In March, the academy canceled a planned conference on adult stem cells, which was due to feature speakers who also support embryonic research. Conference organizers went on to distance the academy from “some pro-life activists,” while giving varying explanations for the cancellation.
Natural family planning expert Mercedes Wilson, an academy member who presented at the February 2012 conference, joined Prof. Seifert in criticizing that event and the academy's recent direction.
Many academy members, she told CNA, “were shocked to hear that several of the invited presenters did not represent the teachings of the Catholic Church” at that gathering.
Wilson said she was one of “only two presenters who offered the audience natural solutions to the problems of infertility,” along with Pope Paul VI Institute founder Dr. Thomas Hilgers.
“As His Holiness Benedict XVI read his message to the participants of the assembly, it was obvious that he was not aware that the president and its governing council had invited presenters who are in complete disaccord with the teachings of the Magisterium of the Catholic Church,” Wilson recounted.
“There were presentations on in vitro fertilization, and other medical procedures that are forbidden by the teachings of the Church. This became a public scandal in an academy that was formed specifically to defend life and protect the teachings of Holy Mother Church.”
Wilson said the incident was also an insult to the Pope, “who assumed that the leaders of the Pontifical Academy for Life would be teaching and guarding the moral and spiritual interests of the Church.”
She told CNA that several academy members “approached the leadership of the Academy and expressed their shock and dismay” over the February conference. Non-member attendees were also “greatly disturbed that such speeches were being given within the Vatican walls.”
It was at this same gathering that the academy announced its April 2012 meeting on adult stem cells. Although that conference was later canceled, some members saw the entire incident – including the reasons given for the cancellation – as a betrayal of the pontifical academy's mission.
One letter, sent to a scheduled speaker by the academy's chancellor and officer for studies, stated that the conference was canceled for economic reasons – and not because of the “lobbying activity” of “some pro-life activists” who “do not enjoy any credit” from the pontifical academy.
But a separate letter, signed only by the chancellor, said the meeting's indefinite postponement was due in part to the “threats coming from some persons” using “false and tendentious information” to raise “doubts or even fears” about the conference.
Organizers of the canceled April 2012 conference defended the choice of embryonic research supporters as speakers, saying they were also experts in adult stem cells and would not use the conference to promote views contrary to Catholic moral teaching.
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But critics within the academy cited its founding statues, which allow work with “non-Catholic and non-Christian medical experts, so long as they recognize the essential moral foundation of science and medicine in the dignity of man and the inviolability of human life from conception to natural death.”
In his letter to Bishop Carrasco, Prof. Seifert stated his reasons for considering Feb. 24 as the lowest point in the pro-life academy's history.
He corroborated Wilson's account of the discussions about infertility that took place, saying they disregarded ethical norms of the natural law in favor of a supposedly “neutral” viewpoint. Five out of the seven papers delivered, he said, “stood in flat contradiction to Church teaching on morals.”
“The contraceptive pill was praised if taken for a while and introduced as a healthy means for restricting periods of fertility,” Seifert recalled. In vitro fertilization, artificial insemination, and related technologies “were presented as morally acceptable and as major achievements.”
These presentations, he said, were “propaganda for everything the Church condemns in this field,” and they had “no legitimate place in our academy.”
Seifert also accused the academy of dismissing pro-life objections to the canceled stem cell conference as “useless controversies,” and responding with “cynical mockery” to those who raised concerns about the infertility conference.