The Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine is seen in this illustration photo. CNS photo/Dado Ruvic, Reuters

Johnson & Johnson vaccine ‘morally acceptable’ despite fetus origins

By 
  • March 5, 2021

The approval of Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine for use in Canada has heightened the discussion over whether Catholics should receive the vaccine, though Church teaching remains clear that it is “morally acceptable.”

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is produced using cell lines derived from aborted fetuses, unlike the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, which are made using a synthetic messenger RNA. However, all the companies used abortion-derived cells during preliminary laboratory testing.

In a December statement, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, while not endorsing the use of abortion-related cell lines, deemed the vaccines acceptable when “ethically irreproachable” vaccines are not available.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops echoed the statement with their own on March 9. Catholics should choose a vaccine with "the least connection to abortion-derived cell lines," the CCCB said, but when that choice isn't available, the alternative "can be used in good conscience with the certain knowledge that the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal co-operation with abortion."

Cell lines used in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine are drawn from tissue obtained from two abortions that occurred in the last few decades. Cells of this kind are easily and frequently reproduced in labs and therefore to some are considered far removed from the original source.

“People should be aiming to get the (vaccines) that don't have (aborted fetus) components,” said Moira McQueen, executive director of the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute. “But if they were not available — and in some countries they may not be because their government isn't purchasing those ones — then the Church is still saying, use them because you're facing a lethal illness or death. You're remote from the original source. So remote that you're not co-operating in evil.

Health professionals and many in the Catholic faith community encourage people to get the first vaccine available to them since the moral responsibility of helping to achieve herd immunity from this deadly disease as soon as possible outweighs any ethical concerns. 

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ issued a statement on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine saying that though taking these vaccines may be acceptable, Catholics should continue in efforts to push pharmaceutical companies to look more ethically at the matter. 

“While we should continue to insist that pharmaceutical companies stop using abortion-derived cell lines, given the world-wide suffering that this pandemic is causing, we affirm again that being vaccinated can be an act of charity that serves the common good,” said their March 2 statement.

Canada's bishops also encourgaged all Canadians to receive a vaccine as an act that "recognizes the need to care for others."

Controversy over the use of cells from aborted fetuses in vaccine development and laboratory testing is nothing new. Other common vaccines have been subject to the same moral debate over the years. 

“They've been so much in use over the decades and people didn't know,” said McQueen. “If we start to look very closely at a lot of common pharmaceuticals, we'll find that they were maybe at least tested with agents that contain some of (those cells).  Apparently they give good test results just on a scientific level.” 

Some Catholics have a problem with vaccines of any kind with association to these cells. Though this makes the situation difficult, McQueen says, the confirmation from the Vatican that Pope Francis and Pope Benedict received the Pfizer vaccine in mid-January paints a very clear picture in terms of what is accepted.

(NOTE: This story has been updated to include a statement from the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.)

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