Bloomberg / Bloomberg via Getty Images
The new vaccine against Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 may offer the best prospect for the fastest possible protection for as many Americans as possible, but some American religious leaders say they have moral concerns about its development.
Unlike the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna variants, the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was produced in part using cell lines derived from an aborted human fetus. In a statement issued this week, leaders of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops said the vaccine’s characteristics raised questions about its acceptability.
“If anyone has the option of choosing a vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna vaccines should be chosen over Johnson & Johnson,” said Kansas City Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann and Fort Wayne-South Bend (Indiana) Bishop Kevin C. Rhodes. Naumann chairs the USCCB’s Life Activities Committee, and Rhodes chairs the conference’s Doctrine Committee.
Bishops stop telling American Catholics to avoid the Johnson and Johnson vaccine altogether, a position held by other religious leaders known for their strong opposition to abortion.
“We must oppose the authorization or funding of research rooted in the taking of innocent lives,” said Russell Moore, president of the South Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Freedom Committee.
“But that doesn’t mean,” Moore told NPR, “that people should avoid medical procedures that could save lives because they were discovered by means we wouldn’t necessarily approve.”
In practice, Americans who can be vaccinated against COVID-19 usually have no choice as to which option to receive. Vaccination centers can usually only offer those vaccines to which they have access. Given these circumstances, the advice of leaders of the belief that people should feel free to use the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, if no alternatives are available, may be the most important part of their advice.
In a statement on the appropriateness of the various vaccines against COVID-19, the American bishops cited a decision by the Vatican Congregation on the doctrine of the faith.
“When ethically sound vaccines against COVID-19 are not available,” said the Vatican office, “it is morally acceptable to receive vaccines against COVID-19 that have used aborted fetal cell lines in their research and production.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine was developed using PER.C6, a fetal cell line that originated from an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985. According to a June 2020 article in Scientific journal, human fetal cells can be used as “miniature” factories “to generate huge amounts of adenoviruses … which are used as carriers to ferry genes from the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19.”
The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines also use human fetal cells, but only during testing of the vaccine’s effectiveness, a fact that makes them acceptable, said an extensive statement by American bishops published in December 2020.
“Although none of the vaccines are completely free of any connection to morally compromised cell lines,” the bishops said, “in this case, the connection is very far from the original evil of abortion.”
A Catholic leader in the United States, Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, said he opposed the use of any vaccine against COVID-19 with any connection to aborted human fetuses, no matter how remote, but his extreme stance on the issue was an exception among Catholic leaders. Pope Francis and Pope Benedict received vaccines against COVID-19 as soon as they became available.
In a statement on ethical considerations regarding the use of COVID-19 vaccines, American bishops said that vaccination “should be understood as an act of charity to other members of our community. Thus, safe vaccination against COVID-19 should be seen as an act of love of neighbor and part of our moral responsibility for the common good. “
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine has just become available in the United States, and Catholic hospitals and other church-related healthcare facilities are still grappling with the effects of the bishops’ council to avoid the vaccine if possible.
At least one Catholic hospital is already facing this challenge. Holy Cross Hospital in Silver Spring, Michigan, received 500 doses of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine this week and plans to administer them as soon as possible, despite its connection to fetal cell lines.
“It’s a safe vaccine,” said the Rev. Kurtley Godwood, the hospital’s chief missionary. “He has a great experience as far as being able to prevent serious illness and hospitalization. These are very distant cell lines. It’s not paramount when you have the bigger question of saving lives.”