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Amid vaccine rollout, some Catholics struggle with shots' connections to abortion

Medical use of aborted fetal cell lines raises religious and ethical questions.

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An injection of the COVID-19 vaccine
An injection of the COVID-19 vaccine
(Joe Raedle/Getty)
Updated: March 7, 2021 - 12:48am

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

As the COVID-19 vaccine rollout continues, some Catholics are struggling with a decades-old bioethical quandary: whether or not to use medicine that has been developed in connection with aborted fetal tissue. 

The complex issue has been extensively litigated by the Catholic Church's leadership, but it remains unresolved for individual Catholics, each of whom is enjoined to make up his or her own mind on whether or not they will participate in a medical procedure that is directly, if distantly, connected to abortion. 

At issue is the fact that biomedical companies, in the process of developing vaccines, often utilize cell lines ultimately descended from cells taken from fetal tissue. Those cells can be used in a variety of different ways during vaccine development. 

In the case of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, scientists used a cell line known as HEK293, which derives from a fetus aborted in the Netherlands in 1973. The recently approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine, meanwhile, uses PerC6 cells derived from the eyeballs of an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985, also in the Netherlands. 

The three vaccines do not use the cell lines in equal ways. Pfizer and Moderna use the HEK293 cells to test their vaccines, but none of those cells make their way into the vaccine itself. Johnson & Johnson, on the other hand, actually incorporates the PerC6 cells into their injection. 

Vatican gives conditional approval

Though abortion is unequivocally condemned and prohibited by the Catholic Church, the Vatican has given its consent, albeit a conditional one, to the use of COVID-19 vaccines derived from cell lines descended from fetal tissue. 

In December, the Holy See said that, in cases where there are no other options, "it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process."

"It should be emphasized," the directive continued, "... that the morally licit use of these types of vaccines, in the particular conditions that make it so, does not in itself constitute a legitimation, even indirect, of the practice of abortion, and necessarily assumes the opposition to this practice by those who make use of these vaccines."

That statement notwithstanding, at least one Catholic diocese in the U.S. — the Archdiocese of New Orleans — has urged its parishioners to refrain from taking the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, claiming in a late February statement that that injection "is morally compromised as it uses the abortion-derived cell line in development and production of the vaccine as well as the testing."

"[W]e advise that if the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine is available, Catholics should choose to receive either of those vaccines" rather than the Johnson & Johnson variant, the archdiocese said. 

The New Orleans archdiocese said that the issue is ultimately "one of individual conscience," something echoed by Joseph Meaney, the president of the National Catholic Bioethics Center.

"There's not an absolute prohibition" for Catholics one way or the other, Meaney told Just the News. "Instead, you have a conscientious discernment."

"The most important thing is: How much do I need to take a vaccine right now?" he continued. "Am I particularly fragile? Am I living with people that are high-risk? Am I a frontline healthcare worker? There are all these kinds of considerations" that Catholics might consider when determining whether to take vaccines that have utilized the fetal cell lines. 

Dee Christie, a professor at John Carroll University and the former executive director of the Catholic Theological Society of America, agreed that Catholics can and do come down on many sides of the issue. 

"There is no 'monolith' Catholic theological position," Christie said. "The official Catholic teaching is that purposed destruction of human fetal life is always wrong, but this question is broader than that." 

"Certainly, those on the more liberal end could make an argument as to the separation of the act of abortion and using tissue obtained from aborted fetuses but not aborted so that they could be used in research," she went on. "Others might say, 'Never.'"

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, meanwhile, echoed the sentiment of the Vatican in a December statement, essentially condoning the use of both types of vaccines, arguing that if "one does not really have a choice of vaccine," it is acceptable to take one produced with aborted fetal cell lines. 

"[W]e should be on guard," the bishops added, "so that the new COVID-19 vaccines do not desensitize us or weaken our determination to oppose the evil of abortion itself and the subsequent use of fetal cells in research."

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