Pro-lifers & anti-vaxxers: A marriage made in…somewhere

Is there a connection between the pro-life lobby and anti-vaxxers? When it comes to California’s controversial Senate Bill 277, at least, the answer is yes.

A Sacramento-based group called the California ProLife Council is urging a “no” vote on SB 277, which would stop letting parents send their children to school without their standard immunizations.

Parents whose children are home-schooled or attend independent study would still be able to follow their disputed assertions that vaccines are more dangerous than once-eradicated diseases like measles or whooping cough, which have been making comebacks thanks to receding vaccination rates. But if you want to put your kid in school with other children, SB 277 says you gotta vaccinate.

Not surprisingly, heads exploded, with critics accusing the government of Orwellian overreach and public health officials trying their best not to call anyone “stupid.” Oh, Jenny McCarthy, what have you wrought?

Anyway, one of the organizations decrying this bill, which is knocking around Senate chambers this week, is California ProLife, a 44-year-old statewide affiliate for the National Right to Life Committee. Now it might seem counter-intuitive for a pro-life organization to be against life-saving vaccines. But, in an action alert to its email subscribers—and, somehow, us—California ProLife claimed SB 277 would force your kids to receive “questionable vaccines derived from aborted children.”

What the huh?

Before anyone starts shouting “Soylent Green is people!” let’s dig into that loaded allegation and travel back in time 50-odd years.

In 1962, a woman in Sweden underwent a legal abortion. The fetus’ lungs wound up in Pennsylvania, with an American microbiologist named Leonard Hayflick, who was looking into whether viruses could cause certain human cancers.

Long story short, Hayflick used the fetal tissue to eventually develop a strain of cells known as WI-38, from which numerous scientists developed numerous vaccines over the years, including ones protecting against rubella (German measles), measles, polio, chickenpox, shingles and rabies. These vaccines have been used to inoculate hundreds of millions of people over the ensuing decades, including, duh, children.

So, at best, California ProLife’s claim is a gross oversimplification of the past half-century. At worst, it’s a calibrated attempt to gin up its own profile by attaching itself to such a rocketing debate.

That’s not to say the origin of these life-saving vaccines didn’t prompt consternation in religious organizations and physicians. No less an anti-abortion stalwart than the Catholic church sanctioned the use of vaccines in a 2005 statement. Saying that people should obtain equally effective alternatives to vaccines derived from “evil intent” (i.e. aborted fetuses) if available, the Vatican nonetheless determined that human health was too important to abstain on moral grounds.

“… [T]he burden of this important battle cannot and must not fall on innocent children and on the health situation of the population—especially with regard to pregnant women,” the Vatican’s letter concludes.

Religiously observant physicians like Dr. Walt Larimore have also made their peace with the vaccines. “Cell lines derived from fetal tissue can be duplicated and grown in culture for decades, and thus additional abortions aren’t necessary to replenish the vaccine supply,” Larimore wrote on his blog. “For these reasons, I join the vast majority of faith-based medical ethicists who don’t believe that producing or administering a vaccine made in the past from the cells of an aborted fetus is an evil act.”

Other articles chronicling the legacy of Hayflick, from the New York Times and the weekly science journal Nature, focused on different ethical questions, like whether Hayflick was a profiteer and whether tissue donors should be compensated when their materials result in groundbreaking and lucrative medical applications.

Continuing the “vaccines = abortions” soundbite, however, are groups like California ProLife, which counted only $32,000 in total assets between its council and education foundation in 2013.

“No one is more aware of the desperation of the woman with an unexpected pregnancy than we in the pro-life movement, for we are the ones who shelter, financially support and love these individuals,” executive director Brian Johnston writes on the council’s “About Us” page.

Now that we know what passes for truth to Johnston and his followers, we’ll let the above howler slide.

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