BY THE CANADIAN CONFERENCE OF CATHOLIC BISHOPS
TO THE HOUSE OF COMMONS STANDING COMMITTEE
ON HEALTH ON BILL C-56
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) thanks the Committee for the invitation to present its reflections on Bill C-56, The Assisted Human Reproduction Act.
In accepting the invitation to speak with you today, we are mindful that your Committee is not starting at the beginning but over the last year has already studied these technologies very carefully with six months of public hearings and Committee debate.
We had the opportunity to appear before you last November 26 and will not repeat everything that was said then. Instead, we will try to respect your request to frame our comments as a comparison between the provisions of the Bill and your Committee’s recommendations with respect to the draft legislation which preceded it. Given the short notice for this hearing, we will not comment on all the provisions of the Bill but only those which interest or concern us the most.
Our comments are informed by Catholic teaching on: 1) respect for human life from its very beginning; 2) respect for human dignity and integrity; 3) respect for the beauty and integrity of procreation; 4) concern for the most vulnerable and 5) promotion of the common good.
We begin by recalling the words of Jean Vanier in his recent book Becoming Human:
“As human sciences develop and the world evolves, we are called to grow into a new and deeper understanding of the Source of the universe and of life. As we participate in this, our sense of the truth expands. Freedom is to be in awe of this Source, of the beauty and diversity of people, and of the universe. It is to contemplate the height and breadth of all that is true.”
The Statutory Declaration
We are pleased that both the Committee and the Bill retained the distinction between prohibited and controlled activities. The rationale for maintaining the distinction was put very well in the Committee’s report: “An outright statutory ban signals more clearly that certain activities are either unsafe or socially unacceptable. The use of the statutory ban also signals that these activities are of such concern to Canadians that their status as a prohibited activity may not be altered except with the approval of Parliament.”
In its report the Health Committee found it offensive to include the embryo in the term ”human reproductive material”. We are pleased that the Bill has removed the embryo from this definition because the embryo is a completely different reality from gametes.
In its Report the Health Committee was strongly opposed to both “reproductive” and “therapeutic” cloning. The Minister of Health, in speaking to the Bill at second reading, said that it “outlaws the creation of human clones whether for the purposes of reproduction or research”.
We commend both the Committee and the Minister for respecting the strong consensus of Canadians on this point. Given the rapid development of science and the importance of getting this provision right, we hope that the definition of “human clone” captures all forms and possibilities of cloning. We are concerned that the phrase at the beginning of clause 5 (1) (c) of the Bill “for the purpose of creating a human being” may inadvertently open the door to therapeutic cloning.
Clause 5 (1) (b) of the Bill states that “No person shall knowingly create an in vitro embryo for any purpose other than creating a human being or improving or providing instruction in assisted reproduction procedures.”
Clause 3 (1) (d) of the draft legislation simply stated that “No person shall knowingly create an in vitro embryo solely for purposes of research.”
We find the clause “for any purpose other than creating a human being” puzzling because, from our perspective, the embryo is a human being from its earliest beginnings. In our view, the drafters are confusing the nature of the embryo and its purpose. The human embryo simply cannot be other than a human being.
The Bill appears to have added the right to create an in vitro embryo for the purpose of “improving or providing instruction in assisted reproduction” at the request of the Committee. While we understand that it is motivated, in part, by a sincere desire to research egg storage techniques that will ultimately reduce the number of embryos produced, we cannot support any research that results in the destruction of the embryo.
We prefer the wording of the draft legislation on creation of embryos for research purposes to that in the Bill and the Report of the Health Committee. It is clearer and more ethically coherent.
Sex Selection for non-medical reasons
While we are pleased to see the continuation of the ban on discrimination on the basis of sex, our concern remains that by permitting sex selection for health reasons the legislation permits discrimination on the basis of disability. All too often human embryos and foetuses are aborted when anomalies are detected. It would be helpful if the statutory declaration in the Bill would include the Committee’s recommendation that persons with disabilities be recognized as living satisfying lives and enriching the lives of those around them.
The prohibitions in the Bill concerning animal/human hybrids are a direct result of the recommendation of the Committee. We wonder, however, why the prohibitions are limited to “the purpose of reproduction”.
We welcome the continued prohibition in the Bill of commercial surrogacy. It recognizes that these arrangements contribute to the exploitation of women, especially those who are poor, to the objectification of children and the commodification of the process of reproduction from beginning to end.
The retention in the Bill of reimbursement of the surrogate mother’s expenses could, however, open the door to payment for the surrogacy arrangement.
We also commend the Committee for its efforts to discourage “altruistic surrogacy”. Even if there is no financial gain and the offer is made from a generous heart, there is still the commodification of procreation which is inconsistent with the dignity of everyone involved. Moreover, it violates the unity and dignity of marriage and separates genetic, gestational and social parenthood. It is, therefore, disappointing that the Committee’s recommendation for mandatory counselling was not accepted.
Marketing of gametes and embryos
We are happy that the Bill has retained the prohibition on the marketing of gametes and embryos but there are a couple of loopholes that could be closed with small amendments. In order to prevent the sale of gametes, genes or cells by third parties the phrase “from a donor or person acting on behalf of a donor” could be deleted from sections 7(1) and (3) of the Bill. Section 7 (2) could be amended to prevent the sale of “any part of an embryo”.
