Tuesday, October 19

Coronavirus: Why the Catholic Church Links Some Vaccines to Abortion (and What the Science Says About It)

The message from the scientific community regarding vaccines against COVID-19 has been clear: the best vaccine is the one that everyone can get first.

The Catholic Church, however, has called for choosing some vaccines over others, based on its position in against abortion.

The Church’s objections arise because in the development of some vaccines against covid-19 so-called cell lines.

The cell lines are cell cultures that grow in a laboratory, replicating from an original tissue.

In developing vaccines against COVID-19, some companies have used two cell lines originating from two fetuses produced by abortions.

These abortions happened decades ago, so legal, spontaneous, and were not induced for scientific purposes, experts explain.

The Church, in any case, has qualified how moral it is a vaccine, based on how direct and close it is to an abortion.

Some experts warn that the interpretation made of these messages may have effects on the global vaccination campaign with which it is sought. end the pandemic.

The Catholic Church has called for choosing some vaccines over others, based on its position against abortion. (Photo: Getty Images)

Cell lines

To understand the objections of the Church, one must first understand how they arise and how are they used cell lines.

A cell line could be compared to “Make a copy, a copy of a photocopy”, As explained to BBC Mundo by Rossana Sánchez Russo, clinical geneticist and biochemist at the Emory University School of Medicine (USA).

Under controlled conditions, this process can be repeated over and over again, practically infinity.

Vaccine testing staff at Oxford
Scientists have been growing cell lines for decades to research medical treatments. (Photo: OXFORD UNIVERSITY / John Cairns)

Cell lines are very useful in vaccine and drug development, genetic research, and regenerative medicine.

In the case of vaccines, cell lines serve as a host in which a virus reproduces for study. Or to modify it, separate it from the cells of the line and add it to the vaccine to generate an immune response.

This method involves three important points in the development of vaccines from cell lines:

  • Cells from a fetus are not used, but cell lines that have been replicating for decades from the original tissue
  • Those cells of the cell line do not become part of the vaccine, that is, people are not injected with human tissue
  • No new abortions are required to obtain the cells needed for vaccine-related processes

Some vaccines such as rubella, measles, mumps, hepatitis A, chickenpox, and polio were developed using cell lines.

They have also been used in the manufacture of medicines to treat diseases such as hemophilia, rheumatoid arthritis and cystic fibrosis.

What worries the Church?

When evaluating the morality of a vaccine, the Catholic Church takes into account how direct is its connection to an abortion versus the urge to get vaccinated to achieve the common good.

In December, the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith published a statement in which it indicated to its faithful that “When there are no COVID-19 vaccines ethically irreproachablelis… It is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process ”.

The message, however, cautions that does not mean they approve morally the use of cell lines that come from aborted fetuses.

“El licit use of these vaccines does not imply nor should it imply in any way the moral approval of the use of cell lines from aborted fetuses ”, assured.

Samples in a laboratory
Cell lines can be stored in laboratories for use over dozens of years. (Photo: Getty Images)

More recently, the issue was addressed by the Archdiocese of New Orleans, in the United States, which published a message stating that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are “Morally acceptable”, because although in the laboratory test stages they used cell lines derived from abortion, they did not depend on these lines in the vaccine manufacturing process.

“His connection to abortion is extremely remote ”, the statement says.

By that same logic, instead, the archdiocese says that the Janssen / Johnson & Johnson vaccine “is morally compromised, since it uses cell lines derived from abortion in the development and production of vaccines, as well as in tests ”.

With that argument, they claim that if Moderna or Pfizer vaccines are available, Catholics should choose them over Johnson & Johnson’s because, according to them, “To the extensive use of cell lines” of the latter.

Finally, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops published two messages in which it posed the same position of the archdiocese, and added that the vaccine of AstraZeneca is also “more morally committed” than Pfizer and Moderna.

What role do cell lines play?

Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines they are synthetic, so they did not require the use of cell lines in the specific stage of vaccine manufacture.

Person preparing a dose of vaccine.
Several vaccines have been developed from cell lines. (Photo: Getty Images)

At an earlier stage, however, both companies did use cell line cultures to confirm that their vaccines worked in human cells.

Both companies used a cell line called HEK 293.

The origin of this line is a fetus product of a legal abortion that occurred in 1973 in the Netherlands, according to the Project for the Knowledge of Vaccines of the University of Oxford.

“The HEK 293 cells used today are clones of the original cells, but they are not in themselves the cells of aborted babies ”, explains the Oxford website.

The Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine also used the HEK 293 line, in this case yes in the production stage.

The creators of this vaccine use that cell line as an incubator in which a modified virus, which is then included in the vaccine and helps the human body to train its defenses in case it becomes infected with the true SARS-CoV-2.

The HEK 293 cells that serve as incubators are removed from the virus and no they become part of the vaccine.


The Janssen / Johnson & Johnson vaccine uses a technology similar to that of Oxford-AstraZeneca, but from another cell line called PER.C6.

In this case, the cells of the PER.C6 line serve as the culture medium of a modified virus, which is then included in the vaccine and is what teaches the immune system to recognize and neutralize the virus that causes COVID-19.

The cells of the PER.C6 line are also removed and they also do not become an ingredient in the vaccine.

“Our vaccine does not It has any fetal tissue “, Johnson & Johnson says in a statement.

All the cells of the PER.C6 line are descendants of a tissue taken from an elective abortion that occurred in 1985, according to an article by James Lawler, a physician specializing in diseases and infections of Nebraska Medicine, a health network associated with the University of Nebraska. , USA

According to Mauricio Rodríguez Álvarez, professor of the Faculty of Medicine and spokesman for the commission of the National Autonomous University of Mexico for COVID-19, the abortions from which the cell lines originate are not induced or have the objective of obtaining those lines, on the contrary, are abortions spontaneous and practiced legalmind.

Modern vaccine
The vaccines do not contain fetal cells or tissues, specialists explain. (Photo: Reuters)

None of the cell lines used in COVID-19 vaccines come from a recent abortion.

“Current cell lines are thousands of generations extracted from the original fetal tissue ”, escribe Lawler.

“They do not contain any tissue from a fetus.”

Why use cell lines of human origin?

The Church’s view is that cell lines have a connection to abortion, albeit remote and indirect.

Experts, for their part, justify that using cell lines has several advantage.

Thanks to cell lines, quality controls can be carried out, larger productions, more vaccines can be obtained. safe and effectiveexplains Rodríguez.

And why make them from a fetus?

Because at this stage of development “Cells grow quite well in laboratory cultures, the instruction they basically have is to grow and multiply, and they are not contaminated ”, says Dr. Sánchez Russo.

“When cells are more adult and differentiated, they lose their ability to governor ”.

Pope Francis with mask
The Catholic Church has qualms about some vaccines. (Photo: Reuters)

Sánchez Russo adds that if the vaccine is intended to be used in humans, it makes sense to develop it with human cell lines.

“It is a proven method, we already know that they work, the quality is good and consistent ”, dice.

There are those who call for the development of alternative methods to cell lines, but others they don’t think it’s necessary.

“You don’t need to go back 30 years and reinvent the wheel ”, says Andrea Gambotto, a vaccine researcher at the University of Pittsburgh, quoted in a report from the AFP agency.

The ethical question

For Dr. José Ramón Orrantia, a bioethicist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the Vatican’s position is “prudent”, since although he rejects the use of cell lines, he tells his faithful to get vaccinated.

Orrantia points out, however, that the Church’s position on vaccines is risky.

“It is dangerous to promote ideas against vaccination, because that disincentive to get people vaccinated, ”says Orrantia.

In a report by Newsweek Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at New York University, believes that with 1.3 billion Catholics in the world, “It is a dangerous path” doubts are raised that may lead people to hesitate about which vaccine to get.

For Professor Rodríguez, it is important that people are clear that abortions are not occurring to produce vaccines and that vaccines do not contain fetal tissues.

“If you are thinking that vaccines have any connection to a miscarriage that occurred 48 years ago, I hope you also have the ability to see the benefit and urgency of vaccines and cell lines,” Rodríguez tells BBC Mundo.

“We are not in a situation where we can choose which vaccine to get.”


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