As Janssen/Johnson & Johnson distribute their coronavirus vaccine across the country, right-wing and anti-abortion media outlets have muddied the waters by pushing the vaccine’s vague connection to abortion.
On February 26, the New Orleans archdiocese released a statement that called the Johnson & Johnson vaccine “morally compromised” and advised Catholics to opt for the Moderna or Pfizer ones, if possible. On March 2, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops' committees on doctrine and abortion-related issues, among other prominent Catholic groups, reiterated the archdiocese’s sentiment in a formal statement.
Fetal cells have been essential to scientific research for decades. Scientists and researchers have used them to help find treatments for a wide range of illnesses, including chicken pox and Ebola. In regard to COVID-19, all three approved vaccines used fetal cell lines -- Moderna and Pfizer while performing confirmation tests (to ensure the vaccines worked) and J&J for vaccine development, confirmation, and production. But “fetal cell lines are not the same as fetal tissue.”
According to infectious diseases expert Dr. James Lawler:
Fetal cell lines are cells that grow in a laboratory. They descend from cells taken from elective abortions in the 1970s and 1980s. Those individual cells from the 1970s and 1980s have since multiplied into many new cells over the past four or five decades, creating fetal cell lines. Current fetal cell lines are thousands of generations removed from the original fetal tissue. They do not contain any tissue from a fetus.
As Dallas, radio station WFAA reported on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine (talking to Dr. Ashley Garling, clinic assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin College of Pharmacy):
Experts say by the time the adenovirus goes in the vial, the cells from the fetal cell lines have been rigorously filtered out. “When the virus replicates, the cells kind of burst open," Garling said. “Having a virus grown in a human's cell does make it much easier and more effective when it's being put into a human."
Additionally, the Vatican issued clear guidelines in December saying, “It is morally acceptable to receive Covid-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses in their research and production process.” The Vatican in February urged its own employees, citizens, and residents to get vaccinated, except for those with health conditions. Pope Francis and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI both received COVID-19 vaccines in January.
Despite the Vatican’s urging, and evidence that the vaccines did not contain aborted fetal tissue, some right-wing media continue to emphasize the abortion narrative, paving a dangerous path for those who may already be hesitant about the vaccine:
- On March 1, the National Catholic Reporter reported on the Catholic Archdiocese of New Orleans’ statement with minimal acknowledgement of the importance of the vaccine. Instead, it highlighted a Texas bishop’s tweet from November 2020 that claimed the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were “produced immorally” and should be rejected.
- Right-wing figure Jack Posobiec amplified the anti-vaccine narrative to his 1.2 million Twitter followers. This tweet earned over 250 retweets and 550 likes within 48 hours.
- During The Story with Martha MacCallum, Fox News senior correspondent Laura Ingle boosted the archdiocese’s statement, saying, “There could be some conflicts for Catholics.” She then emphasized the New Orleans archdiocese’s instruction that if people have the choice, they should choose “the morally acceptable Moderna or Pfizer vaccines over Johnson & Johnson.” However, later in the segment Ingle acknowledged that Johnson & Johnson told Fox that “there is no fetal tissue in their COVID-19 vaccine.”
- Coverage in The Evangelist, amplified the anti-vaccination views without clarifying that the vaccine doesn’t include aborted fetal tissue.
- Anti-abortion publication LifeSiteNews spread dangerous anti-vaccine narratives, including sharing an Italian group’s statement that vaccines using “DNA from aborted fetal cell lines … ‘should be considered defective and potentially dangerous to human health.’” This narrative is dangerous and inaccurate. Additionally, LifeNews.com amplified the distrust in the Johnson & Johnson vaccine on Twitter.
This fearmongering narrative against COVID-19 vaccines is not new. As the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines were approved through the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, right-wing narratives arose claiming that they were “abortion-tainted” and “produced using the remains of an aborted child.” In February, YouTube banned LifeSiteNews for spreading anti-vaccination misinformation, but the outlet held a day-long conference promoting the same lies. Now, more than ever, coverage surrounding the vaccine must be reliable and honest. The anti-vaccination half-truths pushed by right-wing media are extremely dangerous and will only cause harm as the COVID-19 virus continues to take thousands of lives daily.