Presentation by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops

To the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health

On the Draft Legislation

The Assisted Human Reproduction Act

 

 

Introduction

 

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) thanks the Committee for the invitation to present its reflections on the draft Assisted Reproduction Act.

 

The CCCB is the national association of Catholic Bishops who are the pastoral leaders of approximately 12.5 million Catholics in seventy-one dioceses across the country

 

Like many concerned Canadians, the CCCB has been involved in the discussions on the reproductive and genetic technologies for more than ten years, submitting a brief to the Royal Commission, attending hearings on Bill C-47, responding to Discussion Papers by Health Canada and corresponding with the Minister of Health. We welcome this renewed interest in a legislative framework, which has been much anticipated and is very needed.

 

Since our presentation comes almost at the end of your public hearings, we have decided to limit our comments to identifying in a general way some parts of the draft legislation that we can readily support and to focusing in a very specific way on our major concern with the legislation.

 

General Affirmations

 

The Relationship between Faith and Science

 

The quest for knowledge is very much at the heart of the Christian faith. Far from being in conflict, faith and science have much in common, awakening wonder in the mysteries of creation and coming from and leading to the same God. As Pope John Paul II said in a recent encyclical, “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth….” [1] There can be no real conflict between faith and science except where there is either bad faith or bad science.

 

The Church supports scientific research and technology when it respects the inherent dignity and value of human life, preserves the richness and diversity of creation, promotes responsible stewardship, cares for the vulnerable and serves the common good.  Science and faith are not irreconcilable but can nourish and inform one another. As Einstein said, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” [2]

 

Positive Elements in the Legislation

 

There are many provisions in the Act that can be supported.

 

The Preamble contains several significant affirmations such as the need to protect the best interests of children affected by the application of the technologies; the recognition that women are particularly affected by these technologies; the fundamental importance of free and informed consent; and the importance of protecting human individuality and the integrity of the human genome.

 

The Government should also be strongly commended for prohibiting cloning, the creation of embryos for research purposes; commercial surrogacy, germ line alteration; and the marketing of gametes and embryos.

 

Major Concerns

 

The major concern that we have about this draft legislation is that while it deals with the beginning of human life, it does not define the human embryo as a human being or protect it with full moral status.

 

The Catholic Church believes that human life is God’s most gracious gift to us, that each human being is created in the image of God, and that each human being has inherent worth and dignity. Each human being must be respected and protected as a person, however small and fragile. 

 

The Embryo is a human being

 

We believe that a human being exists from conception and our position is shared by medical and other professional opinion. In their April 2001 response to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIRH) discussion paper on Human Stem Cell Research, the Canadian Physicians for Life said:

 

“It is an objective scientific fact that human life begins at conception/fertilization. This is not a “faith” position or a “belief’. We are human beings even at the one cell stage. A human embryo is not a “potential human being”. It is a human being. It is precisely what a human being looks like at that point of his or her life.”

 

The Law Reform Commission of Canada in its Working Paper, Crimes Against the Foetus, more than ten years ago affirmed that a human being exists from conception.

 

“True, the present Code has a curious provision in section 206 to the effect that a child doesn’t become a human being until it has proceeded completely from its mother’s body. This, far from being a proper definition of the term, runs counter to the general consensus that the product of human conception, in the womb or outside, is a human being.” [3]

 

Dr. Francoise Baylis who is an associate professor in the department of bioethics at Dalhousie Medical School said in testimony before the Standing Committee on Health on May 31, 2001:

 

“The first thing to recognize in the legislation and in all of our conversations is that embryos are human beings. That is an uncontested biological fact. They are a member of the human species.”

 

There would appear to be no longer any question that the human embryo is a human being. It is what makes the human embryo so fascinating and valuable to researchers. The debate is no longer about the facts but about how to respond to those facts.

 

The fact that the embryo is a human being, combined with the principle of Catholic teaching that human life must be protected from its earliest existence, has obvious ramifications for our response to certain provisions of the draft legislation.

 

The definitions in the draft legislation

 

We recommend that “embryo and foetus” be defined as human beings and not as “human organisms” as in the draft bill. We also recommend that embryos be removed from the term “human reproductive material”.

 

 As legislators, you know how important it is to get the definitions right because their meaning  determines what follows. If Parliament is going to allow research on embryos who remain after fertility treatments, then it should not be glossed over that this research is being done on a human being. Legislation which is grounded in science and has such ethical import should make it evident that it is dealing with human beings when making provisions for embryos.

 

Those who have different positions on abortion could find common ground on the definition and treatment of the human embryo in the context of this legislation. This is because the embryo is not within a womb and there are no conflicting rights and interests between the child and his or her mother.

 

Embryonic Stem Cell Research

 

The Act would permit under licence embryonic stem cell research on embryos who remain after fertility treatments, embryos who are called “spare” or “surplus”.

Scientists tell us that embryonic stem cells are capable of forming virtually any tissue of the human body and can be used to repair tissue that has degenerated or been destroyed. This has understandably excited scientists and raised the hopes of people who live with a variety of degenerative diseases such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, muscular dystrophy, and spinal cord injury.

 

While we would like to support research that has the potential to do so much good, we cannot in this case because scientists also tell us that deriving the stem cells from the embryo destroys the embryo. Other alternatives can produce the same good without destroying the embryo.

