Headlines at multiple news outlets misled readers on Thursday by claiming that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas repeated a “debunked” claim about COVID-19 vaccines in a dissenting opinion.
At least three mainstream news organizations falsely stated that Thomas claimed COVID-19 vaccines contain the cells of aborted babies in an opinion dissenting from the Supreme Court’s refusal to take up a religious liberty case challenging New York’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate launched by 16 health care workers.
“Clarence Thomas claimed in a dissenting opinion that Covid vaccines are derived from the cells of ‘aborted children,'” Politico tweeted Thursday, sharing an article with the headline, “Clarence Thomas suggests Covid vaccines are developed using cells of ‘aborted children.’”
Similar headlines appeared at Axios and at NBC News, and the misleading claim was spread by Washington Post fact-checker Glenn Kessler and others.
These headlines are wrong. Thomas was not making a claim about the COVID-19 vaccines. He was quoting the petitioners’ stated beliefs about how taking the vaccine would violate their religious conscience.
In 2021, a group of anonymous health care workers sued New York, arguing that the state’s vaccine mandate violated their religious conscience rights. The state requires that all health care workers show proof of vaccination to continue in their employment.
“They object on religious grounds to all available COVID–19 vaccines because they were developed using cell lines derived from aborted children,” Thomas wrote in a dissenting opinion after the Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Although Thomas was clearly citing the argument of the petitioners, reporters asserted he was himself claiming that COVID-19 vaccines contain cells from aborted children.
Paradoxically, the facts in some of these reports support what Thomas wrote even though the sensational headlines suggest he was wrong.
In Politico’s article, for example, breaking news reporter Kelly Hooper writes, “None of the Covid-19 vaccines in the United States contain the cells of aborted fetuses. Cells obtained from elective abortions decades ago were used in testing during the Covid vaccine development process, a practice that is common in vaccine testing — including for the rubella and chickenpox vaccinations.” (Emphasis added.)
If it’s the case that cell lines obtained from abortions decades ago were used in vaccine testing, then the petitioner’s assertion that the vaccines “were developed using cell lines derived from aborted children,” which Thomas quoted, is a factual statement.
Ed Whelan, a senior fellow with the Ethics and Public Policy Center, observed that NBC News twisted Thomas’ words to make it look like he was repeating a debunked claim, then later appeared to agree with what the justice actually wrote.
“Perhaps authors are claiming that Thomas’s phrasing somehow means that the cell lines used now must have been immediately, rather than ultimately, derived from aborted children. But that’s a bad-faith reading of what he wrote,” Whelan said.
Clarence Thomas’ dissenting opinion quoted the arguments made by petitioners to the Supreme Court for a case concerning whether New York’s vaccine mandate violated religious liberty rights. He did not advance a claim for himself that COVID-19 vaccines were made using cells from “aborted children.”
Headlines suggesting that he did are false.