Recent research suggests that gender dysphoria is likely caused by a combination of factors, including hormone exposure before birth. But social media posts make the baseless claim that it could be caused by a vaccine containing DNA from an aborted fetus of the opposite sex. There is no scientific evidence for such a claim, experts said.
Three unrelated issues that have each been the subject of waves of misinformation in recent years have been combined to make one absurd falsehood on social media.
The three issues are transgender identity, vaccination and abortion.
Conservative, anti-vaccine influencers have been spreading the false claim that common childhood vaccines are causing gender dysphoria in youth because the vaccines contain DNA from aborted fetuses that may have been the opposite sex of the vaccine recipient. Gender dysphoria is the distress felt by some transgender individuals since their sex assigned at birth doesn’t match their gender identity.
“I think it’s time we investigate the epigenetic influence aborted fetal tissue has on the developing nervous system regarding gender dysphoria,” said one post.
“Where did this explosion of gender dysphoria come from? 20 years ago it was virtually non-existent,” asked another, before claiming, “vaccines with opposing gender DNA…people need to wake up!”
But vaccines don’t contain DNA that would affect the recipient’s development, and gender dysphoria isn’t caused by the shots.
“It really is a ridiculous, ridiculous assertion,” said Dr. Paul Offit, a vaccine expert and pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.
People ingest foreign DNA all the time, he said.
“If you eat a steak, you don’t turn into a cow,” Offit said in a phone interview. “You don’t start acting like a cow.”
The fear expressed in this theory — that vaccination will alter a person’s nature — is the same fear that people have had since vaccines were first introduced in 1796.
At that time, British caricaturist James Gillray satirized the idea that people were worried the cowpox virus used in the inoculation against smallpox would turn people into cows (shown at right).
“The logic of that is the same as the logic of this,” Offit said, comparing it to the falsehood that vaccines made using opposite-sex cells would result in gender dysphoria for the vaccine recipient.
DNA from Fetal Cells in Vaccines
But there’s no way for the DNA from those cells — which came from two aborted fetuses from the 1960s — to affect the DNA of vaccine recipients, Offit said.
First of all, the fragments of residual DNA that are present in vaccines are measured in picograms, which are trillionths of a gram.
They are “infinitesimally small amounts,” Offit said.
So, there are no complete strands of DNA present in the vaccines, only tiny fragments. Even if there were complete strands, the foreign DNA wouldn’t be able to access the nucleus of the recipient’s cells, where that person’s DNA resides, Offit explained.
Also, it’s worth noting that once the virus to be used in the vaccine is grown, it’s processed and clarified before going out to the public.
“The vaccine derivative is highly purified prior to administration to humans,” Dr. Robert Kauffman, a professor and assistant dean for research at Texas Tech University School of Medicine, told us in an email.
“You have a better chance of turning into Spider-Man,” Offit said when asked about the likelihood that a vaccine could cause a person to experience gender dysphoria or become transgender.
Factors Affecting Gender Dysphoria
Gender dysphoria can begin in childhood for those who are transgender.
“There is no scientific evidence that adding anything to someone post birth could ‘cause’ them to be transgender,” said Rachel Levin, a biology and neuroscience professor at Pomona College, told us in an email. “Rather, gender identity is assumed to be developed in utero.”
Most research has relied on the “prenatal androgen hypothesis,” she said, referring to hormones called androgens that affect sex characteristics and puberty largely associated with male development. That theory suggests that transgender people and cisgender people are the result of different profiles of hormone exposure. The term cisgender refers to those whose gender identity matches their sex assigned at birth.
“To put it over-simplistically,” Levin said, “a trans female might be the result of lower-than-expected androgen exposure during brain development (which occurs later than the development of the external genitalia), and a trans male identity might be the result of exposure to androgens during brain development.”
But hormone exposure has an impact only if there are receptors in the bloodstream, Levin said.
“If a cell has androgen (or estrogen) receptors that can’t bind to their respective hormones for some reason, hormones won’t have an effect,” she said. “Thus, one could develop as a trans woman not because of a hiccup in hormone production and exposure, but because hormone receptors in some part of her brain could not bind to the receptor.”
All of this happens before birth.
“Cisgender girls and women who take testosterone don’t suddenly become boys or men and boys and men who experience abnormally low levels of [testosterone] do not become trans women,” Levin said.
Similarly, Francisco Sánchez, an associate professor at Arizona State University who researches the biopsychological basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, told us in an email that the theory that foreign DNA could cause gender dysphoria is ludicrous.
“To suggest that somehow receiving blood or stem cells from another individual is going to alter a person’s chromosomal complement or their DNA ‘blue print’ is pretty outrageous,” he said. “If this was such a concern, then there would’ve been greater efforts to match people when they need to receive blood transfusions beyond their blood type. The same would be true of organ transplants.”
Sánchez also raised a point similar to Offit’s, noting that people are frequently exposed to other people’s DNA through fluids — either accidentally, such as when rendering first aid, or intentionally, such as during intercourse.
“This all reminds me of arguments that used to be made for banning any type of biological donations from non-White human volunteers in the U.S. for fear of ‘contamination,’” Sánchez said.
So, while the posts on social media advancing the claim about gender dysphoria don’t offer any evidence to support it, the evidence that refutes it is clear. Even if there were whole strands of fetal DNA in vaccines (which there aren’t), they wouldn’t be able to affect the vaccine recipient.
Editor’s note: SciCheck’s articles providing accurate health information and correcting health misinformation are made possible by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The foundation has no control over FactCheck.org’s editorial decisions, and the views expressed in our articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the foundation.
Offit, Paul. Pediatrician, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Telephone interview with FactCheck.org. 6 Jun 2023.
World Health Organization. “A Brief History of Vaccination.” Accessed 14 Jun 2023.
Carpenter, Sandra. “The cow-pock,-or-The wonderful effects of the new inoculation!” Morgan Library & Museum. 25 Feb 2021.
Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Vaccine Ingredients – Fetal Cells. 21 Oct 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Child and Adolescent Immunization Schedule by Age. 27 Apr 2023.
Mount Sinai. Gender dysphoria. Accessed 13 Jun 2023.
Foreman, Madeleine, et al. “Genetic Link Between Gender Dysphoria and Sex Hormone Signaling.” Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism. Feb 2019.
Boucher, Ferdinand and Tudor Chinnah. “Gender Dysphoria: A Review Investigating the Relationship Between Genetic Influences and Brain Development.” Adolescent health, medicine and therapeutics. 5 Aug 2020.
Kauffman, Robert. Professor, Texas Tech University School of Medicine. Email interview with FactCheck.org. 3 Jun 2023.
Levin, Rachel. Biology and neuroscience professor, Pomona College. Email interview with FactCheck.org. 2 Jun 2023.
Cleveland Clinic. Androgens. 24 Oct 2021.
Sánchez, Francisco. Associate professor, Arizona State University. Email interview with FactCheck.org. 3 Jun 2023.