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New members of Vatican pro-life academy have defended abortion and contraception

Avraham Steinberg, a new member of the Pontifical Academy for Life (Wikimedia)

Two more new members of the Pontifical Academy for Life hold controversial positions on bioethics.

Rabbi Professor Avraham Steinberg, one of 45 ordinary members of the Pontifical Council for Life appointed this week, has argued for the permissibility of ending a pregnancy in some cases.

Steinberg told Australia’s Radio National in 2008 that an embryo has “no human status” before 40 days. After 40 days it has “a certain status of a human being, not a full status”.

As a result, Steinberg says, “Abortion is not permissible by Jewish law, but if the situation of the mother is in a psychological upset to a degree that it may cause her serious trouble, then abortion may be permissible despite the fact that for the foetus’s sake, we would not allow it.

“So case by case, occasionally abortion might be permissible, something which is probably unheard-of in the Catholic point of view.”

When asked about eugenics, Steinberg says he approves of genetic screening for disability, so that parents can “avoid the birth of a Tay-Sachs child or of a cystic fibrosis child and so on.” He explains that this “might be looked at as a form of eugenics”, but “that is not a forbidden eugenics if you think about it carefully, because what we want is that people would be happy and able and not suffering, but once they are born, they have equal rights and one must support them.”

Steinberg also supports stem-cell research involving the destruction of embryos, something forbidden by Church teaching, on the grounds that the embryo at a few days old “is not a human being in any sense. So therefore the destruction of it is not murder in any sense.” Asked when the embryo “becomes” a human being, Steinberg replies that it must be 40 days old.

Elsewhere in the interview, Steinberg contrasts the Jewish and Catholic ways of approaching ethics, saying: “In the Catholic approach there are a lot of dogmas that are strict, and they can’t be changed, and they can’t be modified. Whereas in Judaism, in general, there are no absolute values except for values that have to do with the belief.”

Another rabbi appointed to the academy, Fernando Szlajen, has said that the prohibition on abortion is absolute, and that the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” means we should protect human beings from the moment of conception.

Another new member, Fr Maurizio Chiodi, has questioned Church teaching on artificial contraception. According the newspaper L’Avvenire, which reviewed a book to which Fr Chiodi contributed, he believes that “the use of artificial birth control techniques can be moral”. The newspaper quotes Fr Chiodi as saying that “the moral norm on responsible procreation can not coincide with the biological observance of natural methods”. L’Avvenire also say that for Fr Chiodi, “It is not the method itself that determines the morality, but the conscience of the spouses, their sense of responsibility, their genuine willingness to open themselves to life.”

Pope Paul VI’s encyclical Humanae Vitae said that artificial contraception is “never lawful, even for the gravest reasons…it is a serious error to think that a whole married life of otherwise normal relations can justify sexual intercourse which is deliberately contraceptive and so intrinsically wrong.”

This reaffirmed the teaching of the Church, also expressed in Pius XI’s Casti Connubii, that contraception is “intrinsically vicious” and that “the Divine Majesty regards with greatest detestation this horrible crime and at times has punished it with death.”

Fr Chiodi wrote in 2008 that Humanae Vitae must be “interpreted” with “conscience” and “discernment”.

Steinberg and Fr Chiodi are not the only new members of the academy whose appointment diverges from previous expectations. Oxford Professor Nigel Biggar, an Anglican clergyman who has also joined the academy, has said he only opposes abortion after about 18 weeks.

The academy no longer requires members to sign a statement promising their allegiance to the Church’s teaching. Pope Francis has removed nearly 100 members of the academy, including John Finnis, Luke Gormally, Josef Seifert and Wolfgang Waldstein, while 17 have been added.

The membership term is five years, but it can be renewed.