Opinion polls clearly show Canadians’ distaste with genetic engineering. Why is the Health Minister dodging the issue?

Medical and legal experts have long recognized that scientific and technological developments in regard to new reproductive technologies (NRT) have far outstripped the law. They have warned that, unchecked by legislation, this “area of research is par excellence one likely to produce problems for mankind as a whole…” (Julius Stone, Professor of International Law and Jurispudence). As early as 1975, that is three years before the birth of the world’s first “test-tube baby” Louise Joy Brown, the Medical Journal of Australia was urging that legislation be enacted to define the rights and liabilities of all parties in in-vitro fertilization (IVF). In 1982 the British Medical Journal highlighted the medico-legal difficulties that could arise with IVF, and, in that same year, Dr. Robert Edwards was criticized by the British Medical Association for “going too far” in experimentation on embryos created by IVF “without the sanction of law or medical ethics.”

Since then, over 36 nations and states have held official inquiries into NRT, and their Reports have mostly been followed by some form of restrictions: licences, regulations, and legislation­-both civil and criminal.

And, what of Canada? Canada was a late-comer, internationally, into the Inquiries into New Reproductive Technologies. After a four-year study that cost the nation $29 million, and with the advantage of a decade’s worth of other nations’ evidence and experience, Canada has –in effect- chosen to do nothing. Under the headline, “Ottawa backs off test-tube issues,” the Globe and Mail (July 28, 1995) reported that Canada’s Health Minister, Diane Marleau, says that she will not introduce regulatory controls or legislation in the new issues of the new technologies.

For now, the scientists will be allowed to police themselves. Despite the fact that the problems and condemned procedures have been caused by the IVF scientists, Ms. Marleau, washes her hands of the evils of many of the new technologies and seems to believe that voluntary curbs will be effective. There are volumes of evidence from over a score of national Inquiries to show that this route is useless and naïve.

Dr. Jacques Testart, the pioneer scientist who achieved the first French test-tube baby, pleaded for controls of scientists in IVF. He said “Don’t give me a vote of confidence when I’m playing with life. I can always find some excuses.” In 1987, in a surprise move, he retired. His statement reads: “ I, Jacques Testart, researchers in the field of reproduction, have decided to conclude a career which has been infatuated with the novelty of science. I am not going any further, nor will I try for other records…I am fully aware that this decision is for me a kind of professional suicide.” (Paina, 1987. “IVF scientist quits,” I Perspective, September 1987). Dr. Testart was very concerned that commercial interests were exploiting the longing of sterile couples to have children. He said of the research: “Others will do it- not because they are better, but because the want to,” because they want to be famous.

Dr. Testart returned from his research because he saw where it, and the commercial interests behind it, were leading. Not all researchers are so honourable. It was Professor Louis Waller (the Chairman of the Social, Ethical, and Legal Issues arising from IVF, Inquiry of Victoria’s government in Australia) who said: “An honour system can only work where people are honourable. Is this enough? My feeling is that it is not.” (Melbourne Age, June 28, 1984).

Professor Waller’s feeling is proved to be right by much of the evidence given in major Inquiries. Such testimony proved that self-regulation by the medical and scientific professions, and/or by ethics committees is woefully inadequate, and completely toothless. During the hearings by the Australian Senate Select Committee on The Human Embryo Bill, one member of a hospital ethics committee explained that there is a lot of research going on that the ethics committee is not told about. “There is no power of investigation; the committee does not go out and find out what is going on; it has no power of being able to force information from the scientists.

“The other difficulty, of course, is that the ethics committees in this country are institutional ethics committees appointed by the hospital administration. If you have any sense as an administrator you do not put somebody on an ethics committee who is likely to say that the research is no good or is…likely to impede the progress of what is going on.” (Dr. Tonti-Fillippini, Director of St. Vincent’s Bioethics Centre and Hospital Ethicist, Fitzroy, Victoria, in evidence, 1986).

Two other pieces of evidence given to the Australian Senate Committee show the dangers of self-regulation, and are quoted by Anthony Fisher in his invaluable book I.V.F., The Critical Issues.

Critical Issues

“An example cited in the public debates about the incestuousness of these [Institutional ethics] committees is that of Professor Robert Pepperell of Melbourne University who certified as appropriate a proposed project by Dr. A. Lopata, a senior lecturer in his own department. Pepperell then forwarded the certified proposal to the Royal Women’s Hospital Research and Ethics Committee, and as Chairman of that Committee again gave it his unqualified approval, sending it on to the NHMRC [Nation Health Medical Research Council], which approved the project for funding.” Fisher adds that Professor Pepperell was a member of the Victoria Government Committee  (chaired by Professor Louis Waller) and he dissented from its recommendation to regulate embryo experimentation. Pepperell is also on the state’s Committee of Review under the Infertility Act.

The second example of quoted concerns a licensing agreement proposal between a profit-making company, IVF Australia, and Monash University, but kept secret from members of Monash University Council. According to evidence given to the Australian Senate Committee the University “even sought exemption from the Freedom of Information legislation (and thus from public scrutiny) for this activity.”

Ms. Marleau must be shown the new technologies are potentially damaging beyond recovery, not only for Canadian but for the world. It is the Canadian government’s duty to provide protective legislation.

