Fresno bishop urges Catholics not to 'jump on the COVID-19 vaccine bandwagon'

Hayley Smith
·4 min read
2015 photo of then auxiliary Bishop Joseph Brennan during ordination mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels
Then auxiliary Bishop Joseph Brennan during ordination Mass at Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles in 2015. (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times)

Citing ethical concerns about the use of fetal cells in vaccine development, Bishop Joseph Brennan of the Diocese of Fresno is urging Catholics not to "jump on the COVID-19 vaccine bandwagon.”

In a video shared by the diocese this week, Brennan said that some of the researchers racing to produce a coronavirus vaccine have made use of cells derived from an aborted fetus, and perhaps other "morally objectionable" materials.

"I try to maintain a joyful spirit, so I don't like to rain on anyone's parade," Brennan said. "But I'm going to rain on a parade today: the vaccine parade."

In his message, Brennan said the use of fetal cells at any stage of a vaccine's development means Catholics cannot avail themselves of its scientific results.

"I won’t be able to take a vaccine, brothers and sisters, and I encourage you not to, if it was developed with material from stem cells that were derived from a baby that was aborted, or material that was cast off from artificial insemination of a human embryo," he said. "That's morally unacceptable for us."

That mention of artificial insemination appears to be a reference to in vitro fertilization, an assisted reproduction technique that creates human embryos in a lab dish. Some couples that were left with excess embryos have donated them to scientists, who used them to make human embryonic stem cells.

Brennan said he is not opposed to vaccines in general, and noted that he has received vaccines for the flu and pneumonia, but said he is specifically opposed to vaccines derived from babies "whose lives were taken."

He cited the Pfizer vaccine by name, which — along with another vaccine from Moderna — has been roundly celebrated as a breakthrough in the fight against the coronavirus.

Brennan did not explain why he singled out Pfizer's COVID-19 vaccine for criticism. There is no indication that it was developed using either fetal cells or human embryonic stem cells.

"Not a single stage has had it," Pfizer spokeswoman Jerica Pitts said Thursday.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccine candidates are made with a snippet of the coronavirus' genetic code, and both are estimated to be roughly 95% effective.

Brennan joins a growing chorus of Catholic organizations concerned about fetal cells and COVID-19 vaccines. In April, more than 20 Catholic leaders and prominent members of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops signed a letter to the commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration urging the federal government to follow "moral principles" in the development of a coronavirus vaccine.

"It is critically important that Americans have access to a vaccine that is produced ethically," they wrote. "No American should be forced to choose between being vaccinated against this potentially deadly virus and violating his or her conscience."

The Charlotte Lozier Institute, an antiabortion organization, has flagged five COVID-19 vaccine candidates that were developed with the help of fetal cells. One of them, developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, is in late-stage testing. So is another developed by Johnson & Johnson.

Both the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are listed as "ethically uncontroversial" by the institute.

In July, the Philadelphia-based National Catholic Bioethics Center shared a statement in which President Joseph Meany described the potential reliance on a vaccine developed with fetal cells as a "nightmare scenario" that would "cause major conscience problems for pro-lifers and Catholics."

Meany went on to say that he is confident that researchers can develop a vaccine for the virus without making use of such cells, something Brennan stated as well.

"Thank goodness there are some that are being developed ... that have no connection at all with any of that material," Brennan said. "I don't want to cause anyone pain. I don't want to cause anyone to be less hopeful than they normally would be about coming to grips with this terrible pandemic."

But his words come amid an alarming nationwide surge of COVID-19. More than a million new cases were recorded last week alone, and California is currently sustaining its highest-ever counts for daily cases, surpassing 10,000 new daily cases four times in the last week and recording a single-day high of more than 5,000 new cases on Thursday.

Neither Meany, Brennan nor the chancellor of the Fresno Diocese responded to requests for comment.

For the record:
9:12 PM, Nov. 19, 2020: A previous version of this story said Bishop Joseph Brennan of the Diocese of Fresno was critical of COVID-19 vaccines created with embryonic stem cells. The vaccines that concern him were developed using fetal cells

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.