Response by the Catholic Organization for Life and Family to the Report of the Standing Committee on Health on the Draft Legislation on Assisted Human Reproduction

Wednesday, April 10 2002


The Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF) was jointly founded by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Knights of Columbus. Its Board of Directors includes bishops and a multi-disciplinary group of lay women and men with backgrounds in science, health, ethics, theology, law, business and education.

COLF participated in the hearings before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health, responded to the discussion paper published by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) last Spring and participated in the consultation conducted by Health Canada in February 2000.


The Minister of Health should be commended for the process of presenting draft legislation to the Standing Committee on Health with the invitation “to reflect on this draft legislation and to lead a non-partisan dialogue with Canadians on this very important subject”. The Standing Committee embraced this process, creating a sense of openness and a forum for discussion and debate. It gave Canadians the chance to be involved in formulating responses to complex dilemmas that have a real impact on the health and safety of Canadians and the ethical fabric of our society.

Parameters of this text

We do not intend to repeat all of what was said in our previous submissions to the Committee or to CIHR but to comment as directly as possible on the sections of the Report that concern or interest us the most. The principles which have guided our reflection on the report are: 1) respect for human life from its very beginning; 2) respect for human dignity and integrity, 3) appreciation of a child as a gift; 4) respect for the beauty and integrity of procreation; 5) concern for the most vulnerable, and 6) promotion of the common good.

Section 1: Urgent need for Legislation

We wholeheartedly concur with the Committee’s recommendation that the Minister of Health introduce legislation on assisted human reproduction and related research as a priority.

It is now nine years since the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies released its report and more than five years since Bill C-47 died on the order paper. The longer a legislative vacuum exists the greater the danger that it will be filled by self-interest and economic considerations, leaving little room for ethical principles. Already we have heard the familiar refrain from childhood “Everybody is doing it why can’t we?” or “If we don’t allow this procedure, our best scientists will leave the country” or “We’ll be behind other countries if we don’t allow this research”. On the contrary, we think that we would be ahead of some countries if we enacted legislation that put clear boundaries around efforts to assist human reproduction.

The release of the final report on stem cell research by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research is a striking example of a research body getting ahead of members of parliament who had set a process in motion for discussing, debating and discerning the best policies for Canadians.

Section 3: The Need for a Statutory Declaration

We welcome the Committee’s recommendation that the preamble be replaced with a statutory declaration because it will have more weight which is appropriate for legislation that deals with the integrity of human life and its very beginnings. The guiding principles in the Declaration have been significantly strengthened from those that were in the preamble to the draft legislation. We appreciate the addition of a strong prohibition against the commodification of the reproductive capacities of men and women and the exploitation of children, women and men for commercial ends. There is also clear acknowledgement that persons with disabilities can lead full and satisfying lives and enrich the lives of those around them.

The statutory declaration repeats a curious provision that was also in the preamble to the draft legislation that the human reproductive technologies provide benefits to individuals, families and society. With respect, this is not self evident and the Committee heard much evidence that would be to the contrary. A ready example would be some of the practices around surrogacy. Another would be the simple fact that the technology of in vitro fertilization which was developed to create life has become linked to the destruction of human life by the production of so many more embryos than are needed for implantation.

The statutory declaration includes as its number one guiding principle the need for practices that respect human individuality, dignity and integrity. We strongly affirm this principle but it must also be complemented by an explicit reference to Parliament’s interest in protecting human life. It is a serious oversight not to include this principle in legislation that deals with the beginning of human life. Inclusion of this principle would be in keeping with the Committee’s affirmation in Section 2 under Overarching Principles that “…there must be a measure of respect and protection for the embryo that is based on its potential for personhood.”

We concur with the Committee’s recommendation that the Statutory Declaration be supplemented by a purpose clause within the body of the legislation that would make it clear that the rights of children born from assisted reproduction procedures are given paramount consideration, followed by those of the adults participating in the procedures with the interests of researchers to be secondary to these priorities. We would add that the interests of embryos created by these procedures must also be protected. Scientific progress has enormous potential to benefit the world and it is responsible for much good but it must first do no harm and always be at the service of humanity.

Section 4: Prohibited and Controlled Activities

We thank the Committee for retaining the category of prohibited activities and endorse their rationale that “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.”

