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Local Catholic leaders say to avoid Johnson & Johnson vaccine made with fetal cell lines if possible, but health experts disagree

UPDATED: Thu., March 4, 2021

Boxes of the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine are shown at the McKesson Corporation in Shepherdsville, Ky., Monday, March 1, 2021.  (Timothy D. Easley)
Boxes of the Johnson and Johnson COVID-19 vaccine are shown at the McKesson Corporation in Shepherdsville, Ky., Monday, March 1, 2021. (Timothy D. Easley)

The Catholic Dioceses of Spokane and Boise are both recommending local Catholics avoid the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine unless it’s the only shot available, because the vaccine’s manufacture involves cells derived from an aborted fetus in 1985.

Some vaccines – including those for Hepatitis A, rubella and rabies – use historical cell lines in their design or manufacturing process, as viruses that infect humans grow best in human rather than animal cells, according to a report from the North Dakota Department of Health.

Cell lines are grown from a sample of a single fetus’s cells. In the case of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, cells came from a retinal cell line from a single aborted fetus in 1985, the result of an elective abortion, the report said.

Vaccines made this way do not require or solicit new abortions, and the vaccines themselves do not contain any aborted fetal cells, according to the report.

Fetal cells have become commonplace in research labs, partly because they can replicate indefinitely, said Dr. Francisco Velázquez, interim health officer for Spokane Regional Health District, in an emailed statement.

“Cells used today originated from an aborted fetus but are really an independent cell that’s been grown in a laboratory for decades,” Velázquez wrote.

A Tuesday statement from the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops said, emphasizing in italics, that it is “morally acceptable” to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, although Catholics should, when possible, opt for the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines that used cell lines in their design rather than manufacture, according to the statement.

“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,” the statement said.

But public health experts don’t recommend being picky, said Kelli Hawkins, spokesperson for the Spokane Regional Health District.

Hawkins said to reach herd immunity and return to a normal way of life as soon as possible, the majority of Spokane County residents need to be vaccinated.

“All three vaccines are safe and highly effective at eliminating severe disease from COVID-19 and death from COVID-19,” Hawkins said. “We like to say the best vaccine is the one that’s offered to you.”

The Catholic Diocese of Boise is directing parishioners to the USCCB statement, said Deacon Gene Fadness of the Diocese, who declined to an interview.

Mitchell Palmquist, executive director of communications for the Catholic Diocese of Spokane, also declined an interview but pointed to Bishop Thomas Daly’s Jan. 29 public letter on vaccines.

In it, Daly writes that the church teaches “we may morally receive a COVID-19 vaccine,” but, “we are not morally obligated to take a COVID-19 vaccine.”

Daly argues in the letter that, when vaccines developed with no connection to fetal tissue are unavailable, the vaccine with the least connection is best, although vaccines will not require new aborted fetuses whether the cells are used in design or manufacture, according to the department of health report.

The Vatican, in a judgment on COVID vaccines, said that the Catholic church encourages researchers not to use fetal cell lines, and the public’s “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.”

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