine schedule was being expanded regularly over the last two decades, no matter what date the EPA study found as the turning point for increased diagnosis, a temporal link to some vaccine could have been found. So the fact that this roughly correlates with the addition of a second dose of MMR is meaningless. It is not evidence of a connection. At best this kind of data may suggest a potential link, that would then have to be confirmed by other means – but even that is extremely weak.

Ertelt continues:

“For years the evidence has pointed toward the link between vaccines using DNA from aborted babies and the rise of Autism Disorder rates,” he said. “Parents need and deserve to know the risks associated with vaccinations made from lines derived from the bodies of aborted children.”

“While the pharmaceutical industry ignores the evidence and continues to put our children at risk,” Sound Choice is conducting studies on the impact of residual human fetal DNA in vaccines on the brain development and autism in children, Sedlak continued.

Wait a minute – the headline says (or at least strongly implies) that cells from aborted fetuses are in vaccines, but now they are talking about “lines derived from” cells from aborted fetuses. And then it sounds like they are not talking about cells at all, but just “residual human DNA.” So which is it?

Some vaccines culture the attenuated virus in human diploid cell lines that were derived from aborted fetuses. There are currently two such human cell lines in use: the WI-38 line (Winstar Institute 38), with human diploid lung fibroblasts developed in 1964, and  MRC-5 first cultured in 1970.  So each cell line is over 40 years old. Further, the cells themselves are not part of the vaccine. Viruses are cultured in these cell lines.

It is true that viruses are sloppy in their reproduction – they get their DNA mixed up with other viruses and host DNA. So it is likely that viruses cultured in a human cell line will come away with bits of DNA from that cell line – but so what? There is nothing special or different about this DNA. There is no theoretical reason why it should pose any health risk. This is simple scare-mongering using deception and misinformation.

And that is the point – scaring the public with emotional appeals. A search on this topic reveals dozens of websites and article declaring that there is “aborted fetal tissue” in vaccines – a claim so remote from the tiny sliver of truth on which it is based that it is simply a lie.

I have no issue with those who have a moral objection to anything that derives from abortions, if that is their moral position. I object to distorting the science in order to spread propaganda. If you have to lie to make your point, then your position is severely diminished.

Ertelt further reports

Stanek also commented on the new developments.

“I’ve always read it was mercury in vaccines that was implicated in autism, although many studies state this isn’t true,” she said, noted SCPI debunks the idea.

Interesting – so the pro-life antivaccinationists are at odds with the mercury militia antvaccinationists. They are willing, it seems, to look at the data to debunk the notion that mercury in vaccines is linked to autism, but then happily cite a potential connection to MMR without also noting that the same volume of data also has cleared the MMR vaccine of any connection with autism.


The EPA study is interesting in that it clarifies the timing of the increase in autism diagnoses. It says nothing about the cause of this increase, however, and does not contradict the generally accepted interpretation that artifacts of definition and surveillance are largely, if not completely, responsible for the increase. But ideologues have twisted this study as if it suggests a connection to vaccines, which were not even mentioned in the article and were not part of the research. But not only vaccines – those vaccines that were cultured in cell lines derived over 40 years ago from aborted fetuses.

Further, there is no reason to suspect, either theoretically or empirically, that there is any health risk from using these cell lines in the production of vaccines.

This has not stopped some pro-life antivaccinationists from misrepresenting this study and the background science for their own propaganda purposes. Accurate science should inform moral and ethical discussions, it should not be subverted to an ideological position. One might further consider it immoral to use misinformation to scaremonger about a public health measure, making the position of those pro-life antivaccinationists who engage in such activity even more tenuous.

Posted by Steven Novella

Founder and currently Executive Editor of Science-Based Medicine Steven Novella, MD is an academic clinical neurologist at the Yale University School of Medicine. He is also the host and producer of the popular weekly science podcast, The Skeptics’ Guide to the Universe, and the author of the NeuroLogicaBlog, a daily blog that covers news and issues in neuroscience, but also general science, scientific skepticism, philosophy of science, critical thinking, and the intersection of science with the media and society. Dr. Novella also has produced two courses with The Great Courses, and published a book on critical thinking - also called The Skeptics Guide to the Universe.