Letter to the Federal minister of Health Anne McLellan Regarding the Final Report of the Canadian Institutes of Health Reserach on Stem Cell Research

Wednesday, March 06 2002

The Honourable Anne McLellan, P.C., M.P.
Minister of Health
16th Floor, Brooke Claxton Building
Tunney’s Pasture
Postal Locator 0916A
Ottawa, Ontario
K1A 0K9

Re: Final Report of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research on Stem Cell Research

Dear Ms. McLellan:

In the name of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), I would like to express my profound disappointment with the recent report of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) on Stem Cell Research that allows public funding of research on embryos who remain after fertility treatments.

The CCCB collaborates with the Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF), which includes a multi-disciplinary group of lay people with backgrounds in science, health, ethics, theology, law, business and education. COLF commented on the CIHR draft report last May, and both the CCCB and COLF participated in the hearings of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health on the draft legislation on Assisted Human Reproduction.

Our position on embryonic stem cell research is the following: human embryos are human beings with dignity who must be respected as human subjects and not treated as research objects. This position is based on both reason and faith and supported by a broad range of scientific and ethical opinion. The potential of embryonic stem therapy for healing degenerative diseases cannot outweigh the reality that a human embryo dies in the process.

The purpose of this letter is not to reiterate the many arguments against embryonic stem cell research that have been made by us and others in different forums but to underline the troubling aspects of the release of this report at this time and the way it circumvented the issue of the moral status of the human embryo.

1) The Role of Parliament

As you know, your predecessor asked the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health to review and consult with Canadians on draft legislation concerning assisted human reproduction. This process enabled the views of Canadians to be expressed in a public forum and a variety of perspectives to be heard. Members of the CIHR Working Group also had an opportunity to make representations to this Committee.

Should not this legislative process be allowed to play itself out with vigorous debate by elected representatives who are accountable to Canadians? The Report of CIHR gives the impression that the legislative process is being pre-empted and that the views of ordinary Canadians are being discounted.

2) The moral status of the human embryo

In its final report CIHR acknowledged that in responding to its draft report, “Many respondents expressed the viewpoint that the embryo has full moral status and an inviolable right to life from the moment of conception.”

Nevertheless, “no attempt was made to articulate an argument regarding the moral status of the embryo”, CIHR preferring to rely on the principles already articulated by the Tri-Council Policy Statement four years ago. With respect, this overlooks the fact that Canadians have become much more aware about what is at stake since the recent explosion of news about embryonic stem cell therapy.

Both CIHR and the House of Commons Standing Committee have heard serious ethical concerns about embryonic stem cell research from Canadians across the country. Clearly, there is no consensus in favour of embryonic stem cell research. Moreover, a decision of this moral import, which affects the ethical tone of our society and engages public funds, ought not to be made by a body that is not directly accountable to the Canadian people. Parliament is the best place for these issues to be discussed after a full and open discussion with the Canadian people and a thorough analysis of the status of the human embryo.

We urge you as Minister of Health to impose a moratorium on all embryonic stem cell research pending legislation by the Government of Canada. Thank you for considering our views and for the care that you and your officials are taking in trying to discern the best way forward for Canadians with respect to so many new developments that are full of both risk and promise.


Most Reverend Jacques Berthelet C.S.V.
Bishop of Saint-Jean-Longueuil
Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops