“Alive when researchers start extracting the tissue.” That’s how biologist Pamela Acker described aborted infants who donate tissue for fetal cell lines. In a January, 2021 interview with Lifesite News, Acker discussed Covid-19 vaccines currently available in the U.S., all of which have some involvement with human fetal cell lines. In 2012 Acker gave up her doctoral research rather than work with HEK 293, an immortalized cell line derived from the kidneys of a baby girl aborted in 1972.
In the first part of this series, I looked at the circumstantial evidence for Acker’s statement, examining her sources and then doing my own research on the vaccine industry’s longstanding connection to abortion. I waded through reams of scientific reports, congressional testimony, newspaper articles, and books on fetal tissue research.
At each foray down the internet rabbit hole, I expected to find evidence that the claim was simply sensational rhetoric. And yet the more I read, the more convinced I became that the use of live, aborted babies has been a part of vaccine research and production for almost a century.
Acker took me on a tour of vaccine history in the industry’s own words. Scientific papers from the 1930s onward documented abortion after abortion in the service of vaccine research. The most forthright, a 1952 paper from the Canadian Journal of Medical Science, described babies aborted and sent to the lab with hearts still beating. I then used Acker’s sources as a starting point for my own exploration. I frequently doubled back on my tracks as I became more familiar with biomedical terminology and began decoding the language of scientific reports. My research was by no means comprehensive, yet it was enough to convince me that Acker’s claims were not far-fetched.
However, in the interest of journalistic accuracy, I returned to a key fact: no records indicate that the baby whose cells produced HEK 293 was actually alive at the time its kidneys were removed. And I still wanted to be convinced that the brief existence of that tiny child was pain free.
Acker herself was adamant. Despite the mystery surrounding the origins of HEK 293, “The thing needs to be said in so many words: you can’t transplant a dead organ into a living body, you cannot make a cell line out of dead tissue.”
Acker then cited the late Spanish physician and bio-ethicist Dr. Gonzalo Herranz. A former member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Herranz was a member of the International Bioethics Committee of UNESCO, advisor to the European Parliament, and author of 65 articles on pathology. A celebrated author, international lecturer, and advisor on bio-ethics, he was professor emeritus of Pathological Anatomy at the University of Navarre who died on May 20, 2021. That is to say, he studied cell and tissue abnormalities, and was eminently qualified to address this subject.
Quoted in Vivisection or Science, by Italian scientist Pietro Croce, Herranz said simply: “… to obtain embryo cells for culture, a programmed abortion must be adopted, choosing the age of the embryo and dissecting it while still alive in order to remove tissues to be placed in culture media.” i
The statement by Herranz may be the most authoritative in support of the principle that live cells must come from living bodies. There are others, notably by American embryologist C. Ward Kischer, who said in “The Media and Human Embryology” (Linacre Quarterly, Vol. 64, Issue 2, May 1, 1998), referring to organ transplants from aborted babies: “The truth is that dead tissue would do nothing. The transplant must contain living cells, and the only way to ensure that is to obtain them from living fetuses.”
Kischer qualified this only slightly with respect to fetal cell research: “In order to sustain 95% of the cells, the live tissue would need to be preserved within 5 minutes of the abortion. Within an hour the cells would continue to deteriorate, rendering the specimens useless.” The incredibly short time window makes the distinction virtually moot, considering the additional time needed to operate, administer tissue preservation fluids, and remove organs.
Alvin Wong, whose 2006 paper “The Ethics of HEK 293” guided Acker’s decision to leave her doctoral research, concurs:
“If in fact the embryo or fetus is still alive while tissue is being extracted from it then the one doing so commits an even more serious act of violence directly to another living human being. This might happen, since it seems to be a scientific criterion that tissue be obtained in a viable state to be suitable for research.”
In the course of my own research, I spoke with Dr. Paul Byrne. Byrne is a neonatologist, past president of the Catholic Medical Association, and an authority on brain death and organ transplantation.
“Is it true,” I asked, “that tissue samples for fetal cell lines, if they are to be successful, must be procured from living babies?”
“Yes,” Byrne told me, “The baby must be alive when the procedure is initiated to get living tissue. …. After death, destruction of every cell is not immediate. Observe a skeleton. But when the procedure of abortion and dissection to get organs and tissues for ‘harvesting’ is initiated, the baby is alive.” I pushed him a bit: “Is it true that tissue samples for fetal cell lines, if they are to be successful, must be procured from living babies? Not recently deceased, but living at the time that tissue or organs are harvested?” His answer: “Baby is alive when dissected to get organs and tissues.”
When I observed that medical terminology can be very confusing. Byrne responded drily, “The devil sows confusion. He is the father of lies, after all….”
Editor’s note: The above comes from Part 2 of a two-part essay by Monica Seeley published in a May 26 story in Catholic World Report.