CLEVELAND — Catholic leaders are steering church members away from the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine for moral reasons.
Johnson & Johnson’s use of fetal cell lines to design, develop, produce and test its vaccine makes it “morally compromised,” some church leaders say. The Catholic church staunchly opposes abortion.
Fetal cell lines are grown in a laboratory and are related to cells taken from elective abortions from decades ago. None of the current COVID-19 vaccines use fetal cells from recent abortions, Nebraska Medicine infectious disease expert Dr. James Lawler wrote in an article for the hospital system’s website.
Moderna and Pfizer did not use fetal cell lines to develop or produce their mRNA COVID-19 vaccines. The companies did use a fetal cell line to confirm the vaccines worked, Lawler wrote.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is an adenovirus vector vaccine, in which the adenovirus — altered so that it does not cause illness — delivers modified DNA to the cells. The company infects fetal cell line cells with adenovirus to manufacture the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, Lawler said.
“That means there is a moral difficulty in using any vaccine,” but more moral concerns with Johnson & Johnson, said Father Joseph Koopman, a moral theologian for the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland.
“Catholics are encouraged, if they have a choice, to choose Pfizer or Moderna,” he said. “They are less involved in evil.”
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine contains no fetal tissue whatsoever, a spokesperson said in an email: “In developing a COVID-19 vaccine, our goal has always been to save as many lives as possible. We’re proud to bring a single-shot vaccine to the world in record time and contribute to ending this pandemic.
“We employ a technology platform using cells that were engineered and grown in labs from a single cell more than 30 years ago into a fully engineered cell line,” Johnson & Johnson said. “This cell line enables us to rapidly manufacture hundreds of millions of single-shot COVID vaccines that can be transferred and stored without the need for deep freezing.”
Johnson & Johnson said that it holds itself to “the highest biomedical ethical standards.”
No human material or animal products were used in the development of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, a Pfizer spokesperson said.
Scientists have used fetal cell lines from abortions to help find treatments for cancer, Ebola and other diseases. Remdesivir, an antiviral drug that former President Donald Trump received as part of his COVID-19 treatment, was developed using fetal cell lines, according to press reports.
The Vatican said in December that when “ethically irreproachable” vaccines are not available, “it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses” in the research and production process.
Pope Francis has received the Pfizer vaccine, according to news reports.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recently advised Catholics to avoid getting the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine if possible, and instead choose the Pfizer or Moderna immunizations.
The Catholic Diocese of Cleveland has posted the conference’s statement on its website as guidance for Northeast Ohio Catholics.
Elsewhere in the U.S., the New Orleans archdiocese has stated that the decision to receive a vaccine is one of individual conscience. In a statement, the New Orleans archdiocese did not advise Catholics not to take the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, but added that Catholics should choose coronavirus vaccines made by Moderna or Pfizer if possible.
The Archdiocese of St. Louis encouraged Catholics to get the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines and avoid the Johnson & Johnson immunization if they can. However, St. Louis church leaders said that Catholics can get the Johnson & Johnson vaccine “in good conscience if no other alternative is available,” according to press reports.
It’s possible the controversy over the vaccine’s morality will lead some Catholics to skip getting vaccinated, since they won’t know prior to their appointment which shot they are being offered, Koopman acknowledged.
“It’s still a difficult decision for us to take,” he said. “We live in an imperfect world.”