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Fresno bishop urges Catholics to forgo COVID-19 vaccine if it has links to abortion

On the heels of positive news about the effectiveness of several COVID-19 vaccines, the region's top Catholic official urged his parishioners earlier this week to refuse any vaccine linked to the use of cells that were obtained from the tissue of aborted fetuses. 

"If material has been used that is unacceptable on a moral level, in any stage of the process for the development of a vaccine ... we can’t use it, we can’t avail ourselves of it. I can’t take that kind of a vaccine," Brennan said in an 12-minute video posted Monday on the website of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Fresno, which includes Kern County.

Brennan specifically named the Pfizer vaccine as one of the vaccines with ethical problems. Earlier this week, the pharmaceutical company announced its vaccine was found to be 95 percent effective in trials and filed Friday for emergency use authorizations from the Food and Drug Administration.

Steven Danehy, a Pfizer spokesman, said in an email "there has been no human material nor animal products used in the development of our potential COVID-19 vaccine."

In fact, the relatively new technology used to produce the vaccine does not use any live cells.

But some experts have pointed out that the process of testing the vaccine does use controversial biological material that originated from an abortion.

"In that sense, it's a very tangential link," said Joseph Meaney, executive director of the National Catholic Bioethics Center, who has stated that he thinks Pfizer's vaccine is ethical but says the testing process is a concern.

A matter of distance

While the Catholic Church promotes alternatives to the use of cell lines that were derived from an aborted fetus in biomedical research, Meaney said, it has OK'd the use of vaccines that use them in some circumstances.

In 2008, Meaney said, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a department of the Vatican charged with interpreting Catholic beliefs, issued the "Dignitas Personae," which addressed biomedical issues that had arisen in the church. 

The document strongly encourages medical researchers to find alternatives to biological products of unethical origin, Meaney said, but leaves it up to individuals to use their conscience in deciding whether to use the medical advancements that may result from research done using them.

The "Dignitas Personae" states: "Thus, for example, danger to the health of children could permit parents to use a vaccine which was developed using cell lines of illicit origin, while keeping in mind that everyone has the duty to make known their disagreement and to ask that their healthcare system make other types of vaccines available. Moreover, in organizations where cell lines of illicit origin are being utilized, the responsibility of those who make the decision to use them is not the same as that of those who have no voice in such a decision.”

Meaney said an individual's decision essentially comes down to his or her own conscience in determining if the vaccine, therapy or procedure is "distanced enough from cooperation with evil."

"When it comes to individuals who are trapped because there is no vaccine that has no connection to abortion, then the question becomes, do they need that vaccine?" Meaney said. "If they do, are they comfortable taking it? And if they are, it’s not unethical or sinful to do so."

But Brennan appears to say in his message that any known link to abortion is too close in his view. In the video, Brennan said he found it amazing that some Catholic theologians were OK with the Pfizer vaccine despite the abortion link in the material used to test the virus.

"I’m sorry, brothers and sister, to be this close or this close to participation on a moral level in abortion," he said, gesturing with his hands to measure a couple inches and then a couple of feet, "is too close to me."

Meaney said the pharmaceutical industry has long used the controversial cell lines to develop and test vaccines, calling those cell lines "the workhorse of their industry."

Pfizer's Danehy did not respond to a follow-up email regarding whether abortion-derived cell lines were used in the company's COVID-19 testing process.

The website for the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia's Vaccine Education Center says the fetal cells used in most vaccine development and testing were obtained from "elective termination of two pregnancies in the early 1960s."

"These same embryonic cells obtained from the early 1960s have continued to grow in the laboratory and are used to make vaccines today. No further sources of fetal cells are needed to make these vaccines," it says.

The chickenpox (varicella), rubella and hepatitis A vaccines are all made using these cell lines and no alternatives exist, the hospital website said.

Informed decision-making

The Charlotte Lozier Institute, an anti-abortion think tank, has posted on its website a chart that shows potential COVID-19 vaccines in development and whether they have links to abortion-derived cell lines. 

The chart shows the vaccines being developed in the United States by AstraZeneca and Johnson & Johnson use fetal cell lines in their development, meaning the cells are used to create the vaccine. Many others use the cell lines only in confirmatory testing only, including Pfizer and Moderna, the chart shows.  

"This analysis utilizes data from the primary scientific literature when available, along with data from clinical trial documents, reputable vaccine tracking websites, and published commercial information," the website says. "It is the hope that by providing accurate data, recipients can make well-informed decisions regarding vaccine choices."

In his message, Brennan specifically mentioned a vaccine being developed by USA-based John Paul II Medical Research Institute which uses no abortion-derived cells in its vaccine. 

However, Meaney pointed out that vaccine is not as developed at this point as others and may take longer to become available, if it ever makes it to that point.