“When people die, my name doesn’t go on it.”  This is how Suzanne Scorsone, a member of the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies, sums up how she decided which of its recommendations to disagree with.  The Commission submitted its final report to the federal government last November.

Just before Christmas, Dr. Scorsone spoke to the Interim about her work on the Commission in general, and offered her explanation for the controversy when Maureen McTeer and three others Commissioners were fired.  She discussed how she separated her beliefs as a Roman Catholic from her support of aspects of the Commission’s final positions which conflict with Church teaching.

The Commission did not directly discuss abortion, says Dr. Scorsone, nor did it undertake a basic ethical examination of the status of the preborn child.  “I am, I think, the only member of the Commission who assumes that an embryo ought to be recognized as a person,” she notes.  Also, she adds, the people she worked with “had considered all these things and had reached conclusions which, on some things, were different than mine, and some things were very similar.  But they were already formed, and highly informed, opinions.”

“I think it’s important to say that the people I was working with were of great integrity,” she continues.  “One can disagree with someone.  One can hold a very profound difference of opinion as a matter of deep import, but the person who holds the other view may, nonetheless, as far as they could understand what was going on, be acting out of what they thought to be integrity also.  And if we lose sight of that, then the discussion becomes a slinging match.  If we’re going to get anywhere in terms of discussing the larger issues, we have to view even our opponents with respect.”

A direct examination of abortion, Scorsone feels, would have scuttled the Commission.  Besides, in her view, most of the technologies they looked at were not closely linked to abortion.  They examined each technology from three perspectives: available research, proved success or failure, and safety for the women involved.  “You can talk about those things without getting directly into the abortion issue,” she says.  “And it was essential that we do that, or we would have deadlocked.  We wanted to be productive and constructive.”

Power struggle

We asked whether it was a disagreement over this pragmatic-sounding approach which led Maureen McTeer and some other Commissioners to challenge the authority of the body, a controversy which eventually led the government to fire McTeer and three others, leaving the Commission to work with just five members.

As Scorsone sees it, the fight was over control.  The federal government sets the terms of reference for any Royal Commission, “with the chair being the Commission, and all other Commissioners being advisory.”

“So the question was whether this (which was the law and precedent with respect to Royal Commissions) was going to be the way things were, or whether a group of Commissioners could inform the government that they were going to change the terms of reference and take control.”

Scorsone points out that the disaffected Commissioners could have stayed and put across their disagreement with the final report.  “We were assured from the very outset that we would have complete freedom to say whatever we wanted, at the end.  That option was available to the Commissioners who departed, as well as to all of us.  As it turns out, I’m the only one who availed myself of this, but it was there for everybody.”

In two major areas (educational strategies for prevention of sexually transmitted disease, and access to medical technology) Suzanne Scorsone’s dissent reflects her concern that religious institutions, and bodies run by “other value groups,” be protected from governmental imposition of regulations which would run counter to their moral beliefs.

With respect to education, she explains, the report recommends that a particular set of guidelines for sex education be adopted at the national level.  The proposed guidelines were drawn up by the Sex Information and Education Council of Canada (SIECCAN) and others.

“My concern,” she explains, “is that some Protestant, Jewish and Muslim schools, along with Catholic schools, would not be able in conscience to follow those guidelines.

“For example, one of the things in those guidelines is that public education must be non-judgmental with respect to sexual activity.  The schools must affirm adolescents, whatever choice they make about whether or not to engage in sexual activity.  Adolescents are those who are going through puberty, which means that we are talking about kids 9 to 15.  I don’t think very many parents in Canada want to be telling their kids at home that sex at 14 or 13 is a bad idea, to have the teachers in the school (coerced by an outside regulation) saying, ‘Well, whatever choice you make about sexual activity, I will affirm that choice.”

“Also, the report recommends that age not be a barrier to referral for medical treatment around contraception.  Age ‘not being a barrier’ essentially means that age of consent, and custody and care of parents, is to be bypassed.  I don’t think many parents particularly want schools referring kids to clinics without parents ever knowing about it.”

Dr. Scorsone joins her fellow Commissioners and supports the many recommendations to regulate the various techniques which come under the umbrella of In Vitro Fertilization and Artificial Insemination.  But she dissents from the Commission’s stand that medical grounds are the only criterion for access to these services, regardless of such factors as marital status, sexual orientation or social and economic status.

Interests of child

Dr. Scorsone argues vigorously in her written dissent that hospitals and infertility clinics, whether run by religious or community boards, as well as individual physicians, should have the right to restrict their services to married couples.

Dr. Scorsone feels that it would be a violation of fundamental human rights to force institutions and individuals to provide assisted conception services to all women, regardless of social factors such as marital status and lifestyle.

“The principle of the best interests of the child, clearly recognized in law,” she writes, “should take precedence over any other interest; this is clearly justified in a free and democratic society.  Similarly, the freedom of conscience of individual professors, physicians, nurses and others must be upheld.  The freedoms of health care institutions sponsored by religious bodies or communities must be preserved.  They are, and must remain, free to set policies in accord with the moral codes inherent in their mandates as a matter of fundamental human rights.”

In addition to her work on the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies, Suzanne Scorsone holds the position of spokesperson for the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Toronto on family and women’s issues, and is director of the Archdiocese’s Office of Family Life.  She spoke with us at some length about how she reconciled her Church’s teaching on these issues with her supporting regulation of In Vitro Fertilization and Artificial Insemination services.

“Catholics have a very different view on IVF and some of its implications for marriage than some other people,” she points out.  “But this is a very large country, and not everyone in it is Catholic.  At some point when you’re dealing with the body politic, you have to deal with safety standards and other things that will apply to other people who may not share all aspects of your own belief systems.  So long as it doesn’t involve such manifest harm that it becomes intolerable at all.  I draw the line at, for instance, experimentation on embryos because (as I said in my dissent) this is from my perspective a lethal violation of human rights.”

“I wasn’t there to make Catholics out of the rest of the country,” she continued.  “I was there as a person who defended our right to hole our own view, and the rights of our institutions, whether they’re hospitals or schools, to follow our own moral codes, and the rights of other religious groups to follow theirs.”

She believes it is very important to work with people with different views on reproductive morality.  “If we stand away,” she observes, “we cease to be able to function in a pluralistic society, and we cease to be effective.  We become marginalized and the good we could do will be undone.”

She draws the line when it comes to killing.  “When someone’s dying, I’m not there.  I am in a position not only of dissent but of overt objection.”  She dissents strongly on the matter of embryo experimentation, whether it be research on so-called ‘extra’ embryos, or whether it be on embryos created specifically for that purpose.  (The other Commissioners support both research on ‘extra’ embryos, and those specifically created for such use, up to 14 days after fertilization.)

Frozen embryos

In both her conversation with The Interim and her written dissent, she also addresses the ethical morass involving frozen embryos.  Many ethical objections to IVF, she points out, would be removed if ova could be frozen.  Research in this area to date has not yet succeeded, so more embryos are created through IVF than are needed for immediate transfer to the mother, in part because ova retrieval is an invasive surgical procedure.

Frozen embryos, she believes, should be given every opportunity for normal life and development.  If the genetic mother no longer wishes to have them implanted, she suggests they be offered to other infertile women as a “prenatal adoption.”

The other Commissioners believe that if either of the genetic parents die then frozen embryos should be destroyed.  Dr. Scorsone disagrees.  If the genetic mother dies, they should be offered to women for prenatal adoption, since the genetic father cannot gestate them.  If the genetic father dies, she believes it should be “the choice of the woman whether or not to have the embryos transferred to her uterus.  No external entity, whether a physician, a clinic, a regulatory body or the state, has the right to oblige her to be bereaved at once of her spouse and of their expected, already conceived children.”

Along with the rest of us, Dr. Scorsone cannot answer the question, what will happen to all the research and the side-ranging report of the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies?  The federal government has yet to announce how it will proceed, although Dr. Scorsone says she understands the reaction from the general population to the report has been positive.

From a pro-life perspective, it remains to be seen how much notice will be taken of the views of the one Commissioner who opposes her colleagues and draws the line when “people are being killed.”  Especially since, as Dr. Scorsone herself points out, it is the chairperson of the Commission, Dr. Patricia Baird, who is the Commission, all other Commissioners are merely advisory.