September 24, 2021

Be Our Guest / Dr. Patrick Knerr

A Catholic scientist offers insight into morality of COVID-19 vaccines

I am writing in regard to a letter writer in the Sept. 10 issue of The Criterion who rejects all presently available COVID-19 vaccines due to perceived connections to abortion.

While I respect this reader’s intention to fight for the unborn, the letter contains very strong and broad condemnations of scientific research.  As both a practicing pharmaceutical scientist and a practicing Catholic, I feel obligated to provide some additional information on this topic.

As has been covered previously in The Criterion, the controversy surrounding the currently available COVID vaccines from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna stems from the use of the “human embryonic kidney-293” (commonly known as HEK-293) cell line in their initial development.

HEK-293 cells were originally derived from fetal tissue, purportedly from an elective abortion in the early 1970s. However, statements by Dr. Frank Graham, who discovered this cell line at the University of Leiden in 1973, reveal that the actual source of this fetal tissue is unclear even to the original researchers; and the original researchers were not directly involved in any abortion, if there even was one.

What is known is that Graham created what is known as an “immortalized” cell line from the original fetal tissue; this means that these cells were modified to become capable of growing and dividing indefinitely.

Due to such useful properties, HEK-293 cells ultimately became ubiquitous in scientific research, especially research aimed to understand, treat, cure and prevent human diseases. Importantly, HEK-293 cells propagate themselves under laboratory conditions, so no additional fetal tissue is ever necessary in their use.

With this information in mind, I object to the assertion in the letter that any scientists involved in the development of COVID vaccines are actively promoting abortion. These vaccines have not required any abortion to be performed at any stage of their development or production, nor is there any reason to consider doing so.

There are fields of research that do in fact require continuous sources of fetal tissue, most prominently the deeply controversial field of embryonic stem-cell research, but to lump in vaccine development or scientific research generally with this specific practice is inaccurate and unfair.

As all Catholics should, I believe abortion is intrinsically immoral and must be opposed under all circumstances. I encourage the use of cell lines not derived from fetal tissue whenever possible, and I pray a COVID vaccine is soon available without any connection—no matter how remote—to the destruction of a human life.

However, I also view the scientific and medical advances resulting from the use of HEK-293 cells, including these COVID vaccines, as a sign of God’s infinite providence in bringing about much good from (what may or may not have been) an initial evil. I freely admit that I am no theologian or ethicist, so don’t take my word for it.

Take it from Pope Francis, who has consistently called the voluntary reception of any COVID vaccine an act of charity.

I encourage anyone interested to read the article “Moral Guidance of Using COVID-19 Vaccines Developed with Human Fetal Cell Lines” by Dominican Father Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austraico of Providence College, available at

May God enlighten us and our culture.

(Dr. Patrick Knerr is a member of St. Susanna Parish in Plainfield.)

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