ROME, February 28, 2011 (LifeSiteNews.com) – The mood was decidedly chipper on Friday at the most recent gathering of the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAV). The Academy is recovering, many said, from more than a year of scandals and difficulties, and is back on its normal track, discussing issues related to the sanctity of life and the dignity of the person. Praise was particularly reserved for the new president, Bishop Ignacio Carrasco de Paula, who, it was said, was bringing the Academy balance and a strong pro-life direction.

The meeting this year focused on ethical and medical issues surrounding umbilical cord stem cell research and post-abortion trauma, a topic that still gets little play in the mainstream of either the media or psychological field. Academy members told me that they have high hopes that the Academy’s confidence is restored and that more meaty issues will be covered in discussion over time.

Christine Vollmer, a founding member of the Academy and the head of the Latin American Alliance for the Family, said that it is “nice to have things back to normal,” to be finished with the scandals and upset caused by the Academy’s previous president. “This is how the Academy is supposed to be,” she said.

I asked several people if they thought the topics chosen were somewhat tame, particularly the issue of umbilical cord research, but I learned that the issue is not so straightforward, in terms either of ethics or of medical benefits, as the media may have led many of us to believe.

One presentation made a strong case for the banking of umbilical cord blood to be carefully re-thought. One researcher pointed out that much of the blood that is in an umbilical cord at the time of birth is needed for the baby. Various possible medical consequences were mentioned of depriving the child of this blood, including aenemia, respiratory illness and even cerebral palsy.

“Clamping” was an issue brought up by many who warned that cutting off the umbilical cord too close to the baby’s body would deprive the newborn of much-needed blood and immune system boosters found in the blood.

All of this raises issues of consent. Dr. Paul Byrne, an American neonatologist, pointed out that parents “do not own their children” and that any consent given for experimental treatment must be intended primarily for the child’s good. Parents, he said, must be informed fully of any possible medical consequences of collecting and banking umbilical cord blood immediately after birth for unknown future needs.

Another issue was the proliferation in the developed world of for-profit umbilical cord banks, and the possibility of market forces overtaking purely medical motives. Some members spoke of parents being pressured to bank cord blood, even if a child has no sign of genetic or other illness, at a cost of sometimes thousands of dollars. Another member warned that the profit motive will drive up costs far beyond the means of those parents in the developing world, leaving umbilical cord blood banking a phenomenon of the wealthy west.

The prospect of treatments developed from umbilical cord stem cells was also discussed, with some pointing out that despite the media hype, few “standard treatments” have been developed and most are not past the experimental stage. One member warned that the media does little to help the public understand the difference between a tried and tested treatment and the various, and inevitably slow, stages of medical research. Umbilical cord blood stem cells, one medical researcher said, are intended biologically for the child and using them as a substitute for another patient’s own stem cells is as yet a dubious medical prospect.

However, Msgr. Jacques Suaudeau, the PAV’s Scientific Director, said that umbilical cord blood, correctly monitored and regulated, can be the answer to the phenomenon of “saviour siblings,” the creation of a child in order to harvest its tissue to treat a previous child. He also pointed out that although the media often fudges the details in search of a story, medical research needs publicity in order to generate grants.

After these discussions, at the tea break, I was pleased to be able to congratulate in person Fr. Frank Pavone, the head of Priests for Life, who was inducted into the academy on Thursday. There’s no doubt that Fr. Pavone’s presence on the Academy membership roster is a good sign for the direction and priorities of Bishop Carrasco.

Before his notorious L’Osservatore Romano article, the former head of the PAV, Archbishop Fisichella, had already caused pro-life people around the world grave concern when he made the PAV a co-sponsor of an international organ transplant conference in 2009, at which no mention was made of any ethical worries. On that occasion, the situation was left to the pope himself to correct. Benedict’s address to the multi-million dollar transplant conference brought the problems of “brain death” and other death criteria into the fore, a move that was seen as an indirect rebuke. 

However, Dr. Byrne was at this year’s conference seeking advice on how to bring the matter to the attention of the PAV under its new leadership. He was advised that Bishop Carrasco would almost certainly grant him a fair hearing and bring his concerns to the membership.

Mrs. Vollmer said that more meaty issues such as brain death criteria are likely to be on the roster in coming years. We must not be too hasty, she told me, pointing out that the Vatican is not a place where things happen quickly. She also affirmed her confidence in the new PAV president, who has a strong academic background in the bioethics issues and track record of staunchly defending the Church’s position.

Joseph Meaney, the interim director of the Rome office of Human Life International was also at the meeting and said he also had the impression that the mood was positive: “There was a lot of lively participation in the discussions and debates, which is good considering they weren’t exactly controversial topics,” he said.

Those who had fought to have Fisichella removed as head of the Academy, Meaney added, “seem to feel vindicated.”  “They’re happy to put the matter to rest and carry on. To carry the PAV forward and turn the page.”