The CCCB Response to the Discussion Paper Released by Health Canada entitled "New Reproductive and Genetic Technologies - Setting Boundries, Enhancing Health."
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (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, the CCCB has been a strong and consistent advocate for the promotion of human dignity and the protection of human life from its very beginning to its natural end.
The CCCB appreciates that the Government is continuing to involve the public in decisions around the New Reproductive and Genetic Technologies (NRGTs). These technologies appeal to the imagination because they celebrate the wonders of science; they awaken the heart and touch the soul because they are about the mysteries of procreation.
The following passage in the Message from the Minister at the beginning of the Discussion Paper captures the central issues in the public debate very well:
These new forms of interventions in the reproductive process have created hope for many Canadians. For others, they are a source of unease, raising profound social, ethical, legal and health questions that challenge our most fundamental values. In many cases, they threaten human dignity, and treat reproduction, women and children as commodities. 1
Who cannot sympathize with the intense desire to have a child – the most precious gift of all? But can this desire be at the expense of human dignity and even life itself? Given the deeply human and fragile nature of what is at stake, it is important for the Government to take a very careful and respectful approach.
The CCCB has prepared a separate position paper on Bill C-47 which prohibits thirteen unacceptable uses of the new reproductive and genetic technologies. The present text outlines the points or directions in the Discussion Paper on the proposed regulatory regime for acceptable uses of the technologies that we can affirm and those about which we have serious reservations.
- The CCCB thanks the Government for promoting discussion on the proposed regulatory scheme for NRGTs in advance of introducing legislation. This process gives the public more time to become familiar with the terminology and issues and to participate in a process that so deeply involves all Canadians.
- The Guiding Ethical Principles in so far as they include balancing individual and collective interests, equality, protecting the vulnerable, appropriate use of medical treatment, non-commercialization of reproduction, and accountability resonate with us.
- The special concern for women and the children born of assisted reproduction is appreciated. These technologies have serious physical and emotional ramifications for women; the best interests of the children, including their physical health and emotional well-being, must be of paramount importance.
- We support the emphasis on infertility prevention. Catholic health care facilities would be able to contribute to this initiative.
- Even though the 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. Given this reality and in view of rapid scientific development, we support the creation of a national body to regulate uses of reproductive technologies that do not endanger human life and to assist in identifying those that should be banned in the future.
A national regulatory body should establish common standards based on sound ethical principles, grounded in respect for human life and dignity. Membership on the body should be multi-disciplinary, include a wide variety of perspectives, and be renewed on a regular basis. The national body should be accountable not only to the Minister of Health but also to Parliament through annual reports and appearances before House or Senate Committees.
We encourage the proposal to set up four registries to collect information on donor/offspring, the success rates of fertility treatments, the effects of drug treatments on infertility and the health impact of NRGTs on children born from them. Accurate information is essential to good policy making and vital to the health of women and children and informed consent.
- Although the Guiding Ethical Principles resonate with us, the absence of respect for life from the list is a serious omission. Protection of human life from its beginning should be foundational to the policy framework. Indeed, the Royal Commission included it as one of the guiding principles for making decisions about the regulation or prohibition of these technologies.
There has been no attempt to prioritize the guiding principles or to account for the fact that different sectors of society would apply them differently.
In the balancing of individual and collective interests, consideration must be given not only to the interests of society and identifiable groups, but also to the rights of religious institutions and individual health care workers to follow their own moral codes and consciences.
- The CCCB’s major and overriding concern is that the Discussion Paper proposes to licence and regulate practices that should be added to Bill C-47 and prohibited. Practices such as research on and storage of zygotes, embryos and foetal tissue threaten the dignity and integrity of human life. Legal, medical, and ethical opinion confirm that a human being exists from the time of conception. A zygote, therefore, cannot be considered as biological material to be manipulated at will.
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. 2
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. 3
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.4
It is therefore medically inaccurate for the Discussion Paper to include embryos in reproductive materials or to speak of their potential to form human life or state that human embryos may eventually become fetuses that become human beings.5 What is the basis for assuming that zygotes, embryos or foetuses are not human beings?
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. 6
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. The Government has taken a very positive step in the Discussion Paper by emphasizing the rights of children born as a result of these technologies. We ask you to go further and recognize the interests and rights of these children before birth.
- We urge an amendment to Bill C-47 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.
- Without in any way endorsing in-vitro fertilization, but desirous of “limiting the harm”7 of this procedure, we strongly support amending Bill C-47 to prohibit the creation of “spare” zygotes or 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.8
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.
- While there is no moral impediment to prenatal diagnosis in and of itself and, particularly when used for therapeutic reasons for the child or as preparation to welcome a child with special needs, it all too often sets the stage for terminating children with disabilities. We appreciate the understanding shown in the Discussion Paper by this statement – What is required is a greater social understanding of the origins, nature, extent, and severity of disabilities, and of disability as part of the human condition.9
- We strongly object to the use of fetal tissue that has been obtained from induced abortions in medical research, transplantation or any other procedures. We encourage medical research into disorders such as Parkinson’s disease by other modalities.
- We are concerned about the reference at the end of the Discussion Paper to the development of guiding principles for a framework for sexual and reproductive health. It is doubtful that there is the necessary consensus for the ethical content of such guidelines. In any event, it would be critical for any process to be very public and transparent. The rights of parents and religiously based educational and health care institutions would also have to be respected, and these stakeholders involved in the consultations.
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. As difficult as it may be to accept, there is no right to a child; a child is the most gracious gift of the marriage – a gift from God.
When they transmit life to the child, a new human ‘thou’ becomes a part of the horizon of the ‘us’ of the spouses…. The process from conception and growth in the mother’s womb to birth makes it possible to create a space within which the new creature can be revealed as a ‘gift’; indeed this is what it is from the beginning….The newborn child gives itself to its parents by the very fact of its coming into existence. Its existence is already a gift, the first gift of the Creator to the creature.10
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.11
Our participation in the public debate does not signal acceptance of these techniques of artificial reproduction. On the contrary, we hope that our contribution will enhance the protection of human life and promotion of human dignity, especially that of women and children.
Notwithstanding our reservations and serious concerns, we do believe that the Government has made important progress in setting boundaries around these rapidly expanding technologies both in the provisions of Bill C-47 and in the proposal for a regulatory scheme. The concluding passage of the Message from the Minister in the Discussion Paper seems to be a fitting way to conclude:
New reproductive and genetic technologies concern the future of our society. How we manage them will be no less than a statement of who we are and what we value.12
Respectfully submitted by the CCCB Executive Committee.
1.The Minister of Health, New Reproductive and Genetic Technologies – Setting Boundaries, Enhancing Health, June, 1996, p.1.
2. Law Reform Commission of Canada, Crimes Against the Foetus, Working Paper 58,
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. Setting Boundaries, Enhancing Health, pp. 27, 28, 44.
6. 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.
7. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 1995, published by the CCCB, No. 73.
8. Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction on Respect for Human Life i
9. Setting Boundaries, Enhancing Health, p. 22.
10. John Paul II, Letter to Families, 1994, No. 11.
11. John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, No. 14.
12. Setting Boundaries, Enhancing Health, p. 1.