Southern Baptist and Roman Catholic leaders are walking a tightrope in explaining their support for two COVID-19 vaccines, even though those drugs’ effectiveness was tested using genetic material from a line of cells linked to a fetus aborted in the 1970s.
Neither vaccine produced by U.S. drugmakers Moderna and Pfizer comprise or are derived from fetal cells, according to the manufacturers and U.S. regulators.
However, both used fetal cell line HEK-293 in a “confirmation test” of their innovative vaccines — a step that gives pause to some pro-life Christians.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, peppered Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, with questions about the ethics of taking the vaccine in a video-broadcast interview early this month.
“A lot of pastors and Christian leaders are going to have people coming up and saying … ‘Well, maybe taking the vaccine compromises my pro-life convictions because, maybe, it’s resting on research that’s been done as a result of abortion,’” Mr. Moore said.
Dr. Collins, who is Christian, acknowledged that many of the vaccines under development have used the HEK-293 cell line as a “lab bench experiment” to make sure “everything is working the way it’s supposed to.” But he encouraged persons skeptical of any medicine linked to abortion to see the greater good of ending a health crisis that has cost nearly 2 million lives worldwide.
“If you’re trying to size up and if you believe that God gives us the opportunity to act as his agents to relieve suffering and death, then it seems like this is a pretty good balance of benefits and risks,” said Dr. Collins.
According to the University of Nebraska Medical Center, Moderna and Pfizer in their vaccines’ “confirmation phase” used HEK-293 cells, which “are descended from tissue taken from a 1973 elective abortion that took place in the Netherlands.”
Of the eight vaccines under development in the federal government’s Project Warp Speed, two relied on aborted fetal cells for production, according to the pro-life think tank The Charlotte Lozier Institute.
In a Dec. 17 statement approved by Pope Francis, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said the moral complicity between a person taking a vaccination in 2020 or 2021 and an abortion in 1973 is “remote.”
“It is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process,” reads the statement, signed by Cardinal Luis Ladaria and Archbishop Giacomo Morandi.
Some U.S. Catholic leaders have been less forgiving of British-Swiss biopharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford’s vaccine, which has been tested and produced using the HEK-293 line.
That vaccine was approved Wednesday by health authorities in the United Kingdom, and is set for approval in the new year by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
On Dec. 14, a group of Catholic bishops in Colorado stressed in a letter that the AstraZeneca vaccine is not a “morally valid option, because better options are available.”
“Catholics have the duty to use vaccines that respect human life, when they are available,” wrote Denver Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila; Bishop Stephen J. Berg of Pueblo, Arizona; Bishop Michael J. Sheridan of Colorado Springs, Colorado; and Denver Auxiliary Bishop Jorge Rodriguez.
On the same day, however, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops stated that taking the AstraZeneca vaccine could be allowed, given the “urgency of the crisis,” and that persons may not “have a choice” without a lengthy delay or other serious health consequences.
“In such a case, just as accepting a vaccination for rubella with a morally compromised vaccine is morally permissible because of the lack of alternatives and the serious risk to the public health, so it would be permissible to accept the AstraZeneca vaccine,” wrote Kansas City Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann and Bishop Kevin C. Rhodes of Fort Wayne-South Bend, Indiana.
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