With a Catholic population of 31%, Philadelphia is the fifth most Catholic city in the United States, according to data from the 2019 edition of the Official Catholic Directory. Numbers like that can become consequential when faith and public health collide, as they did last week when the U.S. Catholic bishops issued a statement claiming that Catholics should avoid the Johnson & Johnson vaccine because it was developed, produced, and tested using a line of cells taken from a fetus that was aborted in 1985. If given a choice, the bishops said, Catholics should choose the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine.
Though the Archdiocese of Philadelphia did not make any additional comments about the bishops’ pronouncement, they did share the statement with educators in all Catholic schools in the five-county Philadelphia region, spokesperson Kenneth A. Gavin told The Inquirer’s Marie McCullough in an email.
The truth is, all currently approved vaccines for COVID-19 used cell lines derived from aborted fetuses in their testing phases. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, some antiabortion activists claim, is morally compromised because it also used these cells in its production. The pharmaceutical company has stated unequivocally that there are no fetal cells in its vaccine.
When the U.S. bishops made this bold claim about the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, they were, in fact, contradicting the pronouncements by Pope Francis and several powerful Vatican offices. For months, the Vatican’s COVID-19 Commission has been fully aware that all of the vaccine candidates were being either tested or produced using cell lines from fetuses aborted decades ago.
The Vatican determined that “it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process” and that “all vaccines recognized as clinically safe and effective can be used in good conscience.” Though Pope Francis and his advisers stopped short of saying that getting the vaccine is a moral obligation, they did note 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.”
Those italicizations are in the Vatican’s original statement, which suggests the urgency of the church’s exhortation. Church leaders in Rome came to their conclusion by considering the fact that the lines of cells were drawn from fetuses aborted anywhere from 35 to 50 years ago — distant enough from the original abortions to not be morally compromised.
Scientists use these particular fetal cells because they can reproduce almost indefinitely, making it unnecessary to procure them from new sources. These immortalized cells are responsible for the development of every major vaccine in recent history, including shots for polio, rubella, hepatitis A, and shingles. They are also responsible for advances in the study of AIDS, Alzheimer’s disease, and spinal cord injuries.
While the Vatican and the U.S. bishops seem to be suggesting that the unprecedented crisis of a pandemic is the reason for this onetime exception, the reality is that many of the treatments that we have been taking for decades — and will take in the future — have been tested using fetal cells lines. The bishops are asking Catholics to risk human life and the common good for the sake of an irrational and unattainable notion of purity.
But even more tragic consequences loom if we heed the bishops’ advice. In addition to being one of the most Catholic cities in the country, Philadelphia also bears this bleak distinction: With a poverty rate of over 23%, it’s the poorest big city in the U.S. To make matters worse, two-thirds of Philadelphia’s most economically disadvantaged residents are either Black or Latino.
This situation is the result of decades of unchecked racist structures. These systems of injustice have been laid bare by the pandemic, which has exposed how income and race segregation have made the poor and people of color disproportionately vulnerable to illness and long-term economic repercussions. A long history of abuse has made people of color justifiably suspicious of public health care systems. The bishops are only exacerbating this situation by introducing more distrust.
In this constantly unfolding crisis, few of us have the luxury of choosing which vaccine we get, so it is almost certain that poorer communities and people of color will not have a choice. Because it is the only single dose vaccine with a lower price point and simple refrigeration requirements, the Johnson & Johnson inoculation is ideal for impoverished neighborhoods and the working poor. By pitting some vaccines as morally superior to others, the bishops are only exacerbating our already grim disparities in health care.
Though Philadelphia’s Archbishop Nelson Pérez is relatively new to his office, as the son of Cuban refugees who has a special ministry to Latino Catholics and immigrants, one hopes that he is immersed enough in the suffering of the people to connect poverty, race, and the accessibility of the COVID-19 vaccine.
By tainting the COVID-19 vaccine with its taboo morality, the bishops are not respecting life — they are instead exploiting a grave situation to inject their antiabortion politics. As too often the case with these ideological battles, it is the poor and the vulnerable who get hurt most.
Jamie Manson is a former columnist at the National Catholic Reporter and currently serves as president of Catholics for Choice.