Statement by the President Of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops On the Passage by the House of Commons of Bill C-13, An Act Respecting Assisted Human Reproduction

Tuesday, October 28 2003

The Legislative Process

On 28 October 2003, the House of Commons passed Bill C-13 and it is now on its way to the Senate for debate.

Like many other organizations and sectors of society, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) has taken a great interest in the ethical, legal and social implications of the reproductive and genetic technologies ever since the Royal Commission on the New Reproductive Technologies was mandated on 15 October 1989.1

When the House of Commons began its consideration of this bill at the beginning of the third reading process in January 2003, the CCCB issued a statement requesting that the bill be amended to prohibit research on embryos and to ensure that all forms and possibilities of cloning are covered. The statement concluded with the prayer that members of the House of Commons “be given the wisdom and grace to do what is best for those now living and for those to come.”

The House of Commons has concluded its debate on this highly complex and significant bill. It is clear that many members of the House have worked long and hard in attempting to protect human life and dignity; we are particularly pleased that an amendment passed that makes the prohibition on cloning more effective.

Throughout this most recent chapter in the legislative process, beginning with the draft legislation that was proposed in May 2001, we have recognized that there is much in the proposals that could be supported, including the prohibitions of reproductive and therapeutic cloning, commercial surrogacy, germ-line alteration, the marketing of sperm, ova and embryos, and the acceptance that it would be offensive to include “embryo” in the definition of “reproductive material”.

As the Senate of Canada begins its debate on Bill C-13, we wish to reiterate that while there is much that is positive in the bill, it is also deeply flawed. In what follows, we shall first summarize our vision of the human embryo as an individual who ought to be protected and also provide some guidance to Catholic legislators with respect to their responsibility for the common good.

The humanity of the embryo

Over the course of many months of testimony, the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health heard both scientists and ethicists define the embryo as a human being. Even those who consider the term “human being” more philosophical than biological would agree that embryos are human, that we all began as embryos, that human life unfolds as a continuum, that in a very real sense the embryo is one of us.2

Both reason and faith inform the Catholic position that “the human being is to be respected and treated as a person” from the beginning. This means that when it comes to treatment or research, the embryo must be treated as a subject and not as an object or a means to an end. No treatment must be undertaken that does not benefit or respect the integrity of the embryo. The problem with embryonic stem cell research is that while the research has the potential to benefit those living with disease, it actually harms the embryo who dies in the process. Ultimately, the embryo is exploited for the benefit of others.

Some argue that the embryos who remain after fertility treatments will die anyway, so why not use them in order to do some good? It is not necessary that we do something with these embryos so that some good or meaning will be given to their lives. There is good and meaning in their lives simply because they are intrinsically human which also means from a faith perspective that they are known and loved by God. It is unnecessary to search for meaning on their behalf, especially when such a search is really nothing more than a way of justifying the decision to release human embryos for research purposes.

While we realize that our position on protection of the embryo will preclude embryonic stem cell research in which so many hopes have been invested, we are convinced that adult stem cell research, which is showing remarkable promise, can still go forward and has every potential to fulfill those hopes. We could thereby signal to the world, in a global arena influenced by strong commercial interests in the area of the reproductive technologies, that Canada is committed to honouring, protecting and including everyone in the human family.

The responsibility of Catholic legislators for the common good

The deliberations of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health and the vigorous debate in the House of Commons show that this bill is highly complex, both from a scientific and ethical perspective, and that there are many competing interests involved. The debate has also shown there are many men and women of good will and good faith who have done their best and will continue to do so to protect human life and promote human dignity.

While Catholic politicians must always seek to protect human life and dignity to the fullest extent possible, there can be legitimate difference on how to achieve this objective. It is, therefore, not our intention to tell Catholic Senators how to vote because it is their responsibility to discern the best way to protect human life and dignity after reflecting on all of the resources available to them. This discernment certainly includes Church teaching, but also the Senators’ own personal reflections on the political and social realities they face. The well-known 1995 encyclical of Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), discusses the exercise of prudential judgment by politicians who are responsible for promoting the common good. In Section 73 the Pope states:

A particular problem of conscience can arise in cases where a legislative vote would be decisive for the passage of a more restricted law, aimed at limiting the number of authorized abortions, in place of a more permissive law already passed or ready to be voted on…. In a case like the one just mentioned, when it is not possible to overturn or completely abrogate a pro-abortion law, an elected official, whose absolute personal opposition to procured abortion was well known, could licitly support proposals aimed at limiting the harm done by such a law and at lessening its negative consequences at the level of general opinion and public morality. This does not in fact represent an illicit cooperation with an unjust law, but rather a legitimate and proper attempt to limit its evil aspects.

This section of Evangelium Vitae is quoted in the recent Doctrinal Note from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “On Some Questions regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life”, 24 November 2002. The Doctrinal Note also reminds Catholics that they have the right and duty to recall society to a deeper understanding of human life (no. 4, para. 1) which includes the common good (no. 2, para. 2, and no. 3, para. 1), the integral good of the human person (no. 4, para. 3), and specifically the rights of the human embryo (no. 4, para. 3).

Some of the specific matters that Senators will consider as they discern how to address this particular legislation are: the positive elements of the bill and the measure of protection that they provide to the embryo, the tragic failure of the bill to prohibit embryo research, and the consequences should the present legislative vacuum continue.

We pray that the deliberations in the Senate will be enlightened by reason, strengthened by faith and enlivened with hope.

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

1 During the last 12 years the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) has made numerous public interventions, as has the Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF) which was jointly founded by the CCCB and the Knights of Columbus to promote respect for human life and dignity and the essential role of the family. The following is a list of their major interventions, excluding numerous letters to the Minister of Health:

2 This and the following three paragraphs are from the CCCB presentation on 13 June 2002 and the COLF presentation on 19 November 2002.