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Jun 17, 11:49 AM EDT

Vatican defends membership for theologian over abortion flap

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VATICAN CITY (AP) -- The head of the Vatican's bioethics panel is defending the decision to name as a member an Anglican moral theologian who has said that abortion could be condoned up until the 18th week of gestation.

Monsignor Vincenzo Paglia spoke out Saturday after conservative commentators criticized the inclusion of Oxford University professor Nigel Biggar as a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Biggar, a noted Christian ethicist, was quoted as saying in 2011 that he would draw the line for abortion at 18 weeks, since that is "roughly about the earliest time when there is some evidence of brain activity, and therefore of consciousness." Catholic Church teaching holds that life begins at conception and must be defended until natural death.

In an interview with Italy's La Stampa, Paglia reaffirmed the Vatican's unwavering opposition to abortion. He said Biggar had been personally recommended by the archbishop of Canterbury, had never written about the issue and wouldn't engage in abortion debates as a member.

Biggar, for his part, confirmed in an email to The Associated Press that Paglia's office had asked him to clarify his position after the ruckus broke out. He said he had provided the Vatican with copies of the few and incidental remarks he had made about abortion over the past 30 years.

"Abortion is a very important and, I think, difficult moral issue. But, although I have provisional views about it, it is not one that I have published anything substantial on," he said in the email. "I have on the other hand written a lot about voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide, spoken about it in the UK, Ireland, France, and Canada, and consistently opposed their legalization. On those two issues, my conclusions align with those of the Roman Catholic Church."

The Pontifical Academy for Life is the Vatican's bioethics advisory board, founded in 1994 by St. John Paul II to promote Catholic teaching on the defense of life. Under John Paul and Pope Benedict XVI, the academy took a very conservative line on issues surrounding sexual morals, and some of its more hard-line members occasionally made headlines for calling out perceived lapses in upholding church teaching.

Francis announced the academy's new members this past week, leaving off some of its more outspoken members.

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