 

Stripped of its cells and destroyed, the embryo is reduced from a subject to an object, from a human being with dignity to a source of organic material. No amount of public benefit or healing can ever justify the deliberate killing of a human being. No human being, including the embryo, should ever be used as a means to an end; no human being, no matter how tiny, can be killed to help another; no human being should ever be considered as “surplus” or “spare”.

 

Some will argue that the embryo who is not implanted will die anyway so why not do some good?  A better question for people for whom in vitro fertilization is acceptable would be why create more embryos than are needed for implantation? Why not spend time researching ways to do this procedure which are not dependent on using powerful costly drugs and creating additional embryos who are put at risk either through freezing or experimentation. By allowing stem cell research on the embryos who remain after fertility treatments are you not inadvertently encouraging the creation of extra embryos, thus subverting the very welcome prohibition against creating embryos for research purposes?

 

Therapeutic Cloning

 

We strongly support the provision in the draft legislation that would prohibit therapeutic cloning and urge you to resist the pressure coming from some groups to permit this procedure. This type of cloning has a misleading name because it results in the death of the cloned embryo at an early stage for the purpose of retrieving stem cells. The embryo is produced solely to be destroyed for his or her stem cells. Legal, medical and religious leaders in Australia recently said that therapeutic cloning “produces a laboratory embryo with no parents or guardians, in fact no one concerned to protect his or her interests.” [4]

 

Therapeutic cloning is supported by some of the organizations searching for a cure for degenerative diseases. While it is easy to understand their deep desire for a cure, this method would result in human beings being used as nothing more than industrial raw material which is dehumanizing for all of us. There are also serious ethical questions about the many women who would be required to donate eggs, a procedure which is painful, risky and invasive.

 

 

Adult Stem Cell Research

 

While the initial focus in the media and scientific community has been on  embryonic stem cell research, there have also been remarkable developments in adult stem cell research. Adult stem cells (or non-embryonic stem cells) have recently been found to have surprising plasticity and versatility with stem cells from bone marrow giving rise not only to blood cells but also to muscle, liver and neuron-like cells. Neural stem cells can give rise to blood and other cell types and this summer researchers in Montreal found stem cells from the skin of mice and humans could grow into complex brain cells, smooth muscle and fat. Stem cells have also been found in fat, the blood of umbilical cords and human placentas.

 

Adult stem cell therapy would be preferable to embryonic stem cell therapy because there are no problems of tissue rejection and no ethical problems. We suggest that the Government focus on allowing and funding research on adult stem cells because it would not involve the destruction of human life. This would be a way forward, which would facilitate scientific progress while respecting human dignity. And it is something that we could all agree upon.

 

The Moral Status of the Embryo

 

The Background information around this legislation suggests that the Government’s inclination to regulate embryonic stem cell research has been influenced by the Discussion Paper released by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) this spring. In that paper the different positions on the moral status of the embryo were set out in this way:

 

With regard to the use of human embryos as a source of stem cells, some believe that the human embryo is a being with full moral status from the moment of conception and an inalienable right to life. In this view, the use of a human embryo for research purposes is morally unacceptable. Others consider that an early human embryo is just a collection of cells, its moral status equivalent to that of any other cells in the body. A middle ground confers upon the human embryo a special moral status because of its potential to develop into a human being. In this view, the human embryo has neither the full moral status of a person nor an absolute right to life. Though it has a right to protection, this right is not absolute and can be overridden; for example, by the possibility of a major benefit to other humans and to society in general.” [5]

 

The CIHR accepted the middle ground granting the human embryo a special moral status by limiting the source of embryos for research, prohibiting commercialization, requiring free and informed consent and ensuring confidentiality. With respect, when it comes to human life there can be no middle ground and a status that permits a human being to be killed is not special but meaningless. Surrounding the research with what can only be considered secondary ethical guidelines masks the fact that the ultimate ethical decision has already been made that research will be permitted that results in the destruction of the embryo. The desire to help and heal others is deeply human; there are ways that it can be done without harming another human life.  

 

Conclusion

 

Members of the Committee, you have undertaken an enormous task that affects the health, safety and life of Canadians, particularly women and children. You deserve our appreciation because these issues are scientifically complex and the ethical dilemmas profound.

 

The last few years have seen some truly stunning scientific achievements and evoked some wonderful responses. Last February when the announcement was made about the first draft of the human genome, politicians and scientists spoke of “the language in which God created life” To that we could add “The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are.” [6]

 

November 26, 2001

 



[1] Pope John Paul II, Encyclical Letter, Faith and Reason, 1998, Introduction

[2] C.F. Bishop William Friend, Handing on Faith in the Context of a Scientific Mind-set, Origins, September 6, 2001

[3] Law Reform Commission of Canada, Crimes Against the Foetus, Working Paper 58, 1989,  p. 50

[4] Zenit News Agency, An Open Letter to Federal, State and Territory Governments, Nov.9, 2001

[5] Canadian Institutes of Health Research, Human Stem Cell Research: Opportunities for Health and Ethical              Perspectives – A Discussion Paper, 200l, p. 6

[6] The Catechism of the Catholic Church, Revised Edition, 1999, paragraph 159