Biotechnology and Bioethics: Catholic and Scientific Communities Discuss Human Life Issues

Wednesday, June 09 1999

(Ottawa — CCCB) — Forty representatives from the Catholic Church and the scientific community gathered in Ottawa, May 29-30, to discuss recent developments in biotechnology, and to reflect on the ethical issues raised by genetic engineering, especially in dealing with human life.

The meeting, organized by the Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF), brought together experts in the fields of new reproductive and genetic technologies, the law and ethics. Among the participants were François Pothier of the Department of Animal Sciences at Laval University in Quebec City; Michael Coughlin of the Ethics Department at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Hamilton; Thérèse Leroux from the Centre for Research in Public Law at the Université de Montréal; Suzanne Scorsone, anthropologist and Director of Communications and Family Life in the Archdiocese of Toronto; Robert Allore, SJ, biologist and ethicist; Ron Mercier, SJ, Dean of Regis College in Toronto; and Bernard Keating of the Faculty of Theology at Laval University in Quebec City. Several bishops, including COLF Chairperson Archbishop Adam Exner of Vancouver, also attended.

The Forum examined the most recent trends in biotechnology, including: the detection of genes associated with serious illness; transplants of cells, tissues and organs from animal donors (xenotransplantation); the cultivation of cells from human tissues (stem cells) to be used for replacement of damaged human cells; cloning and transgenetics (manipulating animals genetically).

The presentations sparked a variety of reactions. While most agreed the recent developments were beneficial for humanity, some questioned their significance. “Biotechnology raises fundamental questions and requires that we redefine our understanding of humanity, life and death which once were thought to be well defined” said Simonne Plourde, OSU, a member of the Necker Medical Ethics and Public Health Laboratory at Université René Descartes in Paris.

Questions raised touched on the limits of research, the threat to privacy, the use of embryos by researchers and the end of life. Some feared that in this age of big business, the commercial goals of large corporations that finance research in biotechnology would brush aside all ethical debate on the sanctity of life and human dignity in favour of profits. “When business claims ownership through patents, then business wants to make the decisions about who can do what with ‘their’ property — and the bottom line is profit,” stated Rev. Mark Miller, C.Ss.R, a clinical bioethicist at St. Paul’s Hospital in Saskatoon.

A consensus developed from the discussions, held at the offices of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), that included the need to participate in the public debate on the issues and to maintain a dialogue between the Catholic Church and scientific researchers. It was also deemed imperative that information and education campaigns be developed to inform the faithful of the importance of being aware of these social issues. “Will we leave these questions to Government, specialists and entrepreneurs, or will we speak out when needed?” asked Benjamin Simard, a veterinary doctor and permanent deacon from Beloeil, Quebec, who annually meets with close to 4,000 students to reflect on the impact of the development of these technologies.

Despite certain fears being raised during the session, Archbishop Adam Exner of Vancouver was very pleased by the dialogue between the experts in the field of biotechnology and representatives of the Catholic community in Canada. “I believe that these two days of discussion permit us now to open the doors of hope and that this is only a beginning,” he said.

The Catholic Organization for Life and Family is a joint initiative of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Knights of Columbus. Its mandate is to promote respect for life, human dignity and the essential role of the family.