As we report on page 3, the Canadian Institutes for Health Research has gone ahead with its own plans on funding and regulating embryonic stem cell research, despite the fact that legislation on this issue is currently before the House of Commons. The announcement by the federally funded medical research agency’s president, Dr. Alan Bernstein, has been condemned in Parliament by MPs rightfully upset with the CIHR’s contemptuous gesture and pro-lifers who wonder: why the rush? Even the National Post condemned Bernstein for taking “it upon himself to carve out federal policy in this area.”
One wonders why the rush to get embryonic stem cell research funded and underway. As the Post editorial notes, “Certainly there is little in the legislation the CIHR president might oppose. The bill conforms closely to stem-cell research guidelines Dr. Bernstein and the CIHR themselves had proposed.” Is it because of the uncertainty C-13 faces? If Bernstein was confident the legislation would pass, the CIHR would not put pressure on Parliament with the clumsy and cynical tactic of announcing it would do its own thing. As some political observers have noted, debate over C-13 would have ended long ago and been voted on if the government whip thought he had the votes to pass.
The CIHR is rightfully being criticized for its contempt for the prerogative of Parliament to debate and decide such weighty moral issues. It is telling that the CIHR seems to equate deliberative democracy with dithering, and a healthy debate about serious moral issues with a shortcoming in the process to determine where we should be headed on these very serious issues touching literally on the life and death of human beings – indeed, on what it means to be a human being.
But there is enough blame to go around. Health Minister Anne McLellan claims that the CIHR “operates at arms length from the government” and that the federal government will not reign in this agency. Indeed, Bernstein said that Health Canada was aware of the agency’s move to begin funding embryonic stem cell research. This raises questions about the government’s commitment to upholding even the minimal regulations C-13 outlines for reproductive and experimental technologies. Will the federal government turn a blind eye to its “arms-length” agency if it fails to enforce C-13’s regulations? The government deserves condemnation for allowing the CIHR to proceed.