The Archdiocese of New Orleans is warning local Roman Catholics that the newly authorized Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine is “morally compromised” and should be avoided, if possible, in favor of other vaccines because of a connection to abortion.

In recent weeks, public health officials in Louisiana and across the U.S. have advised against weighing the different vaccines against each other, telling residents that they should get vaccinated as soon as they are eligible and a shot is available.

The statement from the local church, issued Friday, may raise questions about that guidance among area Catholics. The directive also appeared to go farther than recent public pronouncements from other church bodies in singling out the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.

In its statement, the archdiocese argued that cells used to develop, test and produce the one-dose Johnson & Johnson shot were derived from abortions performed in the 1970s and 1980s.

As such, the vaccine is “morally compromised, as it uses the abortion-derived cell line in development and production of the vaccine as well as the testing,” the statement said.

Though the developers of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines also relied on abortion cells, local church officials argued that the material was only used in lab testing.

Those vaccines “therefore can be morally acceptable for Catholics, as the connection to abortion is extremely remote,” officials said.

The statement added that the decision to receive a coronavirus vaccine “remains one of individual conscience in consultation with one’s healthcare provider” and didn’t rule out receiving a Johnson & Johnson vaccine if other vaccines weren’t available.

The use of cells derived from aborted fetuses in vaccine development has become an issue for the church in recent months after some church leaders in the United States questioned whether it was acceptable to receive the shots.

In December, the Vatican said that “it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetuses” in the research and production process when “ethically irreproachable” vaccines aren’t available to the public.

It added, however, that it wasn’t endorsing the use of those cell lines.

Archdiocesan spokesperson Sara McDonald said Monday that Archbishop Gregory Aymond elected to issue the statement after receiving requests for clarification around the moral appropriateness of the vaccines.

“It is the responsibility of the archbishop to provide guidance to Catholics,” she said. “It remains the role of the church to always stand for its teaching.”

According to the church’s statement Friday, archdiocesan officials researched guidance offered by the National Catholic Bioethics Center, the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops before releasing their own directive on Friday.

Those organizations have not weighed in publicly on the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, though the USCCB in December said that a vaccine from AstraZeneca should be avoided “if there are alternatives available” because it extensively used an abortion-derived cell line.

The document, titled “Moral considerations regarding the new COVID-19 vaccines,” nevertheless allowed that should there not be a choice, Catholics should take the AstraZeneca vaccine due to the “serious consequences for one’s health and the health of others” of delaying the inoculation.

The statement from the local church comes as Louisiana has been preparing to accept shipments of the new Johnson & Johnson shot and as health leaders have publicly praised it as an efficient tool for reaching herd immunity.

Last week, State Health Officer Dr. Joe Kanter recommended against trying to pick one vaccine over another based on studies of their efficacy and argued that residents should get a shot as soon as one of them is available.

“Don’t pass up the opportunity,” he said. “Don’t fall into the trap of trying to parse one versus the other.”

Some health experts expressed concern about the church’s stance Monday, saying it could dissuade people from taking a vaccine that could keep them and others alive.

“I am worried,” said Dr. Sandra Kemmerly, Ochsner Health’s system medical director of hospital quality. “It was completely surprising to me. Several months in we thought we’ve heard almost every sort of concern that has been raised, and this was new and it really was a surprise.”

A spokesperson for New Orleans’ city government, whose health department has worked to promote vaccines, stressed the need for residents to make the “important decision” to be immunized, regardless of which shot they choose.

“We understand that many residents have hesitancies about the COVID-19 vaccine for many reasons,” spokesperson Beau Tidwell said. “There are currently three vaccines available to New Orleanians, and we hope that all of our residents take the opportunity to get vaccinated when it is available to them… The COVID-19 vaccines will save lives.”

Staff writer Emily Woodruff and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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