When the antiabortion movement meets the antivaccine movement…

Many are the lies and epic is the misinformation spread by the antivaccine movement. For instance, they claim that vaccines cause autism, autoimmune diseases, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), cancer, and a wide variety of other conditions and diseases when there is no credible evidence that they do and lots of evidence that they don’t. One particularly pernicious myth, designed to appeal (if you can call it that) to religious fundamentalists, is the claim that vaccines are made using fetal parts. This particular claim reared its ugly head again in the context of a propaganda campaign against Planned Parenthood that hit the news last week.

Before I get to the “sting” operation against Planned Parenthood, bear with me a moment while I discuss a bit about the background here. It definitely has bearing on the attempt by David Daleiden and the Center for Medical Progress to “prove” that Planned Parenthood is selling fetal parts for profit. First, you need to realize that fear mongering about “fetal parts” in vaccines is, not surprisingly, a distortion of the real situation, which is that the human cell lines used to make some vaccines. Specifically, the WI-38 cell line is a human diploid fibroblast cell line derived from a three month old fetus aborted therapeutically in 1962 in the US. Another cell line, MRC-5, was derived from lung fibroblasts of a 14 week old fetus in 1966 in the United Kingdom. These are currently the only fetal cell lines used to grow viruses for vaccines, with most other vaccines requiring cell lines using animal cell lines (which, of course, leads antivaccinationists to disparage them as “dirty” and using “monkey cells” and the like). In any case, the only commonly used vaccines in which these cell lines are utilized are:

  • Hepatitis A vaccines [VAQTA/Merck, Havrix/GlaxoSmithKline, and part of Twinrix/GlaxoSmithKline]
  • Rubella vaccine [MERUVAX II/Merck, part of MMR II/Merck, and ProQuad/Merck]
  • Varicella (chickenpox) vaccine [Varivax/Merck, and part of ProQuad/Merck]
  • Zoster (shingles) vaccine [Zostavax/Merck]

Although antiabortion antivaccine activists try to make it sound as though scientists are aborting babies left and right just to grind them up to make vaccines, in reality there are only two cell lines used this way, and they are so far removed from the original abortions that even the Catholic Church has said that it is morally acceptable to use such vaccines, although the statement from the Pontifical Academy for Life does urge scientists to develop vaccines that don’t use these cell lines. Basically, the Church concluded that the extreme good of protecting children’s lives far outweighed the distant evil (in the Church’s view) that created the cell lines, concluding in a FAQ, “There would seem to be no proper grounds for refusing immunization against dangerous contagious disease, for example, rubella, especially in light of the concern that we should all have for the health of our children, public health, and the common good” and “It should be obvious that vaccine use in these cases does not contribute directly to the practice of abortion since the reasons for having an abortion are not related to vaccine preparation.”

A variant of this gambit is to claim that there is fetal DNA in vaccines and that this is the cause of every evil under the sun attributed to vaccines. Perhaps the foremost proponent of this brain dead claim is a woman who really should know better. I’m referring, of course, to Theresa Deisher, of whom I first became aware way back in 2009, when I first learned of her attempts to link fetal DNA in vaccines to autism. It was, as I referred to it at the time, thermonuclear stupid, similar to the claim of Helen Ratajczak that fetal DNA from vaccines somehow would get into brain cells and undergo recombination with the baby’s native DNA to result in the production of altered proteins on the cell surface of the brain’s cells, thus provoking an autoimmune reaction and—voilà!—autism.

It’s an idea that’s so implausible that it’s worth explaining why again. To do what Dr. Ratajczak and Deisher claim, the minute amount of human DNA in a vaccine from the human fetal cell line used to grow up the virus would have to:

  • Find its way to the brain in significant quantities.
  • Make it into the neurons in the brain in significant quantities.
  • Make it into the nucleus of the neurons in significant quantities.
  • Undergo homologous recombination at a detectable level, resulting in either the alteration of a cell surface protein or the expression of a foreign cell surface protein that the immune system can recognize.
  • Undergo homologous recombination in many neurons in such a way that results in the neurons having cell surface protein(s) altered sufficiently to be recognized as foreign.

In other words, from a strictly scientific point of view, blaming the DNA from “fetal cells” used to make vaccine is pretty darned implausible. True, it’s not, as I’m wont to say, homeopathy-level implausible, but it wouldn’t take all that much to get there. The amazing thing is that Deisher is actually a scientist, with a PhD in Molecular and Cellular Physiology. (Holy doctorate Batman, that’s the same as mine! She even once worked for an evil pharmaceutical company, Amgen!) Given that, she really should know better, but she doesn’t. She even founded Sound Choice Pharmaceutical Institute, which is dedicated to combat embryonic stem cell research and “share the research that indicts the use of aborted fetal vaccines as a trigger for the autism epidemic.” You get the idea.

