I have heard claims that cells from aborted fetuses are involved in the production of vaccines such as MMR. Is this true?

For instance, this page from the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University:

Is it true that there are vaccines produced using aborted foetuses?

Some of the vaccines currently used to prevent diseases such as rubella, measles, rabies, poliomyelitis, hepatitis A, chickenpox or smallpox are produced using tissues from human abortions.


The most widely used foetal cells are WI-38 and MRC-5. The WI-38 cells were derived by Leonard Hayflick in 1962 from the lung of a 3-month female foetus 2.The initials WI refer to the Wistar Institute, a body of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, and number 38 to the foetus from which the cells were obtained. The MRC-5 cells were obtained in 1966 from the lungs of a 14-week male foetus [3].The initials MRC indicate Medical Research Council, a body from London. Other cells derived from surgically-aborted foetuses are: WI-1, WI-3, WI-11, WI-16, WI-18, WI-19, WI-23, WI-24, WI-25, WI-26, WI-27, WI-44, MRC-9, IMR-90, and R-17 (obtained from lung); WI-2, WI-12 and WI-20, (skin and muscle); WI-5 (muscle); WI-8 and WI-14, and WS1 (skin); WI-4, WI-9, WI-10, WI-13 and WI-15 (kidney); WI-6, WI-21 and WI-22 (heart); WI-7 (thymus and thyroids), WI-17 (liver); FHs74Int (small intestine); and PER.C6

The page links to this page at the Bioethics Observatory at the Catholic University of Valencia, which goes on to consider the ethical questions posed from a Catholic point of view.

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    To anyone wanting to close: the general claim is notable, the Catholic Church has even commented on the ethics of receiving vaccines derived from cell lines from aborted embryos, and there’s been controversy about some proposed coronavirus vaccines being based on them.
    – Golden Cuy
    Oct 10, 2020 at 12:55
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    Does it claim that vaccines use cell strains whose ancestors came from aborted tissue, or cells from aborted tissue? That is a difference.
    – o.m.
    Oct 10, 2020 at 17:50
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    @LangLаngС The edited version of the question (there is only one edit so far) goes on to specify what that means, which is specific cell lines from fetuses aborted several decades ago (58 years ago in the case of WI-38). The question answers itself. It is either trivially true in the sense that fetal stem cell lines or immortalized fetal cell lines are widely used in the development, testing, or production of many, if not most, new drugs. It is trivially false in the sense that a steady stream of aborted fetuses are not used. (continued) Oct 11, 2020 at 5:34
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    @DavidHammen The nuance of how any human tissues were or are used to produce vaccines is not trivial at all. It's information that requires technical explanation, and holds a heavy moral gravity for many people. Trivial means "not important" (subjective, vote accordingly), but in your newer "easily verified or understood" meaning, you're trivially wrong.
    – user11643
    Oct 11, 2020 at 18:17
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    @fredsbend I'm going to agree with David on this one - it's trivially easy to look up if the claim is true or false and the answer is literally there in the question: yes, cell lines derived from aborted foetuses are used in biomedical research. That pushes questions like this into a gray area for this site since "Yes, [link to biology textbook]" isn't really much of an answer. The broader moral and ethical questions can't really be debated here since they are out of scope.
    – rjzii
    Oct 12, 2020 at 5:09

1 Answer 1


Yes, as listed in the question, some vaccines are created using cell lines derived from aborted fetuses. For instance the use of the WI-38 line is documented here.

These abortions occured in the 1960s. The abortions were not carried out in order to create the cell lines, and new abortions are not required for the continuing production of these vaccines.

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    Some explanation on how they are used would make this answer better. Why the abortions were carried out perhaps needs a citation. I assume "Hayflick acquired the original cells from ..." would do.
    – user11643
    Oct 12, 2020 at 13:30
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    @fredsbend The original paper (doi.org/10.1016/0014-4827(61)90192-6) doesn't actually say, but Hayflick et al were working in the USA. Aborting a fetus merely to obtain a tissue sample would have been illegal. Breaking the law was not necessary as any clinic carrying out abortions would have been able to supply the samples. Oct 12, 2020 at 14:52
  • Not all were in the 1960s. The HEK-293 cell line was from an abortion performed probably in 1972. The PER.C6 cell line was from an abortion performed in 1985. web.archive.org/web/20090801092015/http://www.fda.gov/ohrms/… As for whether the abortions were performed for the vaccines, it doesn't look like it.
    – Buge
    Jun 23, 2021 at 7:37

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