The bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland is calling on Maine Catholics to choose alternatives to the newly approved Johnson & Johnson vaccine if available, citing concerns about abortion-derived cell lines in its development.

Bishop Robert Deeley on Thursday joined others from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in expressing concerns about the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, saying the recent approval for its use in the United States has led to questions about whether it is morally permissible to receive vaccines developed, tested or produced with the help of abortion-derived cell lines.

Nevertheless, Deeley said Catholics should not hesitate to receive a vaccine even “when ethically irreproachable COVID-19 vaccines are not available.”

Bishop Robert Deeley, photographed outside the Roman Catholic Diocese of Portland offices in December. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

“However, if one can choose among equally safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines, the vaccine with the least connection to abortion-derived cell lines should be chosen,” he said in a statement. “Therefore, if one has the ability to choose a vaccine, Pfizer or Moderna’s vaccines should be chosen over Johnson & Johnson’s.”

Bishops in some other dioceses around the country, including in New Orleans and Pittsburgh, also have urged Catholics to choose the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines over Johnson & Johnson. The head of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Diego, meanwhile, issued a statement Wednesday saying that “it is entirely morally legitimate” to receive any of the three vaccines, as well as a fourth from AstraZeneca, though that vaccine has yet to receive approval in the U.S.

“We are proud to bring our COVID-19 vaccine to the world and to contribute to ending this pandemic,” Johnson & Johnson said in a statement. “In developing our vaccine, we have held ourselves to the highest bioethical standards and guidelines.”

The vaccine, which is administered as a single dose as compared to the two doses required for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, received emergency use authorization from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration last weekend. There is no fetal tissue in the vaccine, Johnson & Johnson said.

“We are able to manufacture hundreds of millions of doses using our engineered cell-line system and look forward to delivering those doses around the world and helping to meet the critical need,” the company said.

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention announces and posts which type of vaccine is allocated to clinics each week, but recommends that people receive whatever shot is most readily available.

“None of the three authorized COVID-19 vaccines includes fetal tissue and all have been proven effective at preventing serious illness and death,” the Maine CDC said in a statement. “Given the limited supply, the Maine CDC recommends that Maine people take whatever shot is available to them. Doing so will ensure that Maine people are vaccinated quickly and efficiently, protecting the health of all Maine people and allowing us to get back to a new normal sooner.”

Questions and concerns around connections to abortion-derived cells in COVID-19 vaccines also arose in the Catholic community in December, around the time the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were being considered for federal approval. At the time, the conference of bishops determined there was a remote connection to abortion through the testing of the two vaccines, but not in their production. Deeley said the two vaccines were ethically developed and encouraged Catholics to receive them. The diocese includes about 250,000 Catholics and about 140 churches in Maine.

In general, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, as well as guidance from the Vatican, has said that Catholics should put aside moral concerns and opt for vaccination when there is a serious threat to public health and in order to protect the most vulnerable.

“While we should continue to insist that pharmaceutical companies stop using abortion-derived cell lines, given the worldwide suffering that this pandemic is causing, we affirm again that being vaccinated can be an act of charity that serves the common good,” the conference said in a statement this week.


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