Use of In Vitro Embryo without consent
The Bill maintains a provision that was in the draft legislation against using in vitro embryos unless the “donor” has given written consent. We would like to stress that one does not own an embryo; that while property can be donated, living beings cannot, and that consent is not sufficient unless it is for the good of the embryo.
Research on Embryos
Having appeared before the Health Committee, we know that you took the question of embryonic stem cell research very seriously and that you made a point of getting up to date scientific information. It is clear that you tried very hard to protect human life, to give hope to those who are living with degenerative diseases and to respect the deeply held convictions of witnesses.
Over the course of many months of testimony, the Committee heard both scientists and ethicists define the embryo as a human being. Even those who consider the term “human being” more philosophical than biological would agree that embryos are human, that we all began as embryos, that human life unfolds as a continuum, that in a very real sense the embryo is one of us. Both reason and faith inform the Catholic position that “the human being is to be respected and treated as a person” from the beginning. This means that when it comes to treatment or research, the embryo must be treated as a subject and not as an object or a means to an end. No treatment must be undertaken that does not benefit or respect the integrity of the embryo. The problem with embryonic stem cell research is that while the research has the potential to benefit those living with disease, it actually harms the embryo who dies in the process. Ultimately, the embryo is exploited for the benefit of others.
The provisions on embryo research contained in the Bill and the recommendation made by the Committee are quite different. Both are an improvement over the draft legislation, which gave no protection to the embryo.
The Committee’s recommendation is a well-motivated attempt to protect the embryo by making research on it a last resort. Recommendation no. 14 reads that “Research using embryos be a controlled activity requiring a licence. Even if all other regulatory criteria are met, no licence may be issued unless the applicant clearly demonstrates that no other category of biological material could be used for the purposes of the proposed research.”
The recommendation shows palpable concern for the embryo and is a serious attempt to address the ethical issues involved. Nevertheless, the recommendation is difficult to accept either as a matter of principle or practice.
At the level of principle, one either accepts that the embryo is human whose life must be respected or one does not. There is no in between. At the level of practice, it will be very difficult to maintain the limits expressed in the recommendation in the face of economic and scientific pressures. Experience with other significant moral issues shows that once the door is open, it is very difficult to shut.
The provision in the Bill gives a nod to embryo protection but the backgrounder to the Bill, the positive reaction of researchers and the plain wording of the provision, show that the green light has been given to embryonic stem cell research. It states: “A licence authorizing the use of an in vitro embryo for the purpose of research may be issued only if the Agency is satisfied that the use is necessary for the purpose of the proposed research.”
Some argue that the embryos who remain after fertility treatments will die anyway, so why not do some good? It is not necessary that we do something with these embryos so that some good or meaning will be given to their lives. There is good and meaning in their lives simply because they are intrinsically human which also means from a faith perspective that they are known and loved by God. It is unnecessary to search for meaning on their behalf, especially when such a search is really nothing more than a way of justifying the decision to release human embryos for research purposes. A better approach is what is contained in recommendation 15 of the Committtee’s report. That is, to limit, for people for whom in vitro fertilization is acceptable, the number of embryos that may be created in the procedure.
We recommend that research on embryos, as well as any treatment that is not for their benefit, be prohibited. There is, however, a way forward that will enable both human life to be protected and degenerative diseases to be treated or cured and that is through adult stem cell research which, as the Committee knows, is showing remarkable progress. While some might argue that this approach will put our country behind its trading partners, we submit that it would put our nation ahead. Canada could become a leader in adult stem cell research, thereby promoting both scientific progress and respect for human life and dignity.
In general, we support the Committee’s clear call for the collection and maintenance of registries to facilitate accountability, transparency and surveillance in the areas of assisted human reproduction. In particular, the Committee’s recommendation, which was not picked up in the Bill, to require consent to release identifying information to offspring before gamete donation underlined the seriousness of what the donor was doing – creating a child.
The Committee’s recommendations for a Regulatory Body that is a “semi-independent agency, directed by a Board that reports directly to the Minister of Health, and with mechanisms that ensure accountability to Parliament” seems to achieve a good balance between independence and accountability. In establishing the Agency, the Bill appears to have overlooked reporting to Parliament, or is it assumed that the Minister will report to Parliament? Given what is at stake in the assisted reproductive technologies and related research, accountability to Parliament would seem essential.
The Patent Act
The Committee recommended that the Patent Act “be amended to prohibit patenting of humans as well as any human materials.” This is in keeping with the Committee’s strong stand against commercialization and respect for human dignity. The Bill does not mention this possibility, and we are unsure if this needs to be done by a separate process or if it can proceed by way of consequential amendment.
In conclusion, we thank you again for inviting us to speak with you today. As the new millennium begins, our Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, observed that among the urgent challenges facing the world and the Church is our commitment to respect the life of every human being. A society’s vision of human values, it seems to us, is most evident in the laws and protection it provides for those most vulnerable moments of human life.
The Holy Father also invited us to launch out into the deep. When you were invited to sit on this Committee, you may have felt that you were launching out into the deep. But if you know the story from Scripture, the disciples were not asked to launch out alone but together. It is only by working together and trying hard to understand the convictions of others that we find a way forward that promotes the common good. We assure you that in your continuing deliberations you are not alone in seeking creative and responsible solutions to the dilemmas posed by assisted human reproduction.