Under the proposed Canadian legislation governing assisted human reproduction, a person may be permitted to engage in the following activities provided he or she possesses a licence to do so under the authority of the minister of Health, and provided that he or she has obtained the necessary legally valid informed consent of the relevant person(s).

  1. To create an embryo.
  2. To create an embryo to facilitate human reproduction.
  3. To use an in vitro embryo, or part of one, for research, prevention, diagnosis or treatment of disease, injury or disability.
  4. To collect, store, transfer, destroy or import into Canada any sperm, ovum or in vitro embryo for the purpose of creating an embryo or facilitating human reproduction.
  5. To create a chimera for any purpose including research. A “chimera” means a) a human embryo or fetus into which a cell of any non-human life form has been introduced: or b) a non-human embryo or fetus into which a cell of a human embryo or fetus, or of a human being already born, has been introduced.
  6. To combine any part or proportion of the human genome with any part of the genome of an animal species.

Classification of stem cells

There are two kinds of adult human stem cells, germ-line and somatic. The germ-line cells replicate ova and sperm. Somatic cells replicate all the other cells of the body. The human embryo, from the moment of cleavage of the zygote into two cells until, at the latest, the 18th to 19th day after conception, contains cells (blastomeres) that are totipotent. This means that if a cell, or a group of cells, spontaneously become separated from the embryo, or are deliberately separated from the embryo, those cells have the natural tendency and capacity to revert to being a human zygote, another human being. This fact is capable of being used by physicians to increase the number of in vitro embryos available to a woman for implantation. It is also a fact that any separated blastomere may die, become a new zygote (human being) or be cloned to produce specific tissues. This cloning may kill not only the embryo from which the blastomere was removed but also, the newly formed embryo itself.

Informed consent refers to a process and a document. Its purpose is to make sure that a decision maker has the information necessary to make an “informed” decision based on an accurate knowledge of the facts involved. For the consent to be valid legally there must have been no personal pressure brought to bear on the decision maker’s will that would cause him or her to make a decision that was unintended or undesired. The information should be conveyed by experts who are professionally competent to provide the actual facts needed (either orally or in writing) and this informed consent should be documented in writing.

An important question, is the donor of embryos going to be fully and accurately informed that:

  1. Donated embryos are killed when used to harvest stem cells for research?
  2. Embryonic stem cells derived from “donated” embryos may in fact become embryos themselves?
  3. The donor’s own living progeny may be reproduced over and over again for years in laboratories, cultivated in vitro or in vivo in other women or even animal surrogate wombs, and used for whatever research projects await science in the future?
  4. The donor’s embryo could be used to form human or animal chimeras or used in positive eugenic research in which their progeny could be permanently genetically altered for generations to come?

Misinformation with regard to the facts that a human being comes into existence at the time of fertilization, and that an embryonic stem cell can become an embryo, is often disseminated by researchers and governmental investigators themselves, especially through the media.

For some reason, researchers have called blastomeres harvested from embryos “stem cells.” They are not. They can act as stem cells only when they exist inside the intact embryo acting in co-operation with the other blastomeres. Why have they been called stem cells? Perhaps it is to justify their cloning by failing to mention that what is cloned may in fact be a human being.

If the donor of a human embryo is either not fully informed, or is misinformed, would his or her consent be true and legally valid? All informed consent processes and documentation may bear serious moral and legal responsibilities for producing, conveying, disseminating, attaining, or accepting scientific misinformation in these donor “informed consents.” What possible scientific, moral, legal or social merit would such “informed consent” processes or documents possess? Who is morally and legally accountable and responsible for such “informed consents?”

It would seem that the use of so much questionable science, and the pressures and influences to which confused and anxious potential donors of human embryos have been subjected in the past, and may also be in the future, would preclude many potential donors from giving any ethically or legally valid informed consent.

Dr. John Shea, MD, FRCP(c) is medicial advisor to Campaign Life Coalition and a contributor to Catholic Insight.