The CCCB Position on Bill C-47, Proposed Legislation on New Reproductive and Genetic Technologies

Monday, October 14 1996


The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) welcomes the opportunity to participate in the discussion and reflection on Bill C-47. The bill involves matters of profound meaning and deep concern to Canadians about the origins of human life, respect for human life and dignity, and care of the vulnerable.

The CCCB was founded more than fifty years ago and is the national association of Catholic bishops in Canada. The bishops of the seventy-five Catholic dioceses are charged with the pastoral care of approximately 12.5 million Catholics across the country.

The CCCB has been active in bringing a moral, philosophical and pastoral perspective to a number of critical public policy issues. In particular, it has been a strong and consistent advocate for the promotion of human dignity and the protection of human life from its very beginning to natural end.

General Appreciation of the Bill

The CCCB would like to commend the Government for introducing legislation that not only replaces the voluntary moratorium with mandatory legislation but also increases the number of uses of the technologies that are prohibited.

The prohibition of dehumanizing practices – such as the marketing of sperm, ova, zygotes, embryos or foetuses, sex selection for non-medical reasons, commercial surrogacy and the retrieval of sperm and eggs from cadavers or foetuses for fertilization or implantation – shows serious respect for human life and dignity as well as the values and sensibilities of Canadians.

Banning sex selection for non-medical reasons is a strong statement about the equality of girls and women. Prohibiting the commercialization of human reproduction and the retrieval of gametes from those who are dead or not yet born is a reminder that our beginnings are profoundly personal, deeply human and involve more than simple biology. The provisions about commercial surrogacy recognize that these arrangements contribute to the exploitation of women, especially those who are poor, the objectification of children and the commodification of the process of reproduction from beginning to end.

While the CCCB supports the prohibition of the thirteen uses of reproductive and genetic technologies listed in the Bill, we request that it be amended to include refinements and additions so that the Bill will clearly prohibit interventions that may affect the integrity or dignity of unborn human life at any stage of its development.

Particular Affirmations

  • The CCCB welcomes the acknowledgements in the preamble to the Bill that:

1) certain reproductive technologies can be a significant threat to human dignity, health and safety;

2) there are health and ethical dangers inherent in the commercialization of human reproduction; and

3) measures are needed to protect the best interests of children affected by the technologies.

  • The Catholic Church along with legal and medical opinion holds that a human being exists from the time of conception. Therefore, the CCCB appreciates the development in the definition section of the Act which does not refer to a “pre-embryo” but defines a “zygote” as a human organism during the first fourteen days of its development following fertilization.
  • The CCCB supports the objectives of the Bill to protect the health and safety of Canadians who use reproductive and genetic technologies, to ensure the appropriate use of human reproductive materials (sperm and ova) and to protect the dignity of all persons especially women and children.

Overriding Concern

The main concern for the CCCB about the Bill is interventions that may affect the dignity or integrity of human life, whether it be described as a zygote, embryo, or foetus.

Most legal and medical opinion accepts that a human being exists from the time of conception. In a 1989 Working Paper, Crimes Against the Foetus, the Law Reform Commission of Canada, for the purpose of its paper, defined foetus to include all stages of development from conception to birth. In affirming that the product of conception is a human being they stated:

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.1

In testimony before the Legislative Committee studying Bill C-43 on abortion during March 1990, a renowned human geneticist, Dr. Jérôme LeJeune, said:

We know, beyond any possible doubt, that when the sperm enters the ovum all the information required to make a human being… is present. We also know, with the same degree of certainty, that no subsequent genetic information, after fertilization, is passed on to a human being. This is neither the opinion of a moralist nor the hypothesis of a metaphysician, it is a very specific observation made in the course of experiment.

If it were not true that all the information required to define each human being is present at fertilization, in-vitro fertilization would not be possible. If a human being did not exist at fertilization, it would be impossible for a sperm to enter an ovum in a test tube and for the embryo that may result to be transferred to a woman who is not the biological mother.

In other words, the fact that in-vitro fertilization exists proves, beyond a doubt, that human life begins at fertilization.2

The Canadian Physicians for Life in their brief to the same Legislative Committee stated that:

The human foetus is a human being from conception, a fact that is no longer disputed in serious medical discussion. The genetic code of a unique new human individual first exists at conception, when a human egg and sperm unite to form a single fertilized ovum…. It is a scientific error to refer to the human embryo or foetus as a “potential human” ; it is a human with potential. The same can be said of a child or young adult.3

For our part, the Catholic Church believes that life comes from God in whose image every one is created. Human life and dignity must therefore be protected and respected from the very beginning.

…the fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence, that is to say from the moment the zygote has formed, demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being in his or her bodily and spiritual totality. The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his or her rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life.4

Believing as we do, and recognizing that major professional opinion in society agrees that conception results in a human being, we urge that all human beings from their very beginning be treated with the utmost respect and dignity. This key principle of respecting and protecting human life from its earliest existence has obvious ramifications for certain sections of the Bill.

Particular Concerns

  • In the definition section of the Bill we would prefer that embryo, foetus, and zygote be defined as human beings rather than as human organisms.
  • The preamble and objectives should refer to Parliament’s interest in protecting human life.
  • We are advised that the term capable of differentiation in section 4 (1) (b) may be too broad, referring to the specialization of tissues beginning at the outset of the third week. Terms specifying the unacceptability of human/animal hybrids from conception would be better expressive of what we believe the Government intends and it is the only position that we would support.
  • The explanatory notes that accompanied the Bill indicated that it will prohibit research on human embryos 14 days after conception. The Bill does not appear to make this intention explicit. In any event, the CCCB urges Parliament to amend the Bill to ban any research or experimentation on zygotes, embryos and foetuses unless it is clearly therapeutic for the zygote, embryo or foetus and no other reliable forms of therapy are available. Non-therapeutic interventions do not respect the dignity of unborn human beings and put their lives at risk.
  • We commend the Government for section 4 (1)(k) which prohibits the fertilization of an ovum outside the body for the purposes of research. However, what is to prevent research once the zygote has been produced, albeit for other purposes?
  • The Catholic Church accepts techniques of assisted reproduction only within marriage in very special circumstances. We realize that there are those who do not share our position.

