In a sharply worded dissent, Justice Clarence Thomas expressed support Thursday for a misleading claim that all Covid vaccines are made with cells from “aborted children.”
His dissent came in a decision by the Supreme Court to not take up a legal challenge by New York health care workers who opposed the state’s vaccine mandate on religious grounds.
Thomas, citing the plaintiffs, wrote that the health care workers “object” to the state’s vaccine mandate “on religious grounds to all available COVID–19 vaccines because they were developed using cell lines derived from aborted children.”
Pfizer and Moderna used fetal cell lines early in their Covid vaccine development to test the efficacy of their formulas, as other vaccines have in the past. The fetal tissue used in these processes came from elective abortions that happened decades ago. But the cells have since replicated many times, so none of the original tissue is involved in the making of modern vaccines.
So it is not true that Covid vaccines are manufactured using fetal cell lines, nor do they contain any aborted cells.
Rather, the vaccines contain messenger RNA — genetic material that instructs our cells to make proteins, which then train the immune system to fight off the coronavirus. They also include fatty substances called lipids that help RNA cross our cell membranes, as well as salt, sugar, and a few substances that help stabilize the other ingredients.
In defending its vaccine mandate, lawyers for New York also noted that laboratory-grown stem cells, which derive from cells collected from a fetus nearly 50 years ago, were also used for testing the rubella vaccine.
Writing for the three dissenters, himself and Justices Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch, Thomas nevertheless cited the misleading claim.
When the requirement was first imposed last August as a way to help prevent the spread of the latest Covid variant, it allowed exceptions based on medical reasons or religious objections. But the religious exemption was later removed. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat and a Roman Catholic, said that she was not aware of any “sanctioned religious objection from any organized religion” and that religious leaders including the pope were encouraging people to get vaccinated.
Sixteen health care workers then sued, saying they had religious objections because fetal cell lines were involved in the testing, development or production of Covid vaccines. They said the mandate violated their religious freedom because it allowed others who were unvaccinated to continue working.
Thomas, along with Alito and Gorsuch, wrote Thursday that the court should have taken the case. Thomas wrote that confusion remains about mandates like New York’s that provide no religious exemption and that the court should have taken the case now to head off similar confusion in the future.
Lawyers for the state said the Covid mandate was similar to longstanding rules requiring health care workers to be vaccinated against measles and rubella. Those requirements, too, allow exemptions only for medical reasons. “The presence of a single, limited medical exemption to a vaccine requirement does not require the State to provide a blanket religious exemption from vaccination,” they said in their written submissions.