Religion Unplugged

Is Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 shot morally compromised? It’s complicated

By Bobby Ross Jr. | Religion Unplugged

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My wife has lupus and autoimmune diseases that make her high-risk if infected with COVID-19.

Because of that, we’ve adhered strictly to masking, distancing and other safety precautions. For nearly a year, we’ve not attended an in-person worship assembly or eaten inside a restaurant.

After reporting from all 50 states and 15 nations in my career, I’ve done all my work from home since flying to Tennessee to cover deadly tornadoes last March. That was right before the coronavirus lockdown hit America in the middle of that month.

Last week, I mentioned my excitement to roll up my sleeve for the first of two Moderna shots.

And on Thursday, our family got an extra dose of hope: Tamie received a Johnson & Johnson single shot, the coronavirus vaccine recommended by her rheumatologist because of her life-threatening reactions to medications last year.

Ironically, my wife was able to schedule her last-minute appointment on the same day that managing editor Meagan Clark and I moderated an online panel on the COVID-19 vaccines and religion.

A key focus of the panel: conflicting and sometimes confusing statements issued by U.S. Catholic bishops on the morality of the newly approved Johnson & Johnson shot.

“Leaders at the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops are discouraging Catholics from using the new Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine if given a choice, citing the use of cells with a distant link to abortion in the development of the vaccine,” reported Religion News Service national reporter Jack Jenkins, one of the panelists.

Jenkins offered excellent insight on the diversity of Catholic responses to the vaccine debate, from individual bishops to the Vatican.

Panelist Clemente Lisi, who analyzes Catholic news for, noted: “Unless you’re a scientist, this is a very difficult thing to understand. … I think most people are getting this (news) through headlines, through Twitter, and I think it may cause some misunderstanding.”

Many Americans have no choice which COVID-19 vaccine to receive, Lisi stressed. Stopping the virus’ spread, he added, could itself be construed as a pro-life act.

At NPR, religion correspondent Tom Gjelten quoted a top Southern Baptist leader:

“We should oppose authorizing or funding research rooted in the taking of innocent human life,” says Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“That does not mean, though,” Moore tells NPR, “that people must shun medical treatments that can save lives because they were discovered through means of which we would not necessarily approve.”

Other topics of the panel ranged from vaccine skepticism by many African Americans (addressed by veteran journalist Hamil Harris) to why some wrongly liken the vaccine to the Mark of the Beast (as explained by The Tennessean religion writer Holly Meyer and others).

Watch the full discussion.

Read the full column.

This column appears in the online magazine Religion Unplugged.

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