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What the Catholic Church Says About the Johnson & Johnson COVID Vaccine

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Key Takeaways

  • The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has stated that members of the Roman Catholic faith can be vaccinated in good conscience with the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.
  • The statement addresses the Catholic Church's concerns about the use of human fetal cell lines in the development, production, and testing of COVID vaccines.
  • None of the COVID-19 vaccines currently available contain human fetal cells. However, human fetal cell lines were used in the development of the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines and in the development and production of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

For members of the Roman Catholic Church, there has been some confusion about the moral acceptability of COVID-19 vaccines that were developed or manufactured using human fetal cell lines.

Of the vaccines that are currently available in the U.S., all three were developed using human fetal cell lines, but only the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was produced using them. Therefore, members of the Catholic faith have been unsure of whether getting the Johnson & Johnson vaccine would align with the moral teachings of the church.

In an attempt to address the confusion, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has reaffirmed that members of the Roman Catholic faith may receive the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in good conscience if they are unable to choose the Pfizer-BioNTech or Moderna vaccines.

Why Fetal Cells Are Used

According to a handout created by the North Dakota Department of Health, the development and production of COVID-19 vaccines have involved two lines of human fetal cells.

The cells were derived from tissue taken from two fetuses that were aborted in the 1960s and 1970s. Although the fetuses were electively aborted, they were not aborted specifically to obtain the cells. The lines of cells have been kept going for research purposes for decades and have been used to create vaccines against hepatitis A, rubella, and rabies.

Vaccine makers prefer human cell lines because viruses that infect humans tend to grow better in cells from humans than those from animals. Fetal cells can also be used for longer than other cell types and can be kept at low temperatures, which allows scientists to continue using cell lines from decades ago.

The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines involve a new technology that uses messenger RNA (mRNA). Early in their development, human fetal cell lines were used to prove that the technology worked and that the vaccine would create an immune response. The cells were not used to produce the vaccines.

The Church's Stance

The Catholic Church does not approve of the use of human fetal cell lines in the development or manufacturing of vaccines. The Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines were developed using fetal human cells, but the cells are not needed to produce them. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses human fetal cell lines in its development and in the manufacturing process.

The moral teachings of the Catholic Church consider the use of human fetal cells from abortions to be morally unacceptable in medical research. However, the church makes a distinction between vaccines that were developed and are made using the cell lines and those that only used the cell lines during development (which means that they have less connection to the cell lines derived from abortion).

While fetal cell lines may have been used to develop or manufacture COVID-19 vaccines, the vaccines themselves do not contain any fetal cells from aborted tissue.

“Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines raised concerns because an abortion-derived cell line was used for testing them, but not in their production,” the conference noted in a statement that was issued on March 2, 2020. “The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, however, was developed, tested, and is produced with abortion-derived cell lines raising additional moral concerns.”

Some confusion on the subject arose because the Archdiocese of New Orleans and the Diocese of Bismarck in North Dakota told their parishioners that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was unacceptable.

Support of Vaccination Efforts

The conference stresses that being vaccinated and protecting oneself and others against COVID-19 is acceptable even if no “ethically irreproachable” vaccine is available.

In a statement issued in December 2020, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops stated that being vaccinated against COVID-19 “ought to be understood as an act of charity toward the other members of our community.”

What the Vatican Says

In December 2020, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued a statement in which Cardinal Luis Ladaria and Archbishop Giacomo Morandi said that "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.”

According to the Vatican’s statement, if an “ethically irreproachable” COVID-19 vaccine is unavailable or if a person is not given a choice about which vaccine is administered, it is morally acceptable to receive the vaccines.

Choosing a Vaccine

The bishop's conference and the Vatican state that if people have a choice about which vaccine they will receive, they should choose whichever one has the least connection to the human fetal cell lines. The Vatican added that people should do their utmost to avoid passing the virus to other people.

In its statement, the Vatican also called on pharmaceutical companies and health agencies to create and produce ethically acceptable vaccines that do not cause problems of conscience.

What This Means to You

Statements from leaders of the Catholic Church have highlighted the importance of protecting others from COVID-19. The statements have directed people of the faith to choose the Pfizer or Moderna COVID-19 vaccine (which were not produced with fetal cell lines) if they are given the choice. If they do not have a choice or if the Johnson & Johnson vaccine (which was produced using fetal cell lines) is the only one available, they may receive it in good conscience.

The information in this article is current as of the date listed, which means newer information may be available when you read this. For the most recent updates on COVID-19, visit our coronavirus news page.

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  1. North Dakota Department of Health. Covid-19 vaccines and fetal cell lines. Updated March 5, 2021. 

  2. U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. U.S. Bishop chairmen for doctrine and for pro-life address the use of Johnson & Johnson Covid-19 vaccine. Updated March 2, 2021.

  3. Rhoades KC, Naumann JF, U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. Moral considerations regarding the new Covid-19 vaccines. Updated December 2020.

  4. Ladaria LF, Morandi G, Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Note on the morality of using some anti-Covid-19 vaccines. Updated December 18, 2020.