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Johnson & Johnson COVID vaccine may pose moral dilemma for Catholic community

Johnson & Johnson's new vaccine has been welcomed as another weapon in the arsenal against COVID, but some members of the local Catholic faith community may avoid it.

U.S. Catholic leaders said abortion-derived cell lines were used in the testing, development and production of the vaccine.

This makes it abhorrent for many Catholics like Connie Lang of Norman, who is vehemently against abortion.

"I absolutely despise this one. It's an absolute 'no,'" she said of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

The concern expressed by Lang, coordinator of the anti-abortion movement 40 Days for Life-Norman, may be shared by others in the local Catholic community.

However, Oklahoma City Archbishop Paul S. Coakley doesn't want this apprehension to keep the faithful from getting vaccinated against the coronavirus in light of the health risks associated with COVID-19.

He's among Catholic leaders around the country encouraging the faithful to get vaccinated against COVID with an "ethically sourced" vaccine, if possible, but not to worry if such a vaccine isn't among their available options.

"Given a choice, one always ought to choose a vaccine that does not involve even remote material cooperation with abortion. However, we may not always have such choices. Vaccines are likely to be distributed regionally and the vaccine coming to one’s local pharmacy may not afford any choice at all," Coakley said in a column.

He said there is no "moral culpability" in using less desirable vaccines, considering the seriousness of the public health crisis and the remote connection to fetal cell lines from an abortion many decades ago. Coakley said this is particularly important if there are no other choices for receiving the vaccine and if there would be a serious risk to the health of the individual or others with whom they come in contact.

This stance has been promoted by Pope Francis, who was vaccinated in mid-January as part of the Vatican City State's vaccination program. Several news outlets reported that it's likely that the pope and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI both received the Pfizer vaccine because it was used in the Vatican City State's vaccination program.

Tuesday, leaders of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops' committees on doctrine and pro-life activities said questions were raised about the "moral permissibility" of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because of its connection to abortion-derived cell lines. They are encouraging the faithful to avoid the Johnson & Johnson vaccine if they have a choice, and to take either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines instead.

Several Catholic organizations like the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Archdiocese of St. Louis are urging parishioners to steer clear of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, describing it as "morally compromised." Catholic leaders in these communities are encouraging the faithful to get vaccinated and avoid the Johnson & Johnson vaccine if possible — but if they have no other options available it is morally acceptable to take it for the common good.

While not disputing the church officials’ contention that an abortion-derived cell line is used in the production, Johnson & Johnson issued a statement Tuesday stressing that there is no fetal tissue in its vaccine: "Several types of cell lines created decades ago using fetal tissue exist and are widely used in medical manufacturing, but the cells in them today are clones of the early cells, not the original tissue."

Archbishop Coakley is encouraging local Catholics to write letters to pharmaceutical companies that conduct research, asking them not to use abortion-derived cell lines in the testing and development of their vaccines.

Weighing options

Diane Clay, the archdiocese's communications director, said the Sooner Catholic, the archdiocese's official newspaper, includes columns by the Rev. Tad Pacholczyk, Ph.D., a leading Catholic bioethicist who has written extensively about numerous COVID vaccines and their connections to abortion-derived cell lines. One recent column included the bio-ethicist's "ethical profiles" on the Moderna, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson vaccines, plus numerous others that are still in development or not yet approved for use in the U.S.

"It's a really good guide for Catholics to make their decision," Clay said.

She said the information compiled by Pacholczyk, along with the archbishop's columns on the topic, should offer local Catholic community members helpful information as they are each guided by their conscience.

Meanwhile, the Rev. Brian Buettner, the archdiocese's bio-ethicist, said while the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are preferable over the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, he thinks Catholics are OK getting even the latter vaccine particularly if there is no other choice available.

"Whenever people are trying to make a decision if they should take a vaccine or not, a lot of times they're thinking 'are we committing a mortal sin by taking this vaccine?' The Johnson & Johnson vaccine used cells derived from morally compromised cell lines during their production stemming from an abortion that occurred five decades ago. A lot of people think that when ever they get the vaccine they're getting aborted fetal cells in their arm, which is not the case. As a Catholic, the material cooperation of that is so remote that it's not a sin for a Catholic to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine if there is no other vaccine available," he said.

"The biggest thing is we don't want to intentionally pour money into the very research that perpetuates a culture of death."

CONTRIBUTING: The Associated Press

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<strong>Paul S. Coakley</strong>

Paul S. Coakley

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Carla Hinton

Carla Hinton, an Oklahoma City native, joined The Oklahoman in 1986 as a National Society of Newspaper Editors minority intern. She began reporting full-time for The Oklahoman two years later and has served as a beat writer covering a wide... Read more ›