Pro-life and religious groups and opposition parties generally praised the House of Commons Health Committee’s recommendations on reproductive and experimental technologies, but condemned its support for the destruction of human embryos for research purposes.

The committee, while opposed to the creation of embryos for the purpose of research, would permit licensed researchers to use so-called surplus embryos from fertility treatment (in vitro fertilization) “subject to the consent of the donors.”

Campaign Life Coalition national president Jim Hughes said he doesn’t understand how “any decent person” could “welcome the use and destruction of a defenceless human being for research purposes.” Nonetheless, Health Minister Allan Rock did, saying, “I welcome the recommendation of the majority that (embryonic) stem cell research be permitted in Canada.”

Rock said he supports ESCR, in part, because it would allow Canada to keep up with other countries that support such research. Hughes said that instead of supporting morally dubious science, “Canada should lead the world in protecting human life, not rush to keep up with those who consider human beings as fodder for research labs.”

The committee recommended licences for research on embryos “be issued only after a clear demonstration that non-embryonic sources would not achieve the sought- after research outcomes.” Pro-lifers wonder why embryonic research would be permitted at all considering that it is immoral and that proven, ethical alternatives exist. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said the “committee’s decision is all the more puzzling” because it heard evidence of the promise of adult stem cell research, which does not involve harming human life.”

CLC said that licensing scientists to use “leftover” human embryos with the consent of the “owners” is wrong because it turns children into commodities. Hughes said, “Children are not owned by their parents. They are not chattel. They are creatures endowed with inalienable, inherent dignity which must be respected to the utmost.” He said it is shocking and abhorrent that “Canada now proposes to use human babies as fodder for experimentation.”

The report dealt with much more than embryo research, however. In its report, entitled Assisted Human Reproduction: Building Families, the committee opposed commercial surrogacy, all forms of human cloning and genetic manipulation. The committee was asked by Rock to provide recommendations on the draft legislation he offered on May 3, 2001 (Proposals for Legislation Governing Draft Legislation on Assisted Human Reproduction) and, in the words of the committee, “to advise on options for a possible regulatory body that would govern the implementation of the legislation, monitor developments, and recommend future changes.”

A small but significant change was the recommendation that the proposed legislation clearly prohibit the creation of an embryo from an existing embryo or fetus so as “to protect against the creation of children whose genetic parents never lived as individuals.” The committee found that “the wording of this prohibition is very awkward and unclear as to what activity is to be banned,” and outlined ways to make clear the legislation’s intent.

Likewise, the committee agrees with the draft legislation that sex selection should be a prohibited practice but was “concerned … that the stated prohibition does not include sex selection through genetic pre-implantation diagnosis of embryos,” because, “It only addresses such procedures as gamete manipulation and modification of fertilization techniques that would increase the probability of obtaining an embryo of one sex or the other.” The committee recommended all sex selection procedures be banned except for “disorders linked to the sex chromosomes.”

In a somewhat surprising, but welcome move, the committee recommended all human cloning, both reproductive and therapeutic, be banned.

The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the CCCB had mixed reactions to the report, with both applauding the ban on human cloning while criticizing the allowing of the destruction of human embryos for experimental purposes.

Bruce Clemenger, director of the EFC’s Centre for Faith and Public Life said, “While we applaud the clear support for the prohibitions contained in the draft bill, the Health Committee missed the opportunity to close the door on the practice of sacrificing of human embryos for scientific research, a practice that is contrary to a deep respect of human life.”

The report also limits the number of embryos created for IVF, even calling into question the motivation for creating such staggering surpluses of embryos. The EFC’s Clemenger said that doesn’t go nearly far enough, saying, “Existing embryos should be placed for adoption, not destroyed in research.”

Like the EFC, the CCCB expressed its agreement with the prohibitions in the report, but added that it was “deeply disappointed that the committee has decided to allow research on embryos because the research kills the embryo.” The CCCB noted that, “No amount of healing or good can justify the deliberate killing of a human being or using a human being as a means to an end.”

The bishops’ conference warned that the committee recommends what amounts to a lethal slippery slope. “Having abandoned the basic principle that human life cannot be destroyed for the potential benefit of others, it will be very difficult to maintain the limits that have been set on embryo research.”

The Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties both issued dissenting reports from the official health committee recommendations on ESCR – the CA suggested there be a moratorium on ESCR, whereas the Tories recommended a ban.

The CA dissenting opinion was written by the party’s science and technology critic, Preston Manning, and health committee members Diane Ablonczy, James Lunney and Rob Merrifield.

The minority report issued by the CA, demanded a clause in the legislation calling for “respect for human life.” The CA report stated, “We feel that the greater problem with embryonic stem cell research is that it involves the planned destruction of the embryo, which is contrary to the ethical commitment to respect human individuality, dignity, integrity, and life.” The CA minority report suggested a three-year prohibition on ESCR and that government funding emphasize adult or somatic stem cell research.

The CA also called for a free vote in the House of Commons on all stages of such legislation. Furthermore, the party said legislation should “include a directive to the effect that where there is a conflict between ethical acceptability and scientific possibility, the ethically acceptable course of action shall prevail.”