MADISON (WKOW) -- The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the third approved for emergency use in the U.S., but Catholic leaders say its production is "morally compromised" because of its use of tissue derived from an abortion.
The pharmaceutical giant makes its shots by growing the viral platform for the vaccine in cells, according to UW Health's Dr. William Hartman. Those cells are derived from fetal cells taken from an aborted fetus in 1985.
But Hartman said the cells in use today bear little in common with their origins.
"The cells that they are grown in are thousands of generations removed from the original cells that they were derived from, and so these are just clones now that work as kind of a cellular machinery to build the vaccines that we need to get people vaccinated," he said.
Hartman said the cells allow scientists to test vaccines efficacy.
"These are just common, well characterized, highly predictable cells that help medical research understand what these vaccines can do and ensure that they do what they're supposed to do and that they're safe to use," he said.
The fetal cell lines do not contain any fetal tissue or fetal cell components, and they are not stem cells.
"These cells don't develop into any tissues," Hartman said. "They don't grow into anything."
However, some leaders of the Catholic Church have said the cells' original connection to abortion raises moral concerns.
Rev. Fr. Joseph Baker, the diocesan ethicist for the Diocese of Madison, wrote a letter Saturday detailing his moral evaluation of the available vaccines.
"The main ethical concern with any vaccine is that it is
developed, tested, and produced in such a manner that is morally irreproachable," he said. "In this regard, a primary focus is the use of cell lines derived from elective abortions.”
Baker detailed a framework from the Charlotte Lozier Institute, an anti-abortion think tank, which breaks vaccines down into three groups of morality.
Group one includes "those that do not use abortion-derived cell lines whatsoever.” There are currently no approved COVID-19 vaccines that fit this category.
Group two contains vaccines "that do not use abortion-derived cell lines in production, but use them in another point in the process." Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines fit in this group.
"They don't have to grow those vaccines in these cells, but they did have to test to make sure that they're that that their vaccines were producing that spike protein," Hartman said. "They couldn't do that, obviously, by testing in humans. First, they needed to test it in cells."
The third group includes vaccines "that use abortion-derived cells in the production of the vaccine.” This is where the Johnson & Johnson vaccine fits.
Baker's evaluation said vaccines in group one are the "best ethical choice," and, if none are available, group two vaccines are a better choice than group three vaccines.
Five Wisconsin bishops signed a letter in January encouraging Catholics to choose the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine when possible.
However, many people don't have the option to pick which vaccine they will receive. Baker, as well as the bishops, said, when this is the case, receiving the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is a morally okay option.
"For those who are only able to receive the vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, although it is the most morally compromised, it can nevertheless be received in good conscience,” Baker wrote.
This approval is not without precedent. In 2005, the Pontifical Academy for Life, an academic honorary society tied to the Roman Catholic Church, issued similar guidance about the chickenpox vaccine, which also used fetal cell lines during its development because the public health risk outweighed the concerns about the vaccine's origins.
This was the driving message behind a statement from the Vatican in December 2020.
"In the absence of other means to stop or even prevent the epidemic, the common good may recommend vaccination, especially to protect the weakest and most exposed," the statement reads. "Those who, however, for reasons of conscience, refuse vaccines produced with cell lines from aborted fetuses, must do their utmost to avoid, by other prophylactic means and appropriate behavior, becoming vehicles for the transmission of the infectious agent.”
Hartman said doctors don't want to infringe on anyone's religious practices, but he wants people to understand the science behind the vaccines.
"We absolutely respect their decision and their desire to practice their religion," he said. "We respect all religious beliefs, but these vaccines are here to save lives. They're here to protect your families. They protect you, protect your neighbors."