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Anti-abortion faith leaders support use of COVID-19 vaccines

FILE - In this Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020 file photo, a Catholic pastor receives the first of the two Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccinations at a hospital in Chicago. In a growing consensus, religious leaders at the forefront of the anti-abortion movement in the United States are telling their followers that the leading vaccines available to combat COVID-19 are acceptable to take, given their remote and indirect connection to lines of cells derived from aborted fetuses. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast)
FILE - In this Wednesday, Dec. 23, 2020 file photo, a Catholic pastor receives the first of the two Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccinations at a hospital in Chicago. In a growing consensus, religious leaders at the forefront of the anti-abortion movement in the United States are telling their followers that the leading vaccines available to combat COVID-19 are acceptable to take, given their remote and indirect connection to lines of cells derived from aborted fetuses. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

In a growing consensus, religious leaders at the forefront of the anti-abortion movement in the United States are telling their followers that the leading vaccines available to combat COVID-19 are acceptable to take, given their remote and indirect connection to lines of cells derived from aborted fetuses.

One outspoken foe of abortion based in Dallas, Southern Baptist megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, has called the vaccines a “present from God.”

“To ask God for help but then refuse the vaccine makes no more sense than calling 911 when your house is on fire, but refusing to allow the firemen in,” Jeffress said via email. “There is no legitimate faith-based reason for refusing to take the vaccine.”

The Rev. Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, also has celebrated their development.

“I will take it not only for what I hope will be the good of my own health, but for others as well,” he said on his website.

The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, which says fighting abortion is its “preeminent” priority, said last month that getting vaccinated against the coronavirus “ought to be understood as an act of charity toward the other members of our community,” according to a statement by the chairmen of its Committee on Doctrine and Committee on Pro-Life Activities.

The bishops said it is morally acceptable for Catholics to use either of the two vaccines approved for use in the U.S. — made by Pfizer and Moderna — despite a “remote connection to morally compromised cell lines.” This entailed the use of fetal cell lines for lab tests seeking to confirm the vaccines' effectiveness.

Another leading vaccine, made by AstraZeneca and approved for use in Britain and some other countries, is “more morally compromised,” and should be avoided if there are alternatives available, the bishops said.

Coinciding with the USCCB, four bishops in Colorado issued their own statement taking a somewhat more negative stance on AstraZeneca, describing it as “not a morally valid option.”

AstraZeneca used a cell line known as HEK293 to develop its vaccine. According to the Oxford University team that developed it, the original HEK293 cells were taken from the kidney of an aborted fetus in 1973, but the cells used now are clones of the original cells and are not the original fetal tissue.

As the first vaccines neared approval last year, some Catholic bishops warned they might be morally unacceptable. Among them was Bishop Joseph Brennan of Fresno, California, who urged Catholics not to jump on the “vaccine bandwagon.”

He later modified his stance, saying that due to health risks for individuals and communities, “Catholics may ethically decide for serious reasons to utilize such vaccines.”

Also questioning the vaccines was Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, who has depicted any use of aborted fetuses in vaccine development as evil and says he won’t take any of the currently available vaccines.

“The Church has said that under some circumstances receiving the vaccine is permissible and I do not dispute that,” he said via email. “The Church has also said we should vigorously call for morally produced vaccines, and I urge those who take the vaccine to join that mission and demand change.”

Strickland is encouraging donations to the John Paul II Medical Research Institute, which supports research aimed at developing what it calls “ethical” cell lines — using adults’ stem cells — that would be used in the manufacturing of vaccines and other medical therapies.

Some other outspokenly anti-abortion bishops have embraced the vaccines.

“As a Christian engages the world, it’s impossible, in many settings, to completely avoid cooperating with moral evil,” tweeted Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, Rhode Island. “The Church, on multiple levels, has said that it’s morally acceptable to receive the vaccines that are currently available. I agree.”

Bishop Richard Stika of Knoxville, Tennessee, said he had no qualms about getting vaccinated.

“I just hope they don’t implant a microchip in my arm to ascertain when I cheat on my diet,” he joked on Twitter.

Among Protestant evangelical leaders, who generally have strong anti-abortion views, there’s been relatively little anti-vaccine rhetoric, according to the Rev. Russell Moore, who heads the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“I wouldn’t be able to think of one evangelical pastor who’s saying, ‘Don’t be vaccinated,’” he said.

A more notable challenge for pastors, Moore said, is countering baseless anti-vaccine conspiracy theories embraced by some members of their congregations or communities — for example that the vaccines would alter a recipient’s DNA or covertly implant a microchip.

On a global level, the Vatican has issued guidelines largely similar to those from the U.S. bishops, declaring it morally acceptable for Catholics to receive COVID-19 vaccines based on research that used cells derived from aborted fetuses.

One difference: It didn’t name or give details about specific vaccines. The Vatican plans to use the Pfizer vaccine starting this week for employees and their families, and Pope Francis — in an interview with an Italian broadcaster being aired this weekend — said he has an appointment to be vaccinated.

The Vatican has suggested it is wrong to refuse a vaccine based solely on the abortion objection, since refusal "may also result in a risk to others.”

Nicanor Austriaco, a molecular biologist and Catholic priest who teaches at universities in the U.S. and the Philippines, said the Vatican has appropriately addressed faith-based concerns about vaccines indirectly connected to research that used aborted fetal cells.

“The moral evil being contemplated here” took place in the 1970s when the original cell line was created, Austriaco said, “and it is remote.”

G. Kevin Donovan, a pediatrics professor at Georgetown University who directs its Pellegrino Center for Clinical Bioethics, said leaders of his Catholic faith couldn’t have been “more clear-cut.”

“The advantage Catholics have is … the highest levels of authority have made it very clear this is a morally acceptable thing to do,” said Donovan.

In Indonesia, home to the world’s largest Muslim population, a Muslim clerical council has been included in that nation's vaccine procurement process to ensure that a product is halal, or acceptable for use under Islamic law. In the past, the council has ruled that some vaccines for other diseases were unacceptable because they used pork-derived gelatin.

But on Friday the council gave its approval to China’s Sinovac COVID-19 vaccine, paving the way for its distribution in Indonesia.

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Associated Press writers Elana Schor in Washington, Nicole Winfield in Rome and Victoria Milko in Jakarta, Indonesia, contributed to this report.

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Associated Press religion coverage receives support from the Lilly Endowment through The Conversation U.S. The AP is solely responsible for this content.