With a few COVID-19 vaccines close to hitting the market, two Catholic bishops have recently stepped forward to suggest that church members shouldn’t rush to vaccinate themselves, implying that the vaccines were developed using cells collected through abortions.
Now, an internal memo from the conference of bishops in the U.S. has pushed back against “confusion in the media,” saying at least two of the vaccines are ethically sound, according to documents obtained by America magazine on Monday.
“Neither the Pfizer nor the Moderna vaccine involved the use of cell lines that originated in fetal tissue taken from the body of an aborted baby at any level of design, development, or production,” reads a memo signed by top officials from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, and distributed to all U.S. bishops.
The Catholic Church is, of course, broadly opposed to abortion, but its stance on vaccines developed using fetal cells from abortions is complex.
As the global race for the coronavirus vaccine has tightened over the last several months, officials from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and top anti-abortion activists have asked the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to incentivize the development of vaccines that do not use fetal cells collected from abortions. Still, in guidance issued in 2007 (and updated in 2015), the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops acknowledges that manufacturing vaccines “using fetal tissue from induced abortions” poses a “moral dilemma” for Catholics—but said that they can use such vaccines if there’s no alternative. (Today, the vaccines used to combat diseases like the chickenpox, hepatitis A, and shingles were all created using cells collected from abortions.)
Yet over the last several days, two U.S. bishops seemed to break from that long-established guidance.
On Nov. 16, Bishop Joseph Strickland, who leads the Diocese of Tyler in Texas, tweeted that the Moderna vaccine—which has been shown in early data to reduce the risk of COVID-19 infection by 94.5 percent—was not “morally produced.”
“Unborn children died in abortions and then their bodies were used as ‘laboratory specimens,’” Strickland wrote. “I urge all who believe in the sanctity of life to reject a vaccine which has been produced immorally.”
Then, last week, Bishop Joseph Brennan of the Diocese of Fresno in California leapt into the vaccine fray with a 12-minute video released by the diocese itself. Brennan sowed doubt among Catholics by suggesting that many of the prospective COVID-19 vaccines were developed using “objectionable material”—which he described as “stem cell lines derived from, well, material from babies who've been aborted, whose lives were taken.”
“I won’t be able to take a vaccine, I just won’t, brothers and sisters—and I encourage you not to—if it was developed from stem cells that were derived from a baby who was aborted,” he said.
The Charlotte Lozier Institute, an anti-abortion group, has kept a running chart that says that neither the Moderna vaccine nor the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech—which has so far been found to be 95 percent effective—used abortion-derived cell lines in their design, development, or production. The group labels both vaccines “ethically uncontroversial.”
Last Sunday, the Pontifical Academy of Life, which grapples with ethical questions and Catholic teachings, tweeted that Catholic bioethicists had found “nothing morally prohibitive” about those two vaccines.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ press office, as well as secretaries for Strickland and Brennan, didn’t immediately return a VICE News’ request for comment.