National Affairs Rory Leishman

At a White House ceremony on July 19, President George Bush explained his decision to veto a bill to fund embryonic stem cell research. He pointed out: “Embryonic stem cells come from human embryos that are destroyed for their cells. Each of these human embryos is a unique human life with inherent dignity and matchless value.”

To underline this point, Bush introduced several families with adoptive children whom he had invited to the White House. All of these children were born from so-called “surplus” frozen embryos that were no longer wanted by their natural parents for in-vitro fertilization (IVF).

Bush contended: “These boys and girls are not spare parts. They remind us of what is lost when embryos are destroyed in the name of research. They remind us that we all begin our lives as a small collection of cells. And they remind us that in our zeal for new treatments and cures, America must never abandon our fundamental morals.”

On this issue, German Chancellor Angela Merkel agrees with Bush. Her conservative government, like its social democratic predecessor, prohibits all production of embryonic stem cells, whether publicly or privately funded. In conformity with this policy, German Research Minister Annette Schavan persuaded the European Union on June 29 to cease all funding for research that destroys human embryos. “We must conserve human life from its conception,” she said. “We want no financial incentives to kill embryos.”

In contrast to the Bush and Merkel administrations, the Conservative government of Canada funds the destruction of human embryos for the purposes of research on reproduction and embryonic stem cells. This policy was initiated by the previous Liberal government of Canada and authorized by Bill C-6, the 2004 Assisted Human Reproduction Act.
While most Liberals, New Democrats and members of the Bloc Quebecois supported the passage of Bill C-6, Prime Minister Stephen Harper and most of his Conservative colleagues were opposed. Speaking for the Conservatives during debate on the legislation, Rob Merrifield denounced the bill as an attack on the sanctity of human life. He affirmed: “Human life is special; it is not to be disregarded. It is not to be created for the sake of destruction. We should respect life right from conception to natural death.”

As it is, section 5(1)(b) of Bill C-6 stipulates that: “No person shall knowingly create an in-vitro embryo for any purpose other than creating a human being or improving or providing instruction in assisted reproduction procedures.” In conformity with this provision of the law, the Canadian Institute of Health Research (CIHR), the federal agency responsible for regulating stem cell research, directed that embryonic stem cell researchers can only use embryos that were created for human reproduction through IVF, but are no longer wanted by the parents for this purpose.

Many researchers chafed at this ruling, because it is easier to harvest stem cells from freshly created embryos rather than frozen embryos left over in an IVF clinic. As a result, the CIHR has reversed course. In a ruling on June 28, it held that patients who are about to undergo assisted reproduction can be asked to consent to the creation of fresh embryos for both reproduction and stem cell research.

This new regulation is patently illegal. It clearly violates the plain words of Bill C-6. Yet neither Health Minister Tony Clement nor Justice Minister Vic Toews has done anything to get the regulation quashed.

In 2004, Harper, Toews, Merrifield and other Conservatives opposed Bill C-6 because it failed to respect the sanctity of human life. Now, they should at least insist that all researchers respect the express will of Parliament in that legislation that no one shall deliberately create a human life for the purpose of destroying that life in stem cell research.

Ideally, Parliament should improve upon Bill C-6, by following the German example in outlawing all death-dealing embryonic stem cell research. The money used for this malign purpose could be put to much better use in funding in Canada the kind of promising lines of research underway in the United Sates, Australia and Japan that aim to create embryonic-like pluripotent stem cells by ethical means that do not entail the killing of human beings.