May Catholics Get the Johnson & Johnson COVID Vaccine?
Our world has been rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic. As the virus continues to mutate, there is one thing we can be sure of: COVID will be around for quite some time.
At the height of the pandemic, as businesses, schools, and other activities closed down, people clamored for a vaccine—something to make this nightmare go away and to return life to “normal.” Pharmaceutical companies quickly met this need. Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson each manufactured a COVID vaccine to “help stop the spread.”
But what’s in these vaccines has become a major concern to many people worldwide.
Vaccines Created with Aborted Fetal Cell Lines
Sadly, companies have routinely use aborted fetal cell lines in the development of many vaccines and medications for years (get a list of those vaccines and medications here).
Why? And what is a fetal cell line?
In the 1950s and 1960s, when vaccine manufacturing was in its infancy, researchers used cells from monkeys to create vaccines. But they soon found that these cells often contained viruses that would contaminate the vaccine. They also found that some human viruses would not grow well in non-human cells. So they came up with an alternative to produce vaccine viruses: human fetal cells and their resultant cell lines. Cells lines were first used in 1962. Today, the two most widely used cell lines come from babies aborted in the ‘70s and ‘80s.
What exactly does a cell line involve? According to National Geographic:
Fetal cell lines are cells that grow in a laboratory….
Individual cells from the 1970s and 1980s have since multiplied into many new cells over the past four or five decades, creating the fetal cell lines…. Current fetal cell lines are thousands of generations removed from the original fetal tissue. They do not contain any tissue from a fetus.
Regarding the COVID vaccine, another author states:
The human fetal cells are used as miniature “factories” to generate vast quantities of adenoviruses, disabled so that they cannot replicate, that are used as vehicles to ferry genes from the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19. When the adenoviruses are given as a vaccine, recipients’ cells begin to produce proteins from the coronavirus, hopefully triggering a protective immune response.
Vaccine manufacturers commonly use fetal cell lines either during research and development or in the production and manufacturing.
Two cell lines—HEK 293 and PER.C6—were used in the creation of the three main COVID vaccines. The HEK 293 cell line came from the kidney of a baby aborted in the 1970s. Pfizer and Moderna used these cell lines for confirmatory testing of their COVID vaccine “to confirm that the genetic instructions for making the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein worked in human cells. This was like a proof-of-concept test…and the fetal cells were not used to produce either of these mRNA vaccines.”
Johnson & Johnson used the PER.C6 cells. These cells were derived from retinal cells from a baby aborted in 1985. Because Johnson & Johnson used the fetal cell lines in development and design, production, and confirmatory testing, many faithful Christians refuse to accept this vaccine.
In 2020, scholars James Sherley and David Prentice wrote an article entitled “An Ethics Assessment of COVID-19 Vaccine Programs.” Both men work for the Charlotte Lozier Institute, an organization whose goal is to “promote deeper public understanding of the value of human life, motherhood, and fatherhood, and to identify policies and practices that will protect life and serve both women’s health and family well-being.” In their article, Sherley and Prentice write that the manufacturer’s use of cells from aborted fetuses would likely cause some people to refuse to accept any vaccine that used these cell lines. They state:
While some may see no ethical problem, for many a straight line can be drawn from the ending of a human life in an abortion to a vaccine or drug created using cells derived from the harvesting of the fetal tissue. Even if the cells have been propagated for years in the laboratory far removed from the abortion, that connection line remains.
Indeed, the connection remains. And it’s a bitter pill for many to swallow. Having to choose between getting a vaccine that could mitigate the symptoms of a dangerous disease in those who contract it or receiving a vaccine with ties to cell lines derived from the organs of aborted children is an extremely difficult decision. That is why we must look to the Church for an answer to this dilemma.
What Is the Catholic Church’s Position on the Use of Aborted Fetal Cell Lines?
The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that abortion is wrong in all instances. Abortion is “gravely contrary to the moral law.” Further, the “formal cooperation in an abortion constitutes a grave offense.”
Abortion takes the life of an innocent child each and every time. Therefore, anyone who has an abortion or participates in an abortion commits a very serious sin.
