Since their creation, vaccines have had a long history of being controversial. Many of the problems surrounding vaccines that we hear about have to do with recent controversies. Yet, their conception has been the center of ethical debates since the 1960s. The founding of vaccines is an important point in history that has allowed for the development of understanding the balance between need and ethics in medicine.

Vaccines were founded from the eminent need to stop the spread of the next horrific epidemic. Dr. Meredith Wadman, reporter for Science magazine and author of The Vaccine Race: Science, Politics, and the Human Costs of Defeating Disease, explains that the devastation of the Rubella epidemic that occurred from 1964 to 1965 influenced the race to find a vaccine to help prevent the breakout of another epidemic. However creating vaccines involves reproducing the viruses which can only be done with cells. Originally, scientists used monkey kidney cells, but Dr. Wadman explains that these were expensive to obtain and they came with a number of safety issues. So, Leonard Hayflick, a researcher, developed the idea of using human cells, a concept that, Dr. Wadman, explains has garnered the attention of ethics debates because he used cells obtained from a fetus without the consent of the women who had given up the fetus. The cells from this fetus that were used in the 1960s are still being used today in order to develop more vaccines that have been used to save hundreds of millions of people.

How do scientists justify the ethics of this decision to people who do not agree with abortion? Dr. Wadman explains that it is important to look at the larger picture because it is not an ongoing process. Since 1960, this one fetus has been used to save the lives of a number of people. But, this reasoning should not be used to justify all unethical matters. Dr. Wadman explains that the race to find a vaccine was later used to rationalize an abuse of power during World War II in which researchers in America began to test on institutionalized people, prisoners, and even premature newborns and intellectually disabled children, in order to create a vaccine against influenza. At the time, these practices were not regulated, but over time protections and rules were implemented that no longer made it possible for experiments of this nature to take place. While the need for a vaccine can appear to be vital, especially when there are lives on the line, it is important that researchers do not forfeit ethics.


  • Dr. Meredith Wadman, reporter at Science magazine and author of The Vaccine Race: Science, Politics, and the Human Costs of Defeating Disease

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