In the practice of in-vitro fertilization the number of embryos produced is often greater than that needed for implantation in the woman’s womb. Without in any way endorsing in-vitro fertilization, but desirous of “limiting the harm”5 of this procedure, we ask that the Bill be amended to prohibit the creation of “spare” embryos and the freezing of them. The freezing of embryos, even when carried out in order to preserve the life of an embryo – cryopreservation – constitutes an offence against the respect due to human beings by exposing them to grave risks of death or harm to their physical integrity and depriving them, at least temporarily, of maternal shelter and gestation, thus placing them in a situation in which further offences and manipulation are possible.6

Over this summer, the world came face to face with the bizarre and unacceptable measures that some may take when “spare embryos” are no longer wanted or needed. In England on August 1, 1996, more than 3300 frozen embryos were destroyed under the five-year storage limit set by the 1991 Human Fertility and Embryology Act. It is the ultimate paradox that embryos that were created to assist reproduction should have been so carelessly discarded.

The experience in England is a cautionary tale. Do we still need convincing that there should be an immediate halt to the creation and freezing of extra embryos? Even for those who accept in-vitro fertilization, should not the emphasis shift to developing means to freeze ova or other technology that does not rely on drugs to induce superovulation? The connection between the process of in vitro fertilization and the destruction of human embryos must end.

  • Section 4(1)(h) should be amended to include reference to the foetus.
  • We are pleased that section 6 prohibits the marketing of any ovum, sperm, zygote, embryo or foetus. Foetal tissue, however, should be added to this section.
  • We were quite surprised that section 11 of the Bill prevents prosecutions being instituted unless consented to by or on behalf of the Attorney General of Canada. It is our understanding that such a provision is rare because of the possibilities of political interference. In addition, there could be significant differences in how the law is enforced across the country. Moreover, it seems particularly inappropriate in a Bill that is intended to protect the health, safety and human dignity of Canadians. This provision raises questions about the Government’s commitment to prohibiting dehumanizing reproductive technologies. It is preferable for the usual procedure to apply.

Catholic Teaching on Techniques of Artificial Reproduction

Members of the Catholic community know that the Church teaches that assisted conception is only acceptable between a husband and a wife in very specific circumstances which assist the natural processes of generation and do not pose undue risks for the parent or child.

The desire for children is deeply personal and very powerful; the suffering of those who are infertile can be overwhelming and at times inconsolable. Yet, no matter how good the intentions or how wonderful the results, the Church cannot accept techniques that put human life or dignity at risk through the creation and freezing of spare embryos. Pope John Paul II in his recent encyclical The Gospel of Life summarized the Church’s teaching in this way:

Apart from the fact that they are morally unacceptable, since they separate procreation from the fully human context of the conjugal act, these techniques have a high rate of failure: not just failure in relation to fertilization but with regard to the subsequent development of the embryo which is exposed to the risk of death, generally within a very short space in time. Furthermore, the number of embryos produced is often greater than that needed for implantation in the woman’s womb, and these so-called “spare embryos” are then destroyed or used for research which, under the pretext of scientific or medical progress, in fact reduces human life to the level of simple biological material to be freely disposed of.7

Our participation in the public debate does not signal acceptance of these techniques of artificial reproduction. On the contrary, we hope that our contribution to the process will strengthen the bill so that human life at all stages of development will be protected and human dignity respected, especially that of women and children.


Bill C-47 is an important initiative and goes a long way toward achieving its objectives. It is obvious that the Royal Commission and the Government have treated this enormously complex, sensitive and mysterious area with great care and respect. We are confident our suggestions for amendments will be treated in the same fashion.

We close with the words of Pope John Paul II from his Encyclical:

The Gospel of Life is for the whole of human society. To be actively pro-life is to contribute to the renewal of society through the promotion of the common good. It is impossible to further the common good without acknowledging and defending the right to life, upon which all the other inalienable rights of individuals are founded and from which they develop. A society lacks solid foundations when, on the one hand, it asserts values such as the dignity of the person, justice and peace, but then, on the other hand, radically acts to the contrary by allowing or tolerating a variety of ways in which human life is devalued and violated, especially where it is weak or marginalized. Only respect for life can be the foundation and guarantee of the most precious and essential goods of society, such as democracy and peace.8

1. Law Reform Commission of Canada, Crimes Against the Foetus, Working Paper 58, 1989, p. 50.
2.Jérôme LeJeune, Minutes of Proceedings and Evidence of the Legislative Committee on Bill C-43, House of Commons, March 21, 1990, Issue No. 18, pp. 7-8.
3.Canadian Physicians for Life, Minutes of Proceedings and Evidence of the Legislative Committee on Bill C-43, House of Commons, March 6, 1990, Issue No. 11, Appendix, p. 7.
4. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation, 1987, published by the CCCB, p. 13.
5. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 1995, published by the CCCB, No. 73.
6. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation, p. 19.
7. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, No. 14.
8. John Paul II. Evangelium Vitae, No. 101.

Respectfully submitted by the CCCB Executive.