The Other Anti-Vaccinationists

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 in: Vaccines

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23 thoughts on “The Other Anti-Vaccinationists

  1. Ian says:

    A shot of made the Frontline documentary last night. :)

  2. David Gorski says:

    I can’t help but mention that a more “insolent” friend of mine had a less restrained take on this study:


    A mathematician friend of mine also pointed out that the “iterative hockey stick analysis” used by the anti-abortion group is not really a valid method of analysis because it in essence fits the curve to a polynomial, which can produce as many “changepoints” as desired depending upon the power of the polynomial to which the curve is fit.

  3. clgood says:

    I’m afraid the antivaxers are going to use this news out of Australia to bolster their cause:

    I don’t know how bad the reporting is on this, although it’s a safe bet to say “really bad”. It’s not clear to me that there’s any real link to the vaccine other than post hoc. They may indeed have a bad batch, but this sounds like bad news all around.

  4. SF Mom and Scientist says:

    clgood – here is the last thing I heard about the Australia cases.

    That is, no clear link at this point, but investigation is ongoing. Overall, the reporting has been bad on this.

  5. sheldon101 says:

    Dr. Paul Offit’s book “Vaccines” has a chapter on the aborted fetuses used in vaccines issue.

    Those trying to have Catholics boycott some vaccines lost the battle when the Vatican decided that the actual vaccines are far enough away from how they were originally created that there is no sin in using them. The sin attaches to those who created them.

    Merck’s decision not to supply separate measles, mumps and rubella vaccines may have had a bit of a push from this issue. Of the three vaccines, only the Rubella vaccine started with a bit of aborted human tissue.

  6. lizditz says:

    To be fair, this was posted at the lifenews site, with a link from the original post:

    Claims Questioned On Vaccines Using Cells From Abortion Leading to Autism

    by Steven Ertelt, Editor
    April 26, 2010

    Washington, DC ( — Claims from a pro-life organization and pro-life blogger who say a new study conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency shows a correlation between the use of cells from babies in abortions in vaccines to an increase in autism rates, are drawing questions and criticism.


    Jim Sedlak, vice president of American Life League, and pro-life blogger Jill Stanek to suggest there is a link between the use of fetal cells from abortions in vaccines and autism.

    But the study’s author, Mike McDonald, and others, question that claim.

    McDonald responded to an email from the Opposing Views web site, responded to the question and said the claims “incorrectly represent, and far overreach, our study findings.”

    “Our study draws no causal linkages with anything and the recent increase in autistic disorder, and certainly not to the use of fetal tissues in vaccines,” he said. “Without additional screening approaches there are potentially a huge number of possible exogenous factors and explanations that could be associated with autism.”

    He concluded that, “in no case is a correlation with any of these things, including with the timing of the change point, with some other occurrence any indication of causation.”

    The claims also came under fire from pro-life advocates.

    Rev. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, an Assistant Professor of Biology at Providence College, told the study “suggests a link between exogenous environmental stressors and autism” but “does not say that this stressor was the vaccine.”

    “For example, another scientific study has suggested that it is the Tylenol that was given to babies after their vaccinations that may have led to their autism, and not the vaccines themselves. Tylenol replaced aspirin as the drug of choice given to babies after their shots in the early 1980’s just when incidence of autism increased,” Austriaco said.

    “Numerous studies have failed to uncover a link between vaccines and autism,” he added.

    “It is not surprising that the original paper published in Lancet that initially suggested a link between the two has since been retracted as flawed and erroneous. There is no credible scientific evidence that links vaccines and autism. Parents should be encouraged to have their children vaccinated, a great good for the preservation of the common good,” he told

  7. Bytor says:

    The comments on the Fronline page for that docu are just amazing, and not in a positive way. So many kool-aid drinkers who have already decided and will never be convinced by actual evidence.

    There’s even this one post by a supposed doctor who talks about “vaccine provocation of stealth adapted virus induced encephalopathy”. WTF?!?

  8. Dr. G. so what’s your take on dissociative identity disorder?

  9. rork says:

    My compliments to Novella – on the writing.
    Those sentences were astonishingly tight, clear, to the point, and in good order. Me wanna write like that.

    (and you’re funny, michele.)

  10. David Gorski says:

    Why michele, whatever do you mean?

  11. DREads says:

    A mathematician friend of mine also pointed out that the “iterative hockey stick analysis” used by the anti-abortion group is not really a valid method of analysis because it in essence fits the curve to a polynomial, which can produce as many “changepoints” as desired depending upon the power of the polynomial to which the curve is fit.

    Yes! In statistics and machine learning, we call it overfitting, which happens when your model or analysis memorizes the data, making it meaningless. Ideally, a model should generalize well, which means it should be consistent with unseen data.

    There are models that can fit almost any distribution so care must be taken when using them to avoid overfitting. One way to control overfitting is by imposing regularization, which is a penalty on model complexity (e.g. going on your polynomial example, the bound on the risk would be more pessimistic the higher the degree of the polynomial you use). The Nature of Statistical Learning Theory is the seminal book on the subject on statistically estimating functions on data and discusses the limitations of different methods of controlling overfitting in depth. It is not an easy read and requires significant mathematical sophistication. Devorye’s A Probabilistic Theory of Pattern Recognition is another good book.

    It’s important most people just understand the basic concept. Overfitting is so common that it is difficult to take the word of any analysis when controls for overfitting have not been accounted for. In the very least, the model should be applied to a sequestered data set to see if the same conclusions can be drawn, but even that isn’t enough in most cases.

  12. overshoot says:

    FSVO “aborted.”

    I haven’t got a clear answer to the sources of those cell lines, but from the dates (1964 and 1970, both before Roe v Wade) I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the “aborted fetuses” were not intentionally aborted. The term “aborted fetus” is, after all, the technical one for what is commonly referred to as a “stillbirth.”

  13. David Gorski

    “Why michele, whatever do you mean?”

    I just think your insolent friend might be a tiny unstable… But, don’t tell him I said that.

  14. keleton says:

    Thank you for an excellent post Dr. Novella.

    @DREads: thanks for your clear description of the concept of overfitting, it is very helpful to me since I have not taken any stats classes yet.

    @overshoot: I was thinking the same thing. “Abortion” is a dirty word but too often the proper medical usage for the term is ignored or forgotten.

    Even if the rubella vaccine was developed using electively aborted fetuses (highly doubtful), it has obviously saved many, many more fetuses and babies from the devastation of the disease if their mother contracted it while pregnant. So the utilitarian in me would be comfortable with that.

    Anyone seen the really incredible preserved fetal display at OMSI? I’ve never heard anyone complain that those were from “abortions” – though many of them clearly had to be, with the exceptions of those displayed in their unfortunate mother’s womb.

    FTR I am pro-life, though I hate using the term because it implies religion or general cuckoo-ness. This does not have to be incompatible with research or development using fetal tissue.

  15. tcw says:

    In response to Overshoot, does any one know if replication of DNA is less prone to error when using lines from a healthy fetus inductively aborted rather than from a stillbirth that may have a potential congenital problem (i.e., DNA that is apt to not replicate as easily in vitro)?
    Kudos to lizditz for pasting the subsequent “oops” article. I am wondering if Ertelt is embarrassed by Stanek and Sedlak’s distortions, since the rebuke article followed soon after the original. As Dr. Novella made clear, it is easier to believe an untruth if it furthers your cause. I do not recall many times that the fetal cell line issue gets tangled with the autism conspiracy. I would have to admit that the fetal cell line concerns are based on a solid logic, but that the causality matters, i.e., where one is on the status of the fetus. The argument runs similar to other poisoned tree arguments: we still get cotton from fields that were tended and started by slaves years ago. In this case, slavery is the issue in dispute, not the fact that we benefit down the road. No one denies that cotton is a good thing. Likewise, the anti-fetal cell vaccine people do not commonly deny the good of vaccines, which makes the above Ertelt articles rather curious to me.
    This may clarify what Sheldon101 referenced:

  16. lamamaloca says:

    Here’s the official Vatican statement being referenced:

    I don’t know if I would accept some of their arguments, particularly as they seem to assume that using these cell lines would encourage more abortions to develop new cell lines, which isn’t the case. In any case, they make it clear that while they want there to exist rubella vaccines not derived from aborted fetuses, the health of children and the population trumps such a desire and the vaccines should be used.

    Interesting, a pro-life news site used the headline “Vatican Condemns Vaccines Made with Tissue Obtained by Abortion” and claimed the above statement supported parents refusing the vaccine, without noting that it said that parents were in fact free to use the vaccine, since for rubella there are clearly grave reasons to use it. Check out this fact twisting, Wonder why I don’t consider myself pro-life anymore?

    And there’s a more “official” statement here, although it only touches briefly on vaccines in section 35:

  17. My mother-in-law converted to Catholicism because it was more beautiful. Towards the end of her life she lived in a nursing home that had once been an orphanage and there were black-and-white photographs of children hung throughout the institution. When I asked her about them she sniffed. “It was a Protestant orphanage. Protestants didn’t love their children. They didn’t vaccinate them.”

  18. joseph449008 says:

    I also thought the changepoint analysis of the EPA paper was nonsense. I can see how it would work if you were to apply it to two linear time series that had different slopes, one following the other. (That is, if you had two AR(1) processes, one after another, this method could be useful. And I see how this might be applicable to climate data, for example.)

    But if you apply the same method to the administrative prevalence or incidence of autism, which is an S-curve or a quasi-logistic function if you will, you will find a number of spurious “change points”, and I think this can easily be shown with a simulation.

  19. lamamaloca says:

    Speaking of wacky Catholics, could someone critique this for me, besides the obvious “correlation =/= causation.”

  20. lamamaloca says:

    Oh, and before someone is offended, I AM a practicing Catholic. I’m just tired of the wackiness. ;)

  21. lamamaloca on HIV and hormonal contraceptives:
    “could someone critique this for me,”

    Try this:

  22. lamamaloca says:

    Thanks for the link, Alison!

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