Soon after the Food and Drug Administration approved Johnson & Johnson’s one-shot COVID vaccine this week, leaders of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issued a warning: “The approval … again raises questions about the moral permissibility of using vaccines developed, tested, and/or produced with the help of abortion-derived cell lines.”
Some officials made even stronger pronouncements. The archdiocese of New Orleans described the Johnson & Johnson vaccine as “morally compromised.” The deeply conservative bishop of the diocese of Tyler, Texas, in November called on Catholics to reject all three approved vaccines as “not morally produced.”
Why are Catholic bishops speaking publicly about the vaccines? Here is what you need to know about the religious objection and its impact.
Why are some Catholics opposed to the J&J vaccine?
Human fetal cells are commonly used in medical research, including in the development and production of vaccines. Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson have all used cell lines (known as HEK293 and PER.C6) taken from the tissue of aborted fetuses from the ’70s and ’80s. The cells used in the testing and production of these vaccines are clones, not directly from the original fetal tissue.
While Moderna and Pfizer used the cells in the testing of their vaccines, Johnson & Johnson used the PER.C6 cells—or, as the bishops termed them, “abortion-derived cell lines”—in the development and production of its vaccine.
In December, the USCCB said that the two RNA vaccines were “remote from the initial evil of the abortion.” But that isn’t the case for Johnson & Johnson, according to the bishops: “If one can choose among equally safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, the vaccine with the least connection to abortion-derived cell lines should be chosen,” the bishops said in their statement this week. Johnson & Johnson, along with other medical ethicists and medical experts, emphasized that the cells are not fetal material themselves.
Will this statement change how Catholics behave?
It’s unlikely. The USCCB can often be far more bullish on the issue of abortion than the Vatican. Pope Francis, for example, has spoken about the urgent need to get vaccinated to save lives without dwelling on the issue of the cell lines; in fact, the Vatican has offered the Pfizer vaccine to all of its citizens and made it a requirement for employees. Francis himself was vaccinated in January.
J. Patrick Hornbeck, a professor of theology at Fordham University, said that in Catholic moral theology, the issue with medical research using fetal cells is the idea of “cooperating with evil.” But the church can look at these questions with nuance, and most liberal and moderate thinkers in the church have agreed that concerns about the pharmaceutical companies profiting from the product of abortions are outweighed by the need to save lives.
A small number of more traditionally minded American Catholics who pay attention to what the USCCB says might decide to hold off on receiving the vaccine, despite the Vatican statements. It’s also possible that individual bishops who come out against the vaccine could influence some Catholics. But a huge number of Catholics do not agree with the U.S. bishops on politically charged issues, such as LGBT rights and even abortion. (A 2016 Pew Research Center report found that only 8 percent of U.S. Catholics said contraception was morally wrong, even as the church was unequivocally opposed to it.) “They are in no means in lockstep with bishops,” Hornbeck said. “The practical impact will be minimal.”
The only significance Hornbeck sees in the statement is as a data point for the conservative turn of the American bishops. “It seems to me that the USCCB has chosen to embrace a culture war mentality,” Hornbeck said. “It’s a shame that this pretty easy call in Catholic moral theology is being leveraged in a way that might turn people off from getting the vaccine they need.”
Will this affect how Catholic institutions distribute the vaccines?
Catholic churches, schools, elder care facilities, and hospitals are a significant part of vaccine distribution around the country. It’s possible that the USCCB’s statement will affect how churches and schools choose to act and whether they will agree to distribute the Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The Archdiocese of New Orleans told the Religion News Service that it was “asking all Catholic entities to distribute vaccines according to the ethical guidelines we have released.”
But it does appear that Catholic hospitals are committed to continuing to prioritize medical needs. The Catholic Health Association, which represents thousands of hospitals and other health facilities, asserted last month that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was “morally acceptable” and told RNS this week that the USCCB’s statement would not affect its decision to distribute it.
Will Catholics be able to cite their religious objection to avoid the J&J vaccine?
The statement from the bishops was clear that Catholics should only avoid the Johnson & Johnson vaccine if they have the option of choosing another. But experts say that such a statement is pointless: We don’t have the luxury of choice in the midst of a pandemic.
Most pharmacies and other vaccination sites will not tell you which vaccine you’ll receive ahead of time. But there are ways that an individual with religious concerns can increase their chances of getting the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. The most obvious way is to get vaccinated as soon as possible. The J&J vaccine is just being rolled out, so most places currently distributing vaccines likely have one of the two RNA ones. One of the great benefits of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is that it can be stored more easily. So if a state has to allocate its vaccine supply, it’s more likely to direct its finicky Moderna and Pfizer vaccines to hospitals and other medical settings more likely to have the freezers those vaccines need. And it’s more likely to employ the J&J vaccine in temporary locations, such as parking lots and churches and schools, that don’t have access to heavy-duty medical equipment.
It’ll be a number of months before the crisis is managed to the point where health experts expect to start thinking about a more targeted use of the vaccines. But experts and Catholic theologians are united in urging people not to wait that long. Even the USCCB made it clear in its December statement that getting a vaccine whenever it is recommended by health officials is a moral imperative: “Receiving one of the COVID-19 vaccines ought to be understood as an act of charity toward the other members of our community. In this way, being vaccinated safely against COVID-19 should be considered an act of love of our neighbor and part of our moral responsibility for the common good.”
Thanks to Antonio Alonso at Emory University, Noel Brewer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Bernard Nahlen at the University of Notre Dame, Jonathan Temte at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, and Bruce Y. Lee at the CUNY Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy.