The Canadian Institutes for Health Research has shown blatant disregard for parliamentary prerogative with its announcement that it will go ahead and fund embryonic stem cell research, despite the fact that legislation dealing with the issue is currently before the House of Commons.

The CIHR, a government-supported medical research agency, is tired of waiting for Parliament to act and will proceed to fund experiments on stem cells derived from destroyed embryos.

CIHR president Alan Bernstein said, “We’re going to proceed,” indicating he was tired of waiting for Parliament to act. In March 2002, the CIHR announced funding guidelines, but delayed actual funding until April 1, 2003 because Parliament had just received a report from the standing committee on health commenting on the government’s proposed regulations of reproductive and experimental technologies. Two months later, Health Minister Anne McLellan introduced An Act Respecting Human Reproduction.

Since then, Parliament has debated the bill and its numerous amendments. The National Post reported that, impatient with the democratic process, Bernstein “still hopes the legislation will pass, but he said he feels his agency owes it to the research community to fill the regulatory void and start reviewing and funding research proposals.” Bernstein said it was time “to move forward.”

Dr. Margaret Somerville, the founding director of McGill University’s Centre for Medicine, Ethics and Law, criticized the CIHR’s announcement, saying it should have waited for the legislation to pass “out of respect for the democratic process.”

Mary Ellen Douglas, national organizer for Campaign Life Coalition, told The Interim that she was appalled by the CIHR’s disregard for democracy and its insistence on going ahead with funding this type of research, regardless of the views of Parliament. “This is a disobedient branch of government,” she said. “The government should reign it in.” Douglas added that the announcement that it would go ahead with such research was a pressure tactic – a desperate attempt to get Parliament to pass legislation under the guise that it is inevitable anyway.

She said that if the CIHR was confident that C-13 would pass, it would bide its time. “They are putting on the pressure now because they feel they have to.”

Sommerville added that the move is not only a pity for democracy, but for science. “Scientists always want to get on with what they are doing,” Sommerville told the National Post. “But this science is not just about science, it is about some of our most important and profound values.”

MP Carol Skelton (CA, Saskatoon-Rosetown-Biggar) asked the government if it would “demand that the institute cease and desist until Parliament has spoken?” Health Minister Anne McLellan took the occasion to urge the House to pass C-13 “as quickly as possible.” The minister also claimed that the CIHR “has no agenda of its own, in the sense that it has made it very plain that it is well aware of the legislation before the Parliament of Canada.”

But Bernstein’s advocacy of embryonic stem cell research, and his rush to have the CIHR fund it, clearly illustrate that it has an agenda.

Bernstein complained that embryonic stem cell research – research that is claimed but far from proven to treat diseases and ailments such as Alzheimer’s, diabetes and heart disease – is taking place in the rest of the world, but not in Canada. He labelled it “unacceptable” that such research is not being federally funded in Canada. He said, “There are a number of people chomping at the bit” to get their hands on such funding.

The University of Ottawa’s Dr. Ron Worton, head of the national stem cell research network, urged the CIHR to begin embryonic stem cell research funding. “We strongly believe it is right to be doing these experiments,” he said. “I think we should just get on with it.”

Bernstein and Worton both claim that they will abide by the regulations of the legislation, not all of which are clear right now, once such legislation is passed. Orton said, “We agree with the spirit of the legislation and it is in that spirit that we are proceeding.”

Pro-lifers say such comments illustrate that the regulations do little to limit research on destroyed embryos. Douglas said that she doesn’t trust the CIHR to follow the regulations if it is so willing to push ahead with embryonic stem cell research in the absence of legislation.

Furthermore, the enforcement of the rules will be enforced by a CIHR oversight committee. Douglas said it is absurd to think that the funding agency eager to fund scientists for such research will be a reliable arbiter of said rules.