The moral implications of COVID-19 vaccines manufactured using cell lines derived from an aborted fetus have sparked a lively online debate. People who are opposed to abortion are wondering if they can be vaccinated in good conscience.

Some Catholic bodies, including the commission on COVID-19 appointed by the Vatican, have urged people to take any vaccine available to them, stressing the need for protection from the virus, which has killed over half a million people in the U.S. alone.

Other Catholic bishops have deemed the Johnson & Johnson vaccine “morally compromised,” saying that other vaccines, such as Pfizer and Moderna’s, are preferable to one linked to the act of abortion.

Some Catholics have interpreted these statements as episcopal guidance to avoid the Johnson & Johnson vaccine altogether.

On social media, some users have inaccurately claimed that aborted fetal tissue was used as an ingredient in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which the company has strongly denied.

Why has this vaccine sparked such a debate? What are the specifics of issues in play? We reviewed the science on the vaccines and spoke with biological ethicists and theologians to understand and explain both the facts and the varied ethical perspectives.

Why is the Johnson & Johnson vaccine controversial?

The controversy over the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has to do with the way it is manufactured.

The vaccine is made using a modified cold virus called an adenovirus, which trains the body’s immune system to recognize the coronavirus. These adenoviruses are grown in a cell line called PER.C6, which was originally derived from an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985. To create the cell line, scientists isolated a cell from the fetus and cloned it to produce cells of the same genetic makeup. After the adenovirus grows in the cells, the cells themselves are purified away, essentially removed, to create the vaccine.

To some Catholics, the vaccine’s link to abortion, however distant, raises strong moral objections.

Pfizer and Moderna use mRNA technology, which gives the body instructions to identify the virus. The companies also made use of human fetal cells to test the safety and efficacy of their vaccines. This makes their use more acceptable U.S. Catholic bishops, who said in December that “the connection is very remote from the initial evil of the abortion.”

The final vaccine contains trillionths of a gram of fragmented DNA from the cell line.

What the Catholic Church said about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine

The outlook of Catholic scholars, ethicists and bishops on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is varied and nuanced. Most thinkers have encouraged Catholics to be vaccinated for the common good while simultaneously condemning the practice of using aborted cell lines to produce vaccines.

M. Therese Lysaught, a professor of theology and bioethics at the Neiswanger Institute for Bioethics and Health Policy, said she believes that Catholics can receive the J&J vaccine without cooperating in the original act of abortion. According to Lysaught, only a few bishops have cautioned parishioners about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

“As far as I can tell, six bishops have raised concerns about the J&J vaccine and counseled that if there’s a choice, people should choose one of the mRNA vaccines” she said, referring to the vaccines by Pfizer and Moderna. “Now, there’s 434 bishops, and we’ve heard from six of them.”

Brian Kane, senior ethicist at the Catholic Health Association, agreed with Lysaught.

“While the creation of cell lines from aborted fetuses should rightly be condemned… given the present circumstances, we have a duty to protect ourselves, and also to ensure the health of our community, especially the most vulnerable among us,” he said.

In support of her stance, Lysaught cited the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which concluded in December 2020 that “it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.” The congregation’s determination was echoed by the official Vatican COVID-19 Commission, which wrote that “all clinically recommended vaccinations can be used with a clear conscience.”

Boxes containing the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine sit next to vials in the pharmacy of National Jewish Hospital for distribution March 6 in east Denver.
Boxes containing the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine sit next to vials in the pharmacy of National Jewish Hospital for distribution March 6 in east Denver. [ DAVID ZALUBOWSKI | AP ]

Other Catholic thinkers besides Lysaught and Kane have stated that the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are preferable to the Johnson & Johnson vaccine while also stressing that Catholics should take any vaccine available to them.

A spokesperson for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops affirmed that the organization holds that the J&J vaccine may be taken “in good conscience” if a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine “is not readily available or you are not able to choose (which is likely the case in much of the COVID vaccine distribution at this time).”

The Archdiocese of New Orleans, however, advised parishioners to receive vaccines from Moderna or Pfizer rather than Johnson & Johnson if they were in a position to choose.

The archdiocese relied on guidance from the National Catholic Bioethics Center, which advises U.S. bishops on issues of bioethics.

Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education at the center, told us that it’s preferable to choose a vaccine “not associated with, or less associated with, material derived from abortions.” However, he also noted that the church does not require Catholics to decline the vaccine on moral grounds in the face of significant risks to their health. Instead, he said, “end users have a duty to push back and make known their disagreement with the continued use of these cells by researchers in the pharmaceutical industry and academia.”

Very few Catholic leaders have taken an uncompromising stance toward any COVID-19 vaccines with a connection to aborted human fetuses. There have been some exceptions, including Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, who tweeted that he would not accept a COVID-19 vaccine with any connection to abortion.

In January, both Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI were among the first Vatican residents to receive the Pfizer vaccine.

“I believe that morally everyone must take (a) vaccine,” Pope Francis said in a Jan. 10 interview for an Italian news program. “It is the moral choice because it is about your life but also the lives of others.”

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