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Catholic Leaders Voice Moral Concerns About Johnson & Johnson Vaccine

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

Should your faith affect which COVID-19 vaccine you get? Some Catholics are actively thinking about this. U.S. bishops have said, when it's possible, Catholics should choose Moderna or Pfizer. They say the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is, quote, "morally compromised." The Archdiocese of New Orleans has been especially outspoken. From member station WWNO, Bobbi-Jeanne Misick reports.

BOBBI-JEANNE MISICK, BYLINE: All three available vaccines were tested on cells derived from aborted fetuses. The problem, Catholic bishops say, is that Johnson & Johnson is still using the cells in production to grow the actual vaccines.

MARYBETH BEGUIRISTAIN: Seeing that this particular vaccine, the Johnson & Johnson one, use the aborted cells more makes me step away and say I can't use that one.

MISICK: Marybeth Beguiristain lives in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie. Her Catholic faith is central to her identity. She says she'll follow the local archbishop's guidelines when booking her vaccine appointment and avoid Johnson & Johnson.

BEGUIRISTAIN: I'll do my research before I sign up. You know, if I'm going to a pharmacy, I'm going to make sure that they're using one of the other two.

REBEKAH GEE: The bottom line is we don't have a menu of options.

MISICK: That's Dr. Rebekah Gee, CEO of Louisiana State University's Health Care Services. LSU is one of many providers of the vaccine in Louisiana.

GEE: It's really splitting hairs at this point if you're going to, you know, distinguish between one or another.

MISICK: Gee says the ethical difference between using fetal cells in testing and production is minor, and there's a greater imperative.

GEE: You need to be able to take whichever vaccine is available to you because it could save your life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MISICK: St. Peter Claver Catholic Church in the Treme neighborhood is an historically Black congregation. Inside, socially distanced parishioners clap along with the choir during Mass. Like in many parts of the country, New Orleans' Black population was hit especially hard by COVID-19.

(APPLAUSE)

MISICK: Outside, after the service, Zelma Evans says she didn't know vaccines used aborted fetal cell lines until she heard it on the news.

ZELMA EVANS: That was my first time ever hearing about it for the Johnson & Johnson.

MISICK: By then, she'd already received the Pfizer vaccine. But she says if the Johnson & Johnson shot were the only one available, she would've gotten it, even though it uses cells derived from an abortion.

EVANS: If they did it already and they're using it for some good, then so be it.

MISICK: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops says that if the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is the only one available, it's permissible to take that one, just not preferable. But some especially devout Catholics still have concerns about any use of aborted fetal cells in either the testing or production of the vaccine. One of them is 90-year-old New Orleans resident Warren Hart. He says any involvement of the controversial cell lines is too much.

WARREN HART: If it's not right to use, it's not right to use. Doesn't matter if it's difficult to get something else.

MISICK: Hart doesn't plan to take any of the currently available vaccines. However, that position is equally indefensible, according to the Vatican. In January, Pope Francis said Catholics were morally obligated to get vaccinated to end the suffering of COVID-19.

For NPR News, I'm Bobbi-Jeanne Misick in New Orleans.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.