By Ian Lovett 

At least two Catholic bishops in the U.S. are advising their parishioners to avoid certain Covid-19 vaccines, potentially putting them in conflict with the Vatican and complicating efforts to speed inoculations.

The Archdiocese of New Orleans last week released a statement advising Catholics that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is "morally compromised as it uses the abortion-derived cell line in development and production of the vaccine as well as the testing," and advising them to opt for a Pfizer Inc. or Moderna Inc. vaccine, if possible.

The warning is the latest salvo in a long-running debate among Catholics over the ethics of vaccines linked to abortion. J & J developed its vaccine with a cell line that, according to a 2003 publication by its subsidiary Crucell, contains human embryonic retinal cells. A spokesman for the pharmaceutical company said it manufactures vaccine doses using "our engineered cell-line system" and didn't comment on the archdiocese's statement.

In December, the Vatican issued a statement deeming it "morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process" when no "ethically irreproachable" vaccines were available. The statement didn't mention specific vaccines.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has weighed in favorably on the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, saying their connection to aborted tissue was remote and therefore their use was justified. However, they deemed the AstraZeneca vaccine, which hasn't been approved for use in the U.S., morally compromised, and advised Catholics to avoid it if possible. They didn't weigh in on the J & J vaccine.

Representatives for Pfizer and Moderna didn't immediately respond to requests for comment.

Cell lines derived from fetal tissue that was aborted, often decades ago, are often used in medical research, and have played a role in the development of vaccines against polio, chickenpox, hepatitis A and shingles.

Anticipating a conflict over this issue, a group of religious leaders, including some Catholic bishops, last year sent a letter to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ask that vaccines without any connection to abortion be made available to Americans.

Catholic ethicists say the concerns with the J & J vaccine are more serious, because it uses cell lines from fetal tissue in its production, while Pfizer and Moderna used such cells during lab tests.

Fr. Tad Pacholczyk, an ethicist at the National Catholics Bioethics Center, which the New Orleans archdiocese said it consulted for guidance, said there were circumstances when it could be acceptable to take the J & J vaccine.

"Importantly, the Catholic Church does not condemn the J & J vaccine or any other vaccine," Fr. Pacholczyk said. "Someone with a sufficiently serious reason, such as a threat to one's health, could use any of the three Covid-19 vaccines."

The New Orleans archdiocese said taking the vaccine was ultimately "a decision of individual conscience." About one third of New Orleans' 390,000 residents are Catholic. Roughly 150,000 people in southeastern Louisiana, where the city is located, have received at least one shot of a Covid-19 vaccine, according to the state department of health.

Some Catholic officials have criticized other vaccines as well. Bishop Joseph Strickland, of Tyler, Texas, wrote on Twitter late last year that the Moderna vaccine was "not morally produced" because of its connection to abortion and Catholics should therefore reject it. Last month, he tweeted, "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."

Ashish Jha, a health-policy professor at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the problem with advising members of a religious group to receive one vaccine instead of another is that, at least for now, people don't get to pick which one they receive.

"I do worry if large swathes of the population start deciding that one vaccine is unacceptable, it will cause those areas to have higher rates of Covid," Dr. Jha said. "If you're a religious leader, is it better for your parishioners to go unvaccinated and therefore be at risk for getting sick and dying?"

Write to Ian Lovett at ian.lovett@wsj.com

 

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

March 02, 2021 17:15 ET (22:15 GMT)

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