Canada's bishops: Choose Covid vaccines with least connection to abortion, when possible

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The Catholic bishops of Canada wrote this week on whether certain COVID-19 vaccines are morally preferable for Catholics, if given a choice.

“[W]hen provided with a choice between receiving different vaccines, the vaccine with the least connection to abortion-derived cell lines should always be preferred and chosen when possible,” Canada’s bishops said in a March 9 statement, while noting that choosing to be vaccinated “can be an act of charity which recognizes the need to care for others.”

The bishops’ statement follows the Canadian government’s approval on Feb. 26 of the COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by AstraZeneca, as well as a version of the AstraZeneca vaccine manufactured by Verity Pharmaceuticals Inc. and Serum Institute of India.

The Canadian government also approved the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine in early March.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine used PER.C6, which, according to Science magazine, is “a proprietary cell line owned by Janssen, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, developed from retinal cells from an 18-week-old fetus aborted in 1985,” in design and development, production, and lab testing.

In contrast, mRNA vaccines available from Pfizer and Moderna have an extremely remote connection to abortion in the design and testing phases, leading ethicists to judge those vaccines “ethically uncontroversial.”

Citing the pro-life Charlotte Lozier Institute, the Canadian bishops noted that both the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines “utilized abortion-derived cell lines in their development, production, and confirmatory testing.”

However, citing the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Catholics can accept these vaccines when “ethically irreproachable Covid-19 vaccines are not available,” the bishops said.

“This means that given the currently approved vaccine options in Canada, if/when presented with the choice, one should choose to receive either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine over the AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson vaccine.”

If there is no choice, the AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson vaccines can be taken in good conscience, they said.

“[W]hen a choice is not provided or it is quite difficult to have recourse to these said vaccines, given the health urgency at hand and other considerations, nothing morally prevents anyone from receiving in good conscience the AstraZeneca or Johnson & Johnson vaccines or others that may eventually be approved which will have been developed, tested and produced in a similar fashion,” the bishops clarified.

Hundreds of thousands of doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine started arriving in Canada this week, while Johnson & Johnson’s delivery schedule has not yet been established, The Canadian reported.

The Vatican has taught that use of COVID-19 vaccines which were produced using abortion-derived cell lines is “morally acceptable” when other alternatives are not available, due to the “grave danger” posed by the spread of the coronavirus.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a note in December 2020 explaining that “the use of such vaccines does not constitute formal cooperation with the abortion from which the cells used in production of the vaccines derive,” while also urging pharmaceutical companies and governmental health agencies to “produce, approve, distribute and offer ethically acceptable vaccines that do not create problems of conscience for either health care providers or the people to be vaccinated.”

The Canadian bishops’ vaccine guidance follows a flurry of statements from individual bishops in the United States on the matter, as well as from the U.S. bishops’ conference.

In a March 2 statement, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops echoed the Vatican in stating that it is “morally acceptable” to receive COVID-19 vaccines produced using cell lines from aborted fetuses when no alternative is available, but if possible, Catholics ought to choose a vaccine with a more remote connection to abortion.

“The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has judged that ‘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 bishops wrote.

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The statement was signed by Bishop Kevin Rhoades of Fort Wayne-South Bend and Archbishop Joseph Naumann of Kansas City in Kansas, who head the USCCB committees on doctrine and pro-life activities, respectively.

Bishop Rhoades has since clarified that the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine “can be used in good moral conscience.”

“What’s most important is that people get vaccinated,” Bishop Rhoades said in a March 4 video message.

“It can be an act of charity that serves the common good. At the same time, as we bishops have already done, it’s really important for us to encourage development of vaccines that do not use abortion-derived cell lines. This is very important for the future.”

Some individual U.S. bishops have said Catholics ought to accept the first vaccine they are offered, and in contrast, at least one bishop— Bishop David Kagan of Bismarck— has instructed his flock not to accept the Johnson & Johnson vaccine at all.

Eighty-six Catholic women from 25 countries issued a letter March 8 opposing what they called “abortion-tainted” COVID-19 vaccines, and arguing Church statements approving their use rely on “an incomplete assessment of the science of vaccination and immunology.”

The women asserted that statements justifying the use of abortion-derived vaccines “ignore the gravity and immediacy of the crimes committed against the unborn” and they could not willingly benefit from the sacrifice of “these aborted babies’ bodies” if they were used at any point in the vaccine production process, “no matter how long ago.”

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“The evil of using aborted fetal cell lines involves not just the original murder, but the ongoing commercialization of the child’s body, as well as the ultimate refusal to bury his desecrated remains,” they said.