Catholic diocese raises concerns over Johnson & Johnson vaccine

A warning from the Diocese of Rockville Centre is discouraging Catholics from getting the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine. A debate over abortion is at the heart of a letter sent to clergy and the faithful.

The diocese claims the vaccine is the result of research originally derived from aborted fetal tissue specimens in the 1970s and that raises moral concerns because of the church's stance on abortion.

In a memo, the diocese said: "Ideally, a vaccine will have no connection at any stage of development or production with the use of cell lines initially derived from an aborted fetus."

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops agrees.

"We recommend you pick one with the least connection to abortion-derived cell lines," Bishop Kevin Rhodes, the chairman of the Committee on Doctrine, said. "Pfizer's and Moderna's connection is more remote to that of the Johnson & Johnson."

But Dr. David Battinelli, the chief medical officer of Northwell Health, explained there is no fetal tissue in the vaccine itself.

Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines use mRNA technology whereas Johnson & Johnson uses what's known as viral vector technology.

"The main difference is the way that the signal to the body is carried," Battinelli said. "One via messenger RNA, the other a viral vector with DNA to produce the spike protein."

The introduction of the J&J vaccine complicates a moral decision facing many Catholics. In January, Pope Francis said: "Everyone had a moral obligation to take either the Moderna or Pfizer vaccines."

The Vatican has confirmed that the pope has since been vaccinated.

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"There's no moral need to turn down a vaccine including the Johnson & Johnson vaccine," Bishop Rhodes said.

Opinion is split throughout the country among Catholic dioceses. The Diocese of Rockville Centre does advise people if alternative vaccines are not reasonably available, they may choose to receive the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

In response to a request for comment, Johnson & Johnson sent this statement to FOX 5 NY:

"In developing a COVID-19 vaccine, our goal has always been to save as many lives as possible.  We’re proud to bring a single-shot vaccine to the world in record time and contribute to ending this pandemic.

"Our COVID-19 vaccine is made using a harmless cold-like virus into which we insert a piece of the coronavirus spike protein. It teaches the immune system to recognize the COVID virus and protect against infection.

"Our vaccine contains no fetal tissue whatsoever.

We employ a technology platform using cells that were engineered and grown in labs from a single cell more than 30 years ago into a fully engineered cell line. This cell line enables us to rapidly manufacture hundreds of millions of single-shot COVID vaccines that can be transferred and stored without the need for deep freezing.

"Some of the brightest minds from within our company and from across the global scientific community have worked for years to develop breakthrough treatments to some of the most devastating diseases facing humanity. As we do this, we hold ourselves to the highest biomedical ethical standards – even more so in the face of a pandemic."

—Johnson & Johnson