I also like to point out that from a strictly physical standpoint this concept that fetal DNA can somehow recombine with infant DNA is pretty ridiculous. Vaccines are injected intramuscularly, and any tiny amount of contaminating DNA that might be present won’t go very far. If it goes anywhere into the body, it’ll be to the muscle cells nearby, which can take up DNA in a functional form. I like to point out as well that I know this from direct experimental experience. Back when I was a graduate student, one of our projects was to inject plasmid DNA into rat muscle and determine whether we could get reporter gene expression appropriately regulated by the promoter controlling the gene. It worked. Then there’s also the not inconsequential matter of the blood-brain barrier, through which DNA doesn’t pass easily. Unfortunately, Deisher just doesn’t give up, publishing more recent (and equally bad) “studies” trying to “prove” that fetal DNA in vaccines is an evil cause of autism. They’ve been no better than her earlier studies; indeed, they’ve been embarrassingly bad.

So it turns out that the antiabortion movement and the antivaccine movement can make not-so-beautiful pseudoscience together, which brings us back to Planned Parenthood. Even though abortion services make up only 3% of Planned Parenthood’s activity, with the other 97% of services going for contraception, treatment and tests for sexually transmitted diseases, cancer screenings, and other women’s health services, Planned Parenthood remains a target of the antiabortion movement. So it was that David Daleiden and his Center for Medical Progress have released two heavily edited videos claiming to represent Planned Parenthood officials discussing the “sale” of fetal body parts from abortions. The first video has been deconstructed by many different media outlets and shown to have been deceptively edited to leave out the Planned Parenthood executive repeatedly telling the people doing the sting operation that its clinics want to cover their costs, not make money, when donating fetal tissue from abortions for scientific research. Indeed, as these deconstructions of the distorted presentation of information rolled in, I couldn’t help but think that the techniques used by Daleiden sure resembled the deceptive techniques used by the antivaccine movement, and I briefly thought of Deisher.

Then this story appeared over the weekend in The Daily Beast:

Anti-vaxxers couldn’t be happier about the controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood’s fetal tissue donation programs. Many in the anti-vaccine movement have long maintained that fetal tissue in vaccines is behind increasing rates of autism, even though vaccines do not contain fetal tissue and rates of autism might not be rising after all.

But the anti-vaccine movement isn’t just piggybacking on David Daleiden’s undercover sting investigation into the women’s health provider. One of its icons tutored him.

Hmmm. One wonders who that icon might be, one does. Well, look no further:

But an interview with Daleiden in the National Catholic Register revealed this crucial detail: “Theresa Deisher helped to prepare [him] for his role as a biomedical representative, teaching him the ins and outs of the field.” Deisher, who did not respond to request for comment, is one of the chief proponents of the debunked theory that fetal DNA in vaccines is linked to autism.

For Daleiden, a man who, as The New York Times noted “only reluctantly talk[s] about himself,” the link to Deisher is one more clue about his background and the origins of his investigation. Daleiden has already been linked to a retinue of far-right activists—including the militant pro-life group Operation Rescue, which is partially funding the CMP—but his training under a noted vaccine skeptic has not yet been brought to light.

Until now. This is how Deisher is described in the National Catholic Register:

As her respect for the unborn grew, so did her intolerance for working in a field where experimenting on material from aborted babies is rampant. She is now the president of Sound Choice Pharmaceutical Institute and CEO of AVM Biotechnology; both companies have a mission to end the use of aborted babies in biomedical research.

In the same article, she claims that we’re “taking a baby and chopping it up to make vaccines,” which, as I described at the beginning of this article scientists most certainly do not do. Let’s just put it this way. Deisher’s “research” is so sloppy that even those who share her implacable opposition to abortion can’t support it, pointing out, quite correctly:

However, deeply held beliefs do not make for rigorous scientific inquiry. And pro-life parents seeking to do the best by their children and by their culture deserve better than to have a plausible sounding lie masquerading as truth.

Of course, I can’t help but point out that the lie here is only plausible sounding if you don’t have a background in molecular biology. Even a freshman-level introduction to molecular biology provides more than enough knowledge to know why Theresa Deisher’s idea of how fetal DNA in vaccines can cause autism (I won’t even dignify it by calling it a hypothesis) is an enormous pile of wet, stinky BS. Even if you do believe abortion is a great evil, is it not also evil to misuse your scientific knowledge and credentials to spread a lie, such as the lie that fetal DNA in vaccines causes autism. Yet that lie is exactly the one that Deisher has been spreading for at least seven years. So willing is she to spread it that she got into bed with activists willing to represent themselves as being part of a fake company (Biomax Procurement Services) to try to induce Planned Parenthood into illegally selling fetal body parts.

The confluence of fundamentalist religion that believes abortion to be the same as murder with the antivaccine movement might surprise those who don’t pay the intense attention to both of them that I and other skeptics do. It shouldn’t. There has long been a wing of the antivaccine movement that uses the existence and use of the WI-38 and MRC-5 cell lines as reason to attack vaccination. Theresa Deisher is particularly dangerous because she used to be a real scientist until her embrace of an unholy union of antiabortion and antivaccine pseudoscience led her to produce a seemingly “scientific” rationale for not vaccinating that tapped into the opposition to abortion shared by Catholicism and various fundamentalist religions. Her willingness to coach a con man like David Daleiden shows just how far she will go in the service of her now anti-science agenda. She also serves as a useful reminder that antivaccine pseudoscience is the pseudoscience that knows no political boundaries. For every hippy dippy all “natural”-type antivaccine activist, there’s a right-wing fundamentalist like David Daleiden, who could do real damage to the vaccine program when backed by someone like Theresa Deisher.