Shortly after the FDA 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 moral permissibility. to use vaccines developed, tested and / or produced with the help of abortion-derived cell lines. “
Some officials made even more forceful 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 asked Catholics to reject the three approved vaccines as “not morally produced.”
Why do Catholic bishops speak publicly about vaccines? Here’s what you need to know about 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 vaccine development and production. Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson have used cell lines (known as HEK293 and PER.C6) extracted from the tissue of aborted fetuses from the 1970s and 1980s. 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 their vaccine trials, Johnson & Johnson used PER.C6 cells – or, as the bishops called them, “abortion-derived cell lines” – in the development and production of their vaccine.
In December, the USCCB said the two RNA vaccines were “far from the initial evil of abortion.” But that is not the case for Johnson & Johnson, according to the bishops: “If one can choose between equally safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, one must choose the vaccine with the least connection to abortion-derived cell lines,” the bishops they said in their statement this week. Johnson & Johnson, along with other medical ethicists and medical experts, emphasized that cells are not fetal material themselves.
Will this statement change how Catholics behave?
It’s not nice. The USCCB can often be much more optimistic on the abortion issue than the Vatican. Pope Francis, for example, has spoken of the urgent need to get vaccinated to save lives without dwelling on the issue of cell lines; in fact, the Vatican has offered the Pfizer vaccine to all of its citizens and made it a requirement for employees. Francisco himself was vaccinated in January.
J. Patrick Hornbeck, professor of theology at Fordham University, said that in Catholic moral theology, the problem with medical research using fetal cells is the idea of ”cooperating with evil.” But the church can look at these questions with nuances, and most liberal and moderate thinkers in the church have agreed that concerns about drug companies profiting from abortion proceeds are outweighed by the need to save lives. .
A small number of more traditionally-minded American Catholics who heed what the USCCB says might decide to postpone vaccination, despite the Vatican’s remarks. It is also possible that individual bishops who oppose the vaccine may influence some Catholics. But a large number of Catholics disagree with the US bishops on politically charged issues, such as LGBT rights and even abortion. (A 2016 Pew Research Center report found that only 8 percent of American Catholics said contraception was morally wrong, even when the church unequivocally opposed it.) “The practical impact will be minimal.”
The only meaning Hornbeck sees in the statement is as a hint of the conservative turn of the American bishops. “It seems to me that the USCCB has chosen to adopt a culture war mentality,” Hornbeck said. “It is a shame that this easy appeal in Catholic moral theology is being exploited in a way that could prevent people from getting the vaccine they need.”
Will this affect how Catholic institutions distribute vaccines?
Catholic churches, schools, senior care facilities, and hospitals are an important part of vaccine distribution across the country. The USCCB statement may 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 Religious News Service that it was “asking all Catholic entities to distribute vaccines in accordance with the ethical guidelines that we have published.”
But it appears that Catholic hospitals are committed to continuing to prioritize medical needs. The Catholic Health Association, which represents thousands of hospitals and other healthcare facilities, claimed 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 cite their religious objection to avoid the J&J vaccine?
The bishops’ statement was clear that Catholics should only avoid the Johnson & Johnson vaccine if they have the option to choose another. But experts say such a claim makes no sense: We don’t have the luxury of choice in the midst of a global pandemic.
Most pharmacies and other vaccination sites will not tell you which vaccine to get ahead of time. But there are ways a person with religious concerns can increase their chances of receiving the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines. The most obvious way is to get vaccinated as soon as possible. The J&J vaccine is just rolling out, so most places that currently distribute vaccines probably have one of the two RNAs. 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 is more likely to direct its meticulous Moderna and Pfizer vaccines to hospitals and other medical settings that are more likely to have the freezers those vaccines need. And the J&J vaccine is more likely to be used in temporary locations, such as parking lots and churches and schools, that do not have access to heavy-duty medical equipment.
It will be several months before the crisis is managed to the point where health experts hope to start thinking about a more specific use of vaccines. But Catholic experts and theologians are united in urging people not to wait that long. Even the USCCB made clear in its December statement that getting vaccinated whenever recommended by health officials is a moral imperative: “Receiving one of the COVID-19 vaccines should be understood as an act of charity towards the other members of our community. In this way, getting vaccinated safely against COVID-19 should be considered an act of love for our neighbor and part of our moral responsibility for the common good ”.
Thanks to Antonio Alonso from Emory University; Noel Brewer of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; Bernard Nahlen of the University of Notre Dame; Jonathan Temte of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health; and Bruce Y. Lee at CUNY’s Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy.
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