When Michiganders get a Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine paid for with certain federal funds, a new state law mandates that they must be informed that it was developed using a stem cell line from an aborted fetus.
The requirement was tucked away inside a broader state bill that distributed federal COVID-19 funds. Although Congress approved billions of dollars for Michigan in December, it falls on the state Legislature to allocate the money.
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and the Democrats wanted every available dollar immediately sent to families, workers and businesses in need. Republicans ultimately allocated some of the funds, but also tied more than $1 billion to separate bills that sought to take away power from Whitmer and the leader of the state health department. The governor vetoed those bills.
During this legislative fighting, little fuss was made about the bill language referencing embryonic stem cells.
The language in the bill states that anyone who receives a vaccine paid for through $110 million appropriated in the measure “shall be provided with information or informed if and in what manner the development of the vaccine utilized aborted fetal tissue or human embryonic stem cell derivation lines.”
It does not include language as to how this notification process would work, who would be required to notify the vaccine recipient or who will enforce this requirement. A spokesman for Whitmer did not immediately respond to questions about the issue.
A frequently asked questions page on the state Department of Health and Human Services’ COVID-19 vaccine website has been updated, said spokesperson Chelsea Wuth, and now includes the following details:
“The Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine has been produced by growing the virus in fetal cells during vaccine development and manufacturing (using the PER.C6 line). Even though fetal cells are used to grow the vaccine virus, vaccines do not contain these cells or pieces of DNA. The mRNA vaccines (those by Pfizer and Moderna) did not use a fetal cell line to produce or manufacture the vaccine.”
Fact sheets now include those details, too, Wuth said, and “vaccine providers are required to include this information” when they’re giving a dose of the vaccine that was paid for with that $110 million pot of federal dollars — whether it’s Johnson & Johnson’s or any future COVID-19 vaccines that get federal emergency use authorization.
However, she noted, “there does not appear to be a requirement in the legislation for a verbal declaration.” Nor does the law mandate that written notification be given to people when they get their vaccines, Wuth said.
Vaccines for chickenpox, rubella, and hepatitis A are all similarly made by growing the viruses in fetal cells. The new informed consent law does not apply to them, Wuth said.
The Johnson & Johnson vaccine only accounts for about 75,000 of the roughly 4 million injections administered in Michigan thus far, according to state data. That’s because the Johnson & Johnson vaccine requires just one injection, not two, and the fact it was not approved as quickly as the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. However, Michigan and other states anticipate receiving substantially more Johnson & Johnson doses in the coming weeks.
Right to Life Michigan President Barbara Listing applauded the change, saying that the way the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was developed and manufactured is an “ethical concern” and that people “have a right to know” about how it was made.
“We are pleasantly surprised Gov. Whitmer didn’t issue a non-enforceability statement,” she said. “Now we hope the provision will be properly enforced so that people are given real informed consent.”
State Sen. Erika Geiss, D-Taylor, tried and failed to remove similar language from a separate bill that ultimately failed to become law for unrelated reasons.
“Colleagues, this pandemic was never supposed to be political. Wear a mask, wash your hands, do your best to keep distant from others — really simple, basic instructions to help keep us safe and keep others safe,” Geiss said at the time, explaining why she thought the language should not be in the bill.
“It’s disappointing but not surprising that you’re putting politics into this process in order to scare people from getting this extremely safe vaccine.”
In early March, Michigan’s seven Catholic bishops, including Archbishop Allen Vigneron of the Archdiocese of Detroit, called the Johnson & Johnson vaccine “more morally problematic” than the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
That’s because the company “utilized in the design, production, development, and confirmatory testing a cell line that originated from tissue taken from an aborted baby,” and abortion violates Catholic doctrine.
They urged the state’s Catholic faithful to only take the Johnson & Johnson vaccine “if there are no other alternatives.” Michigan’s bishops also oppose the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine, which still hasn’t cleared federal hurdles for use in the U.S., for the same reasons.
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops took a more moderate tact, saying: “Pfizer and Moderna’s vaccines raised concerns because an abortion-derived cell line was used for testing them, but not in their production. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, however, was developed, tested and is produced with abortion-derived cell lines raising additional moral concerns.”
Free Press staff writer Niraj Warikoo contributed to this story.
Contact Kristen Shamus: [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @kristenshamus.