Michigan Senate Bill 1055: Antivaccine fear mongering masquerading as “informed consent” about “fetal parts” in vaccines

One of the favorite (and most effective) tactics of the antivaccine3 movement is to frighten parents who might have a propensity to distrust medicine (and vaccines) or parents who don’t now enough science to know better with stories designed to portray vaccines as somehow dangers. Regardless of the specific claim made, the message, first, foremost, and always, is that vaccines are dangerous in some way and are The One True Cause of autism, sudden infant death syndrome, diabetes, encephalitis, asthma, autoimmune diseases, and basically any chronic illness or medical condition under the sun. True, the main claim is that vaccines somehow cause autism, which was the basis of the MMR scare promoted by Andrew Wakefield beginning 20 years ago. Around the same time, the fear mongering began about a preservative that was used in several childhood vaccines, thimerosal. Because thimerosal contains mercury, it was deemed frightening and obviously the cause of autism. It is this myth that’s been promoted by, more than anyone else, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. Again, the idea is that vaccines are somehow “contaminated” with something awful that is wreaking all sorts of havoc with our children. This brings us to another such claim, the claim that vaccines are made from “aborted fetal tissue,” a claim at the heart of a new bill that the Michigan (my state) legislature is considering, Senate Bill 1055:

Today Michigan Senate Bill 1055 was introduced to require informed consent for vaccines produced using cell lines taken from aborted babies.

The bill would require the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services to maintain an online list of vaccines produced using tissue from aborted babies, as well as alternative vaccines developed without using such tissue. As part of informed consent, health care providers would be required to provide that information to patients before administering vaccines produced using tissue from aborted babies.

Right to Life of Michigan Barbara Listing said, “The existence of these vaccines requires patients and parents to make important ethical decisions. Sadly, many people are unaware of these facts, including many doctors and nurses. Patients need accurate information to make informed decisions, and many are not getting that now.”

Several current vaccines approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are produced using two cells lines derived from tissue from electively-aborted babies in the 1960s: MRC-5 and WI-38. The cell lines are used to produce the viruses used in vaccines.

The claim that vaccines are made using “aborted fetal tissue” is one of those falsehoods that contain just enough grain of truth to them to sound plausible and convincing to some people. Of course, that grain has been twisted and stomped into unrecognizable shapes, just as the science regarding the production of vaccines has been in order to render vaccines scary. (Indeed, one particularly kooky antivaxer, Sayer Ji, even likened vaccination to “cannibalism” based on this concept.) If you listen to some antivaxers tell it, evil vaccine makers have been harvesting aborted fetuses in order to grind them up and make vaccines out of them. The truth, of course, is far different, and I’ve written about it several times before. Others have noted incredibly minute residual amounts of DNA (we’re talking low single digit picograms) from these fetal cell lines detectable using very powerful PCR amplification techniques and tried to represent that as “injecting fetal cells” along with the vaccine, even though the amount of residual DNA is just too small to have any detectable effect on health. (I’m talking to you, Theresa Deisher.) Indeed, Deisher and other antiabortion activists have tried to claim that this tiny amount of residual DNA can cause autism, invoking mechanisms that are too hilariously off-base to recount in full here. Two words: Homologous recombination, or, as one antivaxer hilariously misspelled it, homologous recombinaltion tiniker.

In fact, 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 were originally derived from human fetuses. Specifically, the WI-38 cell line is a human diploid fibroblast cell line derived from a three month old fetus aborted 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 currently include these vaccines, in which the virus is grown up in fetal embryo fibroblast cells: Varicella (chickenpox), rubella (the “R” in the MMR vaccine), hepatitis A, one version of the shingles vaccine, and one preparation of rabies vaccine. Worth noting, the rubella vaccine is not only grown on a human cell line, the vaccine virus was recovered from a fetus that was aborted because the mother had rubella. It also turns out that vaccines in which the virus used in the vaccine was grown in such cells have been responsible for preventing billions of cases of disease and preventing many millions of deaths.

In reality, the eagerness of antivaxers to portray vaccines as somehow “contaminated” or even “ritually unclean” is the motivation for trumpeting how some vaccines are produced by growing the virus used in them in fetal fibroblasts. Basically, the idea is to convince parents belonging to religions that teach that abortion is murder that vaccines are evil because they are the product of abortion. Sometimes the way the message is conveyed uses the more or less accurate statement that cells from an aborted fetus are used in the production of some vaccines. Other times, the statements go straight into the aforementioned crazytown, in which it is implied (and sometimes even stated) that fetal “tissue” is used to make vaccines, thus suggesting that the vaccine industry continues to harvest fetuses to make vaccines. Of course, the fetal fibroblast cells used to grow vaccine viruses were first obtained from elective termination of two pregnancies in the early 1960s, have continued to grow in the laboratory and, are used to make vaccines today. No further sources of fetal cells are needed to make these vaccines.

Never mind that all major religions support vaccination and that the Catholic Church, the most antiabortion religion of all, has has said that it is morally acceptable to use such vaccines, although the official 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.”

None of this stops antivaxers from making it sound that continuing to use vaccines in which the WI-38 or MRC-5 cell lines are used to grow virus contributes to more abortions. That’s the basis of Senate Bill No. 1055 (SB 1055), whose text can be found here, which was introduced by Sens. Tonya Schuitmaker, Mike Kowall, Patrick Colbeck, Judy Emmons, Joe Hune, and Mike Shirkey. Gee, why am I not surprised that my state senator, Patrick Colbeck, is one of the sponsors? I’ve discussed him a number of times before. He’s pretty much an all purpose rightwing wingnut, whom I first wrote about when he advertised a showing of an antivaccine propaganda film in my district. I further noted his efforts to make measles great again in Michigan through sponsoring a spectacularly dumb “health freedom” law and ultimately concluded that he’s gone full-on antivaccine. I also noticed that he’s into wifi and EMF fear mongering as well. As an engineer (his pre-politics career), he really should know better, but apparently doesn’t. Fortunately, he’s term-limited and will be gone from the Senate in less than seven months. Unfortunately, he’s running for governor.

I will note that antivaxers have been fairly clever in invoking “informed consent” and “information.” However, in reality, this is yet another version of what I prefer to refer to as “misinformed consent,” in which the facts are presented in an intentionally distorted fashion designed to persuade parents to reject vaccines. Often, misinformed consent involves using pseudoscience and misinformation exaggerating the risks of vaccines and minimizing their benefits such that any reasonable person, if she heard nothing more and knew nothing more than what she was told, would conclude that the risk-benefit ratio of vaccines is too unfavorable to say yes. In this case, it involves portraying vaccines as hopelessly tainted with abortion, even though the Catholic Church and every other major religion has said that vaccination is a greater good and the history of the two cell lines used in some vaccines doesn’t change that.

Basically, the purpose of SB 1055 is nothing more than to frighten parents into not vaccinating. Patrick Colbeck is my senator, and he doesn’t have to run for reelection to his seat any more. My contacting him would therefore do no good. (Also, he detests me for calling him out in the past on his embrace of pseudoscience and for pointing out how our favorite AP Biology teacher from the high school we both attended would be ashamed of him.) However, if you live in Michigan, contact your state senator. Urge him or her to oppose this unnecessary and deceptive bill masquerading as “informed consent.”