An urgent need for legislation

It is over half a century since Aldous Huxley wrote Brave New World, and described the Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre with its “racks upon racks of numbered test tubes. This weeks supply of ova.” It is almost as long since C.S. Lewish wrote his essay, The Abolition of Man. Both works predicted that the final assault on humanity would come, not from the abuse of political power but from our knowledge of pharmacology and genetics.

In the intervening years the development of new reproduction technologies (NRT) and subsequent leaks of secret information (e.g. concerning genetic engineering, experiments on live human embryos, interspecies fertilization, human embryos placed in pigs or sheep, surrogate motherhood, womb leasing, etc.) have frightened and outraged the general public.

When the Warnock Committee in Britain actually approved of the creation of new human beings for the purpose of experimentation, Parliament was bombarded by petitions and letters demanding legislation to protect these tiny humans. Lord Denning, one of the world’s leading legal experts in this century expressed his views in the House of Lords:

“Medical scientists and medical men can do as they like with what I believe are human beings. There is no regulation at all. Buy or sell, freeze and the like, medical men can do as they like without any control. These are dangers to our society.” (London Tablet, Nov. 10, 1984)

In the United States, Doris Freed, head of the committee of research of the American Bar Association’s family law section, said of the results of the absence of legislation: “It’s a legal, moral, and social nightmare.”

At the other side of the globe, in Australia, Mr. Justice Michael Kirby, the Chairman of the Australian Law Reform Commission, was critical of the silence of the law in the face of the ethical and social issues raised by new reproductive technologies. He asked: “Should we tolerate such a [legal] silence, allowing scientists and technologists to take our society where they will, with no prior opportunity for us as a nation, indeed as a species, to consider the implication and to lay down acceptable rules within these developments will occur?

Since the early 1980s a number of countries-but not Canada-have moved to impose strict controls on reproductive technologies, by regulations, licences, and criminal sanctions. Banned altogether in many countries are genetic engineering, the production of embryos for research purposes, cloning, inter-species fertilization, implanting human embryos in animals or animal embryos in humans, and ectogenesis. West Germany, having learned from the Nazi past, has been the leader in this issue, and the Swiss are close behind.

Meanwhile, we are entitled to ask, why is the Canadian government so silent-so soft-on procedures which all opinion polls show to be abhorrent to the general public? In 1975 Professor Gary Glenn wrote an article which was published in the American Journal of Jurisprudence. He argued that failure to legislate in controversial issues is not neutrality, it is laissez-faire, and that is taking sides. If an action is not forbidden, it is allowed. The law is the great teacher; it teaches us what is not permitted, and what is a value. Failure to legislate teaches, by implication that other actions are all right: “if it is not forbidden, it is legal, and if it is legal it is all right.”

Furthermore, when there has been a major public inquiry-in Canada’s case costing millions of dollars at the taxpayer’s expense-and no action is taken, the ordinary citizen is led to believe that there are no problems. Canadians are also entitled to know how much of their tax money goes either directly or indirectly towards funding IVF and NRT. It is interesting to remember that many of the dangers associated with new reproductive technologies were seen in Paul Ramsey’s book, Fabricated Man: The Ethics of Genetic Control, written in 1970. Paul Ramsey, an Episcopalian, was Professor of Religion at Princeton University, and a scholar with a world-wide reputation. Not only did he foresee the problems of NRT, but he foretold how people with different ethical standards would react. We need to raise the ethical questions with a serious and not a frivolous conscience. A man of frivolous conscience announces that there are ethical quandaries ahead that we must consider before the future catches up with us. By this he often means that we need to devise a new ethic that will provide the rationalization for doing in the future what men are bound to do because of new actions and interventions science will have made possible. By contrast a man of serious conscience means to say in raising urgent ethical questions that there may be some things that men should never do. The good things men do can be made complete only by the things men refuse to do. (Emphasis was added by Paul Ramsey when he quoted this passage in his brief to the Warnock Committee in England in 1983.)

Professor Ramsey’s brief, which was titled “The Issues Facing Mankind,” said that men of frivolous conscience “make anticipatory surrender to futures coming upon them.” He stressed: “Only a people of serious conscience can hope to cut athwart the momentum toward the technological dehumanization of mankind. We must seek our rendezvous with some Nevers, and the good reasons for them.”

Paul Ramsey was acknowledged to be one of the two persons in the U.S. (the other was Leon Kass, Professor of the Liberal Arts of Biology at the University of Chicago) who had given the most sustainable attention to the moral and public policy issues of IVF. His challenge to men and women of serious conscience to fight against the ‘technologic dehumanization of mankind’ is also that of Mr. Justice Kirby, of Australia. “Let it not be the epitaph of our generation that we proved ourselves brilliant in a dazzling field of scientific endeavour, but so morally bankrupt and legally incompetent that we just could not bother, or did not have the courage to sort out the consequences for our society and for the human species.”

In 1985, Mr. Enoch Powell introduced his “Unborn Children Protection Bill” which sought to outlaw experimentation on human embryos. He said that he found (“in that remarkable compilation of thought and wisdom known as the Talmud”) a principle that he felt essential in this issue. He quoted three Hebrew words: “Gadol kovod haberiot” which mean, “In case of doubt or difficulty, or conflict of authority or interest, let the dignity of man always prevail.”

Is our generation in Canada so morally bankrupt and legally incompetent that we cannot even protect our own human species?