Catholics in New Orleans and St Louis told to avoid Johnson & Johnson vaccine

Jessica Glenza and Martin Pengelly
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Timothy D Easley/EPA</span>
Photograph: Timothy D Easley/EPA

The archdiocese of New Orleans, as well as Roman Catholic leaders in St Louis, Missouri, have told local Catholics to avoid the Johnson & Johnson’s single-shot Covid-19 vaccine, because its early development used “morally compromised cell lines created from two abortions”.

The leadership in New Orleans said two other vaccines in use in the US, made by Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, were acceptable despite having been developed with “some lab testing that utilised the abortion-derived cell line”. The archdiocese made the announcement on Friday.

Related: Vatican says getting Covid vaccine 'morally acceptable'

The statement put the archdiocese at odds with Pope Francis. In December, the Vatican said it was “morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted foetuses in their research and production process”, as the use of such vaccines “does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive”.

The archdiocese of St Louis on Tuesday, meanwhile, encouraged Catholics to seek out the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines and avoid the Johnson & Johnson version if possible. Like the New Orleans archdiocese statement, the St Louis statement called the Johnson & Johnson vaccine “morally compromised”.

However, the St Louis statement stressed that Catholics can get that vaccine “in good conscience if no other alternative is available”.

Cells derived from an elective abortion in the Netherlands in the 1970s are commonly used in medical research. Last October, it was widely reported that an experimental Covid-19 therapy given to Donald Trump, Regeneron, was developed using such cells.

Like most Republicans, the then president had courted anti-abortion groups and moved to restrict use of fetal tissue in research. Fetal tissue research has led to a number of important medical advances, especially in vaccine development.

Cell lines derived from aborted tissue were used in the development of the polio, chickenpox, hepatitis A and shingles vaccines. Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine subsidiary Janssen used PER.C6 cells, a proprietary cell line derived from aborted tissue in 1985.

The New Orleans archdiocese said it maintained “that the decision to receive the Covid-19 vaccine remains one of individual conscience in consultation with one’s healthcare provider. We also maintain that in no way does the church’s position diminish the wrongdoing of those who decided to use cell lines from abortions to make vaccines.

“In doing so, we advise that if the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine is available, Catholics should choose to receive either of those vaccines rather than to receive the new Johnson & Johnson vaccine because of its extensive use of abortion-derived cell lines.”

The diocese’s comments come as the US undertakes national distribution of three coronavirus vaccines authorized for emergency use by drugs regulators. Vaccine hesitancy has been a major concern throughout the pandemic, as vaccines need to reach a vast majority of adults to protect those ineligible to receive vaccines, such as children under 16 and the immune-compromised.

More than 28.6 million people in the US have been infected by the coronavirus and 515,000 killed since the pandemic began.

Joe Biden and Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert and chief medical adviser to the president, are both Catholic. Asked about vaccine efficacy, Fauci told NBC: “All three of them are really quite good, and people should take the one that’s most available to them. People need to get vaccinated as quickly and as expeditiously as possible, and if I would go to a place where they had Johnson & Johnson, I would have no hesitancy whatsoever to take it.”

Anti-abortion groups and Catholic leaders in the US and Canada have raised ethical objections to the origin of cell lines throughout the pandemic. In June, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote a letter urging the Trump administration to “incentivize” the development of vaccines that do not use such cell lines.

“It is critically important that Americans have access to a vaccine that is produced ethically,” the letter said. “No American should be forced to choose between being vaccinated against this potentially deadly virus and violating his or her conscience.”

New Orleans is not the only diocese to engage in anti-abortion rhetoric. In January, Joseph Strickland, bishop of Tyler, Texas and “host of The Bishop Strickland Hour on VMP Radio”, tweeted: “All the political posturing on vaccines is truly disgusting.

“The fact remains that ANY vaccine available today involves using murdered children before they could even be born. I renew my pledge … I will not extend my life by USING murdered children. This is evil WAKE UP!”

Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the New York University School of Medicine, told Science magazine in June: “There are better ways to win the abortion wars than telling people not to use a vaccine. These are long-over abortions. These cells are decades old, and even major religious leaders like the pope have acknowledged that for the greater good it’s not worth the symbolism to put the community at risk.”

According to Johns Hopkins University, by Tuesday morning Louisiana had recorded 430,504 Covid-19 cases and 9,628 deaths. According to one vaccinations tracker, nearly 700,000 people had received at least one shot in the state.