When the COVID-19 vaccines were being developed in 2020, one persistent rumor held that these vaccines contained the cells of aborted fetuses. This is false.
As we wrote in December 2020, again in March 2021, and again in October 2021, none of the COVID-19 vaccines contains aborted fetal cells. However, many vaccines, including the most commonly used COVID-19 vaccines, were developed using what researchers describe as "historic fetal cell lines" in their research and testing phases. James Lawler, associate professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the Nebraska Medical Center, defined "fetal cell lines" and explained how they're different from aborted fetal cells as follows:
The COVID-19 vaccines do not contain any aborted fetal cells. However, fetal cell lines – cells grown in a laboratory based on aborted fetal cells collected generations ago – were used in testing during research and development of the mRNA vaccines, and during production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine … Fetal cell lines are cells that grow in a laboratory. They descend from cells taken from abortions in the 1970s and 1980s.
The practice of using fetal cell lines in the development of the COVID-19 vaccines resurfaced as an issue in June 2022, after U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas mentioned it in a dissenting opinion published after the court declined to take up a case related to New York's COVID-19 vaccine mandate.
Thomas wrote that COVID-19 vaccines were "developed using cell lines derived from aborted children." This is true.
When news outlets reported on Thomas' dissent, many suggested Thomas had cited a debunked claim. NBC News, for example, wrote that the Supreme Court justice had cited the "debunked claim that Covid vaccines are made with cells from 'aborted children.'" Politico and Axios published similar stories, with Axios' story originally being published under the title "Clarence Thomas suggests COVID vaccines are made with 'aborted children.'"
On social media, this claim was even further exaggerated, with one Instagram post with more than 170,000 likes falsely stating that Thomas had written that the COVID-19 vaccines "contain the cells of aborted children."
But that isn't what Thomas wrote.
What Did Thomas Write about COVID-19 Vaccines and Aborted Fetal Cells?
Thomas did not claim that COVID-19 vaccines contain aborted fetal cells. What Thomas did say is that the COVID-19 vaccines were "developed using cell lines derived from aborted children." Despite his use of the highly politicized term "aborted children" (as opposed to "aborted fetuses"), his claim that such cell lines were used in the development of COVID-19 vaccines is accurate. Here's the full quote from Thomas' dissent:
Petitioners are 16 healthcare workers who served New York communities throughout the COVID–19 pandemic. They object on religious grounds to all available COVID–19 vaccines because they were developed using cell lines derived from aborted children. Pet. for Cert. 8. Ordered to choose between their jobs and their faith, petitioners sued in the U. S. District Court for the Northern District of New York, claiming that the State’s vaccine mandate violated the Free Exercise Clause.
Again, for clarity, "fetal cell line" refers to cells that were grown in a lab. While it is true that these cell lines were derived from a fetus that was voluntarily aborted in the 1970s, none of the original fetal tissue remains in these cell lines.
Gonzalez, Oriana. “Clarence Thomas Says COVID Vaccines Are Created with Cells from ‘Aborted Children.’” Axios, 30 June 2022, https://www.axios.com/2022/06/30/clarence-thomas-aborted-children-vaccine-covid.
Hooper, Kelly. “Clarence Thomas Suggests Covid Vaccines Are Developed Using Cells of ‘Aborted Children.’” POLITICO, https://www.politico.com/news/2022/06/30/clarence-thomas-claims-covid-vaccines-are-derived-from-the-cells-of-aborted-children-00043483. Accessed 1 July 2022.
“Justice Thomas Cites Debunked Claim That Covid Vaccines Are Made with Cells from ‘Aborted Children.’” NBC News, https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/supreme-court/justice-thomas-cites-debunked-claim-covid-vaccines-are-made-cells-abor-rcna36156. Accessed 1 July 2022.
“Justice Thomas Wanted SCOTUS to Hear Case About COVID-19 Vaccines ‘Developed Using Cell Lines’ from ‘Aborted Children.’” Law & Crime, 30 June 2022, https://lawandcrime.com/supreme-court/justice-thomas-wanted-scotus-to-hear-case-about-covid-19-vaccines-developed-using-cell-lines-from-aborted-children/.