Section 5: Statutory Prohibitions

We agree with the recommendations to maintain the prohibition on all forms of cloning; germ-line alteration; the marketing of gametes and embryos; the transfer of animal gametes, embryos or foetuses into a human being; the use of any human gametes previously transplanted into an animal; the maintenance of an embryo outside a woman’s body; and embryo creation from an embryo or foetus.

We are very pleased with the Committee’s intention to ban the creation of embryos solely for research purposes. We are concerned, however, with the proposed rewording of the prohibition even though we understand that it is motivated by a sincere desire to research egg storage techniques that will ultimately reduce the number of embryos produced. Given our understanding that embryos are human beings that must be respected, we can not support any procedure that results in the destruction of the embryo.

We affirm the Committee’s adding of the creation of animal/human hybrids to the list of prohibitions.

We applaud the Committee’s strengthening of the prohibition against sex selection but are concerned that by permitting sex selection for health reasons the Committee allows discrimination on the grounds of disability. There should be consistency in the application of human rights principles as they relate to sex and ability.

In strengthening the provisions against commercial surrogacy and discouraging altruistic surrogacy, the Committee has recognized 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. They violate the unity and dignity of marriage and bring about and manifest a rupture between the genetic, gestational and social parenthood and the responsibility for the upbringing of children.

With respect to the prohibition against using gametes and embryos without consent, we wish to underline that one does not own an embryo in the way one might be said to own a gamete. Consent is not sufficient for interventions on an embryo unless it is for the good of the embryo.

Section 6: Controlled Activities

We would like to thank members of the Committee for the moral seriousness with which they approached the issue of embryo research and the respect which they showed to people holding sharply differing views on this subject.

The Committee heard compelling evidence that the human embryo is a human being and has tried very hard to provide “a measure of respect and protection for the embryo that is based on its potential for personhood”. This respect is found in its recommendation that there be significant improvement in the clarification of certain definitions in the draft legislation and its finding “the term ‘human reproductive material’ offensive in its inclusion of embryo.” It is also evident in its recommendation that there be regulations to limit the number of eggs harvested and embryos produced.

Recommendation 14 also springs from a genuine and serious effort to protect the embryo. It states that the “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

Given the pressure on the Committee to give the green light for embryonic stem cell research, this recommendation was a very bold step and clear recognition that the embryo is not simply biological material but a being who must be respected as a human subject. Nevertheless, we believe that this recommendation cannot stand either as a matter of principle or in practice.

One either accepts that the human embryo is a human being whose life cannot be taken or one does not. There is no in between. The attempt to find a middle ground lacks moral coherence.

On the practical level, it will be very difficult to maintain the limits that have been set given the scientific and commercial pressures. As well, the experience with other moral issues illustrates that once the door is open it is very difficult shut.

We urge that all research on embryos as well as any treatment that is not for their benefit be prohibited. We join with many others in encouraging the Government to focus on allowing research on adult stem cells (non-embryonic stem cells). This research is showing remarkable promise and does not involve the destruction of human life. It is an opportunity to both promote scientific progress and respect human dignity.

Section 7: The Regulations

One of the concerns that we had about the draft legislation was that so much was left to regulations on which the public traditionally has very little opportunity for input. We were, therefore, very pleased to see the Committee’s recommendation 18 which would require proposed regulations to be laid before the House of Commons and referred to the Standing Committee on Health. It is reassuring to have this measure of Parliamentary oversight.

Section 8: Health Information

Without getting into the details, we support the Committee’s clear call for the collection and maintenance of registries to facilitate accountability, transparency and surveillance in the area of assisted human reproduction.

Section 10: Regulatory Body

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” has achieved a good balance between independence and accountability. Given what is at stake in the assisted reproductive technologies and related research, we were pleased to see that the Committee considered accountability to Parliament essential.

Section 12: Additional Concerns

We strongly endorse the Committee’s recommendation that the Patent Act  “be amended to prohibit patenting of humans as well as any human materials.” This is in keeping with Committee’s strong stand against commercialization and respect for human dignity and integrity. We hope to be part of the continuing dialogue.


We thank the Minister of Health for giving Canadians the opportunity to be part of the development of legislation through this process of tabling draft legislation. We thank the Standing Committee on Health for having invited our organization to present our perspective on these vital questions. We thank the Committee most especially for the seriousness with which they approached their task and the care they took with these issues that involve the very meaning of human life and our living together as Canadians.