Anti-Abortion Religion leaders help using COVID-19 vaccines

(AP) – In a growing consensus, religious leaders who are at the forefront of the anti-abortion movement in the United States tell their supporters that the leading vaccines to fight COVID-19 are acceptable because of their distant and indirect association with cell lines, from aborted fetuses.

An outspoken enemy of abortion in Dallas, Southern Baptist Megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, has called vaccines a “gift from God.”

“Asking God for help but then turning down the vaccine doesn’t make any more sense than calling 911 if your house is on fire and refusing to let the firefighters in,” Jeffress said via email. “There is no legitimate, faith-based reason to refuse vaccination.”

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Rev. Al Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also celebrated their development.

“I will be taking it not only for the sake of my own health but for others as well,” he said on his website.

The US Bishops’ Conference, which makes the fight against abortion a “first” priority, said last month that vaccination against the coronavirus “should be understood as an act of charity to other members of our community,” one said Statement from the Chairs of the Teaching Committee and the Pro-Life Activities Committee.

The bishops said it was morally acceptable for Catholics to use either of the two US-approved vaccines – manufactured by Pfizer and Moderna – despite a “remote connection to morally compromised cell lines.” This included the use of fetal cell lines for laboratory tests to confirm the effectiveness of the vaccines.

Another leading vaccine, manufactured by AstraZeneca and approved for use in the UK and some other countries, is “morally more vulnerable” and should be avoided if alternatives are available, the bishops said.

At the same time as the USCCB, four bishops in Colorado made their own statement in which they expressed AstraZeneca somewhat more negatively and described it as “not a morally valid option”.

AstraZeneca used a cell line known as HEK293 to develop its vaccine. According to the Oxford University team who developed it, the original HEK293 cells were taken from the kidney of an aborted fetus in 1973, but the cells now used are clones of the original cells rather than the original fetal tissue.

As the first vaccines neared approval last year, some Catholic bishops warned that they might be morally unacceptable. Among them was Bishop Joseph Brennan of Fresno, California, who urged Catholics not to jump on the “vaccine cart.”

He later changed his mind, saying that due to health risks to individuals and communities for grave reasons, Catholics could ethically choose to use such vaccines.

The vaccines have also been questioned by Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, who portrayed the use of aborted fetuses in vaccine development as evil and says he will not be taking any of the vaccines currently available.

“The church has said that receiving the vaccine is permissible in certain circumstances and I do not deny this,” he said via email. “The Church has also said we should vigorously promote morally made vaccines, and I urge those who take the vaccine to join this mission and call for change.”

Strickland encourages donations to the John Paul II Medical Research Institute, which supports research aimed at developing so-called “ethical” cell lines – using adult stem cells – to be used in the manufacture of vaccines and other medical therapies.

Several other outspoken anti-abortion bishops have adopted the vaccines.

“When a Christian involves the world, in many situations it is impossible to completely avoid cooperating with moral evil,” tweeted Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island. “The Church has declared on several levels that it is morally acceptable to receive the vaccines that are currently available. I agree.”

Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee said he had no concerns about getting vaccinated.

“I just hope they don’t put a microchip in my arm to see when I’m cheating on my diet,” he joked on Twitter.

Among Protestant evangelical leaders, who generally have a strong anti-abortion view, there is relatively little rhetoric against vaccines, according to Rev. Russell Moore, who heads the public arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“I wouldn’t think of an evangelical pastor saying, ‘Don’t get vaccinated,'” he said.

A more notable challenge for pastors, Moore said, is countering unsubstantiated anti-vaccine conspiracy theories advocated by some members of their churches or communities – for example, that the vaccines would alter a recipient’s DNA or covertly implant a microchip.

On a global level, the Vatican has issued guidelines broadly similar to those of the U.S. bishops stating that it is morally acceptable for Catholics to receive COVID-19 vaccines based on research using cells obtained from aborted fetuses originate.

One difference: no specific vaccines were named or stated. The Vatican plans to start using the Pfizer vaccine for employees and their families starting this week, and Pope Francis – in an interview with an Italian broadcaster that airs this weekend – said he had a vaccination appointment.

The Vatican has suggested that it is wrong to reject a vaccine simply because of an objection to abortion, as rejecting it “can also put others at risk”.

Nicanor Austriaco, a molecular biologist and Catholic priest who teaches at universities in the United States and the Philippines, said the Vatican had adequately addressed faith-based vaccine concerns indirectly linked to research that used broken fetal cells .

“The moral evil contemplated here” took place in the 1970s when the original cell line was created, Austriaco said, “and it’s remote.”

G. Kevin Donovan, Professor of Pediatrics at Georgetown University who directs the Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics, said leaders of his Catholic faith couldn’t have been “clearer”.

“The advantage that Catholics have is … that the highest levels of authority have made it clear that this is morally acceptable,” Donovan said.

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In Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, a Muslim clergy council has been involved in that country’s vaccine procurement process to ensure that a product is halal or can be used under Islamic law. In the past, the council has ruled that some vaccines against other diseases are unacceptable because they use gelatin made from pork.

On Friday, the council gave its approval to the Chinese vaccine Sinovac COVID-19, paving the way for its spread in Indonesia.
Associated press writers Elana Schor in Washington, Nicole Winfield in Rome, and Victoria Milko in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.
The Associated Press’s coverage of religion is supported by the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation US. The AP is solely responsible for this content.

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