A new appointee to the Pontifical Academy for Life is a technical adviser for a group whose work includes improving the market for “safe abortion” supplies.

Sheila Dinotshe Tlou, a nursing professor who is a former health minister in Botswana and a leader in HIV/AIDS prevention and other health causes, also is an outspoken advocate of contraception, a position at odds with the Catholic Church’s teaching that artificial birth control is morally unacceptable.

On Oct. 15, the Pontifical Academy for Life announced her appointment as one of several new members whose expertise and background will help provide “a constant and fruitful interdisciplinary, intercultural, and interreligious dialogue.”

“This is absolutely the most humbling of all my appointments and awards,” Tlou said on Twitter Oct. 17. “With your prayers and support, I will give it my best. God bless.”

CNA sought comment and clarification from Tlou about her abortion views but she declined to comment until after February 2023. That is when the Pontifical Academy for Life is set to hold its next inaugural meeting, Tlou said.

Tlou served as minister of health for Botswana from 2004–2008. The country bars abortion except in cases where the mother’s life or mental or physical health is endangered by the pregnancy or in cases where the unborn child was conceived in rape or incest or has a fetal abnormality.

However, she is on the oversight committee providing strategic and technical guidance for SEMA Reproductive Health, a partnership launched in 2021 to help improve the market for “sexual and reproductive health products,” the group’s website says. These products include contraceptives, medicine to treat pregnancy complications, and “supplies for safe abortion and post-abortion care.”

According to SEMA Reproductive Health, these products are “critical to saving lives and advancing gender equality.”

“They can dramatically improve people’s health and well-being by reducing unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortions, and maternal deaths,” the group’s website says.

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CNA sought comment from SEMA Reproductive Health but did not receive a response by publication.

Tlou currently has multiple roles. She is chancellor of Botswana Open University, a special ambassador for the African Leaders Anti-Malaria Alliance, a co-chair of the Global HIV Prevention Coalition, and a co-chair of the NursingNow Campaign, which seeks to promote the profession of nursing.

Her comments on Twitter can be wide-ranging, voicing opposition to sexual violence against women and forced sterilization. However, she is a clear advocate of contraceptive access, which Catholic authorities have often criticized. Her statements on social media seem ambiguous about the proper response to “unsafe abortions.”

“With access to sexual and reproductive health, we can end unsafe abortions that kill millions of women every day,” she said in a Sept. 28, 2017, Twitter post linking to a World Health Organization report estimating 25 million “unsafe abortions” happening each year. The phrase “sexual and reproductive health” is often used as a euphemism for legalized abortion.

In an April 21, 2016, Twitter post, apparently referencing contraception access, she says: “There is no way we can end illegal abortions if we don’t set this one right and ensure that every woman has access.”

In a May 13, 2016, Twitter post, she commented on a Reuters news report about abortion rates falling to a record low in wealthy countries while not changing elsewhere. She said: “And we remain poor … and our women continue dying due to lack of access to contraception ... and illegal abortions.”

In an April 23 post to Twitter, she linked to a Time Magazine article about people who said the pandemic disrupted their plans to have a baby.

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“Among the poorer families, there will be thousands of babies after the lockdowns, most of them unplanned, and indicating the need for sexual and reproductive health and rights for all during such disasters,” she said.

Tlou holds a doctorate in nursing and postgraduate certificates in women’s health and gender studies from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has a master’s degree in nursing from The Catholic University of America and a master’s degree in nursing education and instruction from Columbia University.

Her work in HIV and AIDS prevention continues after more than 35 million people have died from the disease. In 2018, the disease killed about 770,000 people. HIV infections peaked globally in 1996 and are much less deadly where effective treatments and therapies are available. At the same time, there were 1.8 million new infections in 2018, 1.1 million of which took place in Africa, according to the World Health Organization’s Africa office.

St. John Paul II founded the Pontifical Academy for Life in February 1994 to advance the study of the major problems of medicine and law regarding “the promotion and defense of life, above all in the direct relation that they have with Christian morality and the directives of the Church’s Magisterium.”

The Pontifical Academy for Life originally had strong rules requiring members to affirm that “every human being is a person” and that “from the moment the embryo is formed until death it is the same human being which grows to maturity and dies.” These rules were dropped in 2016, but the new statutes Pope Francis has approved say members should “promote and defend the principles regarding the value of life and dignity of the human person, interpreted in a way that conforms to the Magisterium of the Church.”

The academy can still revoke membership for those “in the case of a public and deliberate action or statement manifestly contrary to said principles, or seriously offensive to the dignity and credibility of the Catholic Church and the academy itself.”

The recent appointment of Italian economist Mariana Mazzucato to the pontifical academy drew controversy because she is an outspoken advocate for abortion rights.

In response to the controversy, the Pontifical Academy for Life issued a statement Oct. 19 describing itself as “a study and research body” whose “debate and dialogue take place between people of different backgrounds.” The statement said prospective nominees are vetted by the apostolic nuncio and episcopal conferences of their home countries.

Loyola Marymount University professor Roberto Dell’Oro, a newly reappointed member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, recently criticized the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which overturned Roe v. Wade’s strong protections for legalized abortion. Though backing abortion limits as early as the first trimester or, at minimum, as late as the unborn child can feel pain, the professor argued that Dobbs violates norms of democratic personal freedom and respect for women’s basic autonomy in a way that verges on the “totalitarian.”