At the March For Life rallies and events, the pro-life community and representatives from various churches gather to protest the practice and legality of abortion. While the pro-life movement and the Catholic Church proclaim the dignity of every human life by confronting the practice of abortions, there has been a lack of similar zeal from those organizations to address the exploitation and continued and growing use of aborted fetal cell lines and tissue in biomedical research.
The scope of this problem has been largely ignored by the pro-life movement and the Catholic Church, which will negatively affect religious consumers and health care providers and likely end the Catholic identity of the Catholic hospital system.
Collecting the HEK293 Cell Line
Among the 60 million unborn children that have been aborted, there is one abortion that has changed medicine forever. In 1970, Dr. Frank Graham, a scientist at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands, successfully cultured a cell line that changed the course of medical research. The cell line was manufactured from the kidney cells of a first-trimester electively aborted female child whose parents were unknown.
It is likely that informed consent from the parents was never obtained given the era in which this tissue was harvested. That cell line received the abbreviated name HEK293, which stands for human embryonic kidney. The 293 designation refers to the number of attempts required to create this immortalized cell line. Unfortunately, this sad story does not end in a lab in the Netherlands in the 1970s.
Fifty years later, the HEK293 cell line represents the backbone of countless therapeutics, diagnostics, and research reagents, which generate billions of dollars for the biopharmaceutical industry. Some Catholics and pro-life Christians were largely unaware of the true nature of the HEK293 cell line until recently when they discovered how it was used in the development of the Covid-19 mRNA vaccines.
The Vatican had more than sufficient time to address this problem but failed to take an official position on this issue during the 20th century. The Pontifical Academy for Life, which was formed in 1994, was created to study and advise the Magisterium on how modern biotechnology affects the dignity of human life. Unfortunately, no official Vatican doctrine was ever issued during the 20th century on the use of morally illicit cells in medical research and in the manufacturing of medicines.
Due to the long delay in addressing this underlying problem, morally illicit cells were exploited to produce an enormous number of products and services by the pharmaceutical industry. This disturbing trend represents one of the biggest health care threats to Catholics and pro-life Christians, pro-life health care providers, and the Catholic identity of the Catholic health care system.
In 2005, the Pontifical Academy for Life issued its first official position for Catholics regarding the criteria for when a vaccine that is morally tainted can be morally acceptable. First, the medical condition must be grave. Second, there must be no ethical alternative medicine. Third, a Catholic is still permitted to exercise his or her conscience and reject the medicine on moral grounds. Fourth, Catholics have the responsibility to pursue every legal means to urge the pharmaceutical industry (which by extension includes the scientific community) to develop ethical alternative medicines without using morally illicit cells.
Subsequently, in 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith reaffirmed this position into official Catholic Church doctrine in a document titled Dignitas Personae, which additionally emphasized that Catholic researchers and doctors should avoid the use of morally illicit cells in their profession.
It should be noted that for the past half a century, the Vatican and no established Catholic academic, private foundation, or health care organization conducted research or led an effort to support medical research in the development of ethical human cell lines to counter the use of morally illicit cells that are now pervasive in research and biomanufacturing.
Too Profitable to Protest
Consequently, over $100 billion is now generated annually from products that use the HEK293 cell lines, which include biologics, gene therapies, and cell therapies like FDA-approved CAR-T therapies (which are used to treat refractory hematological malignancies). Most of these HEK293-derived medicines are designed to treat grave conditions. This global biomanufacturing market that requires the need for the HEK293 cell line is expected to double to $200 billion in the next five years. By comparison, Planned Parenthood only generates $1.5 billion annually from their provided abortion “services.” The global biopharmaceutical industry generated $1.5 trillion in revenue as of 2022. Thus, approximately 7 percent of the total global biopharmaceutical market requires the HEK293 cell line.
There is little zeal on the part of the Vatican and the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops to teach faithful Catholics about the church’s position on the issue of morally illicit cells and tissues used in medical research. Also, we rarely hear the Catholic Church instruct members of the faith about their obligation to pursue every legal means to urge the biopharmaceutical industry or secular medical research foundations to develop ethical alternative medicines.
Moreover, we rarely hear the Catholic Church inform members of the faith that the vast majority of secular medical research organizations openly support the use of aborted fetal cells and embryonic stem cells in medical research. It would be encouraging if the bishops would urge Catholics to support ethical medical research and urge members of their faith to contact those secular organizations to cease medical research that uses morally illicit cells. You rarely hear self-proclaimed pro-life politicians advocate for public funding of ethical and alternative biotechnology that does not require the use of aborted fetal cell lines. Additionally, anti-abortion groups rarely devote any time or resources to educating the pro-life community on this topic.
The result of these omissions over several decades has led to several regrettable situations. First, many pro-life individuals unknowingly finance secular research foundations that support embryonic stem cell research and aborted fetal cell lines in medical research. Second, leading Catholic philanthropists and businessmen rarely take a leadership role in funding ethical medical research. Third, Catholic hospital corporations and health care organizations rarely direct their finance, influence, and resources to encourage the pharmaceutical industry or medical research organizations to pursue the development of ethical alternative biotechnologies.
The Catholic Church Should Speak Up
It should be of no surprise when Catholic universities, dioceses, hospitals, and even the Vatican ignored the 2005 Pontifical Academy for Life position and the official doctrine of Dignitas Personae and mandated the Covid-19 vaccine despite its association with aborted fetal cells. In fact, if the Vatican had held fast to its 2005 Pontifical Academy for Life criteria, it is highly likely that governments would not have been as effective in forcing vaccine mandates, and Covid-19 vaccine acceptance would have ended much earlier.
What this means to pro-life consumers, health care providers, and the Catholic health care system is rather straightforward. Pro-lifers must reject critical medications or treatments that may help treat grave health issues since they are morally tainted and objectionable. The only alternative is to ignore the problem and accept the drugs or treatments in contradiction to a person’s religious and moral beliefs.
These are very serious concerns that need to be confronted, and which need a long overdue solution. Until the Catholic Church is committed to upholding the Magisterial teaching; Catholic philanthropists, business leaders, and hospital corporations take a more proactive role in ethical medical research; and pro-life organizations begin educating about and supporting this integral anti-abortion cause, this problem will continue to grow unchecked for all stakeholders. The pro-life movement should not restrict itself solely to ending the act of abortion, but should proactively work to end the exploitation of abortion in biotechnology.