There’s been a heated debate among conservatives and religious leaders over whether getting vaccinated is “morally acceptable,” considering the leading COVID-19 vaccines, including those made by Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson, were made using specialized cell lines originally derived from human fetal tissue, also known as cell lines. The tissue isn’t in the shots themselves, but it was used in the testing or making of the drugs.
Some conservatives are urging the public to avoid certain drugs, but others, including The Pope, maintain getting vaccinated is a “moral imperative”.
What Are Cell Lines and How Were They Used?
Fetal cell lines were first used over 50 years ago. As for the ones used to develop the COVID-19 vaccines, they started with two aborted fetuses in 1973 and 1985. They were obtained by a researcher in the Netherlands, but it’s not clear how or why he did so.
These cells have been reproduced millions of times since then, hence the name “cell lines”. Scientists will use them as hosts when developing a vaccine because they tend to replicate more rapidly outside the body. Moderna and Pfizer used these cell lines to test whether their vaccines were effective, but they had stopped using them months ago.
However, the controversy has been building around the J&J vaccine. Unlike Pfizer and Moderna, Johnson & Johnson uses these cell lines as part of its existing manufacturing process, raising “moral concerns” throughout the U.S. and abroad. It uses an innocuous virus as a vehicle to deliver genetic material into the body.
Last week, just days after the FDA approved the J&J vaccine for emergency use, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on Doctrine, and Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann, chairman of the USCCB’s Committee on Pro-Life Activities, released a joint statement:
“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.”
Scientists admit that these abortion-derived “immortalized” cell lines have been key to the development of vaccines for years.
The monoclonal antibody treatment for COVID-19, the one used to treat former President Trump, was developed using these cell lines.
Religious leaders started grappling with the complexity of the issue last year, long before the Pfizer vaccine was approved, and now the J&J vaccine has quickly bolstered the debate. To produce its vaccine en masse, the company uses fetal cell lines as a sort of factory to produce viral delivery mechanisms. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are made synthetically, so they no longer need to use these cells.
In response to the criticism, Johnson & Johnson made it clear that there’s no fetal tissue in its vaccine.
Dr. Helen Boucher, chief of infectious disease at Tufts Medical Center, adds, “There were no aborted fetuses used in the research of this vaccine.” She believes the controversy over the J&J vaccine is the result of a “misunderstanding of the nature of the cell lines that were used in the research.”
Checking in with Religious Conservatives
The news has set off a range of opinions and views on all sides.
Last December, Greg Schleppenbach, associate director of Secretariat of Pro-Life Activities with the USCCB, said the J&J vaccine is “much closer and more problematic” concerning the issue of abortion compared to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. Others have even referred to the drug as “tainted”.
The Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research arm of the anti-abortion rights nonprofit Susan B. Anthony List, has started charting the different vaccines based on their connection to fetal cell lines to help conservatives distinguish between them. Archdioceses in New Orleans and St. Louis have urged Catholics to get a Moderna or Pfizer vaccine if possible.
In the late 2020, the Vatican issued a statement saying, “When ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines are not available…it is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.”
The Pope urged his followers to focus on the threat of the virus. “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,” the Vatican added in a statement.
Both Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI received the vaccine in January.
Rev. Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, believes all of the available COVID-19 vaccines are “morally compromised” to some effect, adding, “We don’t have a perfect choice, and it’s not a totally linear decision. But that may change with time, and new data about relative efficacy of one vaccine compared to another — or if new variants emerge.”
Despite the debate, scientists say fetal tissue has led to a number of groundbreaking medical innovations, including those used against Zika and AIDS.
Deepak Srivastava, president of the Gladstone Institutes and immediate past president of the International Society for Stem Cell Research, says these vaccines wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for fetal cell lines.
“These next few months will be imperative to the race between vaccinations and variants, so the sooner people can take the vaccine, take it as soon as they can, the faster we can win,” Srivastava said. “That’s what’s going to save lives.”