In 2008, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote Dignitas Personae, which teaches about human dignity from creation until death. Among other things, the document discusses the use of “‘biological material’ of illicit origin,” in other words, fetal cell lines used to develop and test certain vaccines. Dignitas Personae addresses different degrees of responsibility when it comes to the taking of a vaccine.
The document states:
Grave reasons may be morally proportionate to justify the use of such “biological material.” Thus, for example, danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available. Moreover, in organizations where cell lines of illicit origin are being utilized, the responsibility of those who make the decision to use them is not the same as that of those who have no voice in such a decision. (Emphasis added)
In December 2020, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith specifically addressed concerns about COVID vaccines and aborted fetal cell lines:
The fundamental reason for considering the use of these vaccines morally licit is that the kind of cooperation in evil (passive material cooperation) in the procured abortion from which these cell lines originate is, on the part of those making use of the resulting vaccines, remote. The moral duty to avoid such passive material cooperation is not obligatory if there is a grave danger, such as the otherwise uncontainable spread of a serious pathological agent—in this case, the pandemic spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes Covid-19. It must therefore be considered that, in such a case, all vaccinations recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience with the certain knowledge that the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive.
To that end, regarding the COVID vaccine, the Church teaches two things. One, we must continually advocate for and demand the use of ethical vaccines. Human beings, including preborn children, are not commodities to be bought, sold, or exploited. The inherent dignity we all have as humans must be respected and upheld during all stages of life. Two, we must look at all the vaccine options. In situations when we have a choice between a vaccine produced with fetal cell lines and one not produced with them, we must choose the one that didn’t use them. However, the Church teaches that it is permissible to accept vaccines with connections to aborted fetal cell lines if we have no other choice, for example, if an ethically produced vaccine is not available or if preexisting conditions necessitate a person receiving one vaccine over the other.
According to the USCCB: “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. Therefore, if one has the ability to choose a vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccines should be chosen over Johnson & Johnson’s” (emphasis added).
Further, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s document says: “The licit use of such vaccines does not and should not in any way imply that there is a moral endorsement of the use of cell lines proceeding from aborted fetuses.”
While a person should absolutely be free to decide what to put into his body, the Church stresses that those who morally object to a vaccine created from fetal cell lines should take precautions to keep others safe and healthy.
The CDF states:
Practical reason makes evident that vaccination is not, as a rule, a moral obligation and that, therefore, it must be voluntary. In any case, from the ethical point of view, the morality of vaccination depends not only on the duty to protect one’s own health, but also on the duty to pursue the common good. In the absence of other means to stop or even prevent the epidemic, the common good may recommend vaccination, especially to protect the weakest and most exposed. Those who, however, for reasons of conscience, refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses, must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent. In particular, they must avoid any risk to the health of those who cannot be vaccinated for medical or other reasons, and who are the most vulnerable.
Abortion is a grave evil. Human beings are not things to be bought, sold, or exploited. That is why we must never promote the use of aborted fetal cell lines in vaccines. Nor should we just accept their use as the “norm.”
When possible, we should advocate for and accept only ethical vaccines (when they are available), and those who work in the scientific sector should work toward creating vaccines that do not use aborted fetal cells. Pharmaceutical and research companies, including Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson and Johnson, have a responsibility to human beings—both born and preborn—to treat them with dignity and respect.
As the Catechism teaches, “Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God. We must take reasonable care of them.”
This includes human beings after and before birth.
If you have questions about the ethics of accepting a coronavirus vaccine in a real-life situation, please contact our partners at the National Catholic Bioethics Center.
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Susan Ciancio has a BA in psychology and a BA in sociology from the University of Notre Dame, with an MA in liberal studies from Indiana University. Since 2003, she has worked as a professional editor and writer, editing both fiction and nonfiction books, magazine articles, blogs, educational lessons, professional materials, and website content. Fourteen of those years have been in the pro-life sector. Currently Susan writes weekly for HLI, edits for American Life League, and is the editor of its Celebrate Life Magazine. She also serves as executive editor for the Culture of Life Studies Program, an educational nonprofit program for k-12 students.