Fetuses as instruments of health: The uses and exchanges of fetal tissues for vaccine research in post-war Sweden

Project leader: Isabelle Dussauge

This project explores the use of aborted human fetuses in Swedish vaccine production and virology in the 1950s and 1960s. Virology, and especially the labs in charge of the production of a national vaccine against polio in the 1950s, used large numbers of human fetuses for tissue cultures in which viruses could reproduce and be studied or used for vaccines. The present project aims to document and analyze the supply of aborted fetuses from women’s clinics in the Stockholm region to the virology labs located at the State Bacteriological Laboratory. Research questions include whether, why and when these practices and research became controversial.

This history is, in part, a story of the establishment of an infrastructure supplying living materials for one of the major scientific endeavours of the time: providing people with immunity against polio, and eventually eradicating the virus nationally and worldwide. Major historical backdrops for the medical research under scrutiny here were the 1950s’ national efforts to fight poliomyelitis; changing views on abortion and abortion laws in Sweden; and the establishment of virology and of tissue/cell culture methods. The interrogations direct our gaze towards the history of ethics and other values, and related controversies. Which practices came to be the object of conflicting ethical questionings in the 1960s, in which terms, and why? Which ethics, or other registers of value, did researchers, doctors and public health authorities give prevalence to?

Publications and presentations:

• ”Foster mot polio: Virusforskning, abort och tystnad i Sverige 1950–1970“, in Motzi Eklöf (ed.), Medicinska moraler och skandaler: Vetenskapens (etiska) gränser, Stockholm: Carlssons, 2019.

• “Fetuses against polio: Publicity and silence in the production of a national vaccine (Sweden, 1950s)”, paper presentation, Vaccines: Values, present and past, Uppsala University, Sweden, November 23–24, 2017.

• “Fetuses as instruments of health: The uses of human fetal tissues for vaccine research in Sweden 1950–1973”, paper presentation, Nordic Science and Technology Studies Conference, Göteborg, Sweden, 31 May–2 June, 2017.