Returning from a mid-May, week-long break, the House of Commons has begun to debate the most important piece of legislation in a generation. Bill C-56, governing reproductive technologies, will focus on matters affecting the very nature of human life. It will address, after a decade-long wait, many of the issues originally raised by the Baird Royal Commission on the subject. And the bill is an answer to the report of the Commons Health Committee that gave all of last year to studying the subject.

On some of the most contentious moral questions, the government has answered correctly. The new law will ban manipulation of the human germ line, some forms of cloning, surrogacy for profit, creation of chimera, and the sale of male and female reproductive materials. A new regulatory agency will be set up to license research in permissible areas of scientific inquiry related to human reproduction. The law will also ban the production of human life (embryos) specifically for research purposes.

But, that is where the loopholes begin to open. The law will not limit the number of embryos that can be produced through in-vitro fertilization procedures, meaning that a surplus can legally be developed and stored in freezers, and can subsequently be used for scientific experimentation. The new law will permit experimentation on such embryos up to an arbitrary 14th day of development. It is important to recognize that experimentation on human embryos, including that involving embryonic stem cell research, usually results in the destruction of those embryos.

Shortly after unveiling the legislation in early May, Health Minister Anne McLellan lectured an audience of reporters about the “surplus” IVF embryos. “Do you know what happens to them? They go in the garbage. So the donor can choose to have them thrown out … or they can also choose to let those surplus embryos be used for the purposes of medical research,” she said.

Clearly favouring embryo experimentation, the minister did not propose other options to deal with the “surplus” IVF embryo situation such as, adoption of embryos by other parents, frozen storage of eggs and sperm rather than embryo storage, or limits on the number of embryos that could be produced through IVF.

The legislation puts Canada at one extreme among Western nations in terms of what will be permissible in the field of human reproductive research. Only Great Britain appears to have a more liberal regime currently. Germany and Austria, at the other end of the spectrum, have banned any research that will harm or destroy a human subject, including even the least-developed embryo. Ironically, these former Axis nations based their current laws, prohibiting harmful experimentation on human subjects, on the Nuremburg code imposed on them by the Allies, including Canada, 50 years earlier.

Official Opposition health critic Rob Merrifield is disturbed by the provision in C-56 to allow human embryo experimentation. He told The Interim that even apart from the immoral nature of that research, “Just from the stand point of wise use of tax dollars, we see so much happening on adult stem cells. It would be irresponsible to spend research dollars on anything else.” Anyway, he asks, “Why go down into that ethical minefield? Many Canadians have a problem with destruction of life anywhere on the continuum.”

Merrifield is perplexed as to why some scientists want to experiment on embryos, given the plethora of recent research indicating that adult stem cells will ultimately offer superior therapeutic benefits. “Is it scientists’ ego? Is it dollars and cents for patents? Who has the most to gain? You wonder if pharmaceutical companies are behind some of the push given that immuno-suppressant drugs would be a major factor with transplants derived from embryonic sources,” he says.

Indeed, research from around the world is confirming that adult stem cells (stem cells taken from non-embryonic and non-fetal sources) will be increasingly successful in treating patients with a range of diseases from cancers to diabetes, and even some auto-immune diseases such as MS. In this cutting-edge field of medical research, the patient is usually both the source of, and the recipient of, his own stem cell transplant, avoiding the moral objections that surround embryonic stem cell transplants.

The Christian Medical and Dental Society is seeking to influence the scientific community towards a Christian understanding of medicine. University of Ottawa biochemist and pediatrician and CMDS spokesman, Dr. John Patrick suggests the question of sanctity of life has actually gone beyond a question of morality. “We’re not divided on morality. We’re divided on whether there is a God. Canada is two nations within a country,” he told The Interim.

Patrick explains with a familiar example, “Henry Morgentaler lost his family at Aushwitz. He’s an existentialist. He does not believe there is a God. And therefore all life is absurd. When he does an abortion, he is choosing to snuff out the un-self-conscious absurd life for some minor happiness on the part of the self-conscious absurd life.”

As for the destruction of embryos in the vain pursuit of knowledge, Patrick says the government’s approach makes sense seen in the light of a belief in the non-existence of God. “If you think life is absurd then only happiness now matters. There is no such thing as intrinsic human dignity,” he says.

However, not all government MPs agree with the health minister’s proposal. Liberal MP Paul Szabo (Mississagua South) is one of several who will not be supporting the legislation as it currently reads. He told The Interim, “The legislation says its okay to do embryo research. It’s destruction of a life. My position is an embryo is a human being.” He speculates that although, “the government wants to ram it through quickly,” the bill may not be passed until late fall or even next spring.