Federal Health Minister Allan Rock appeared before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health May 3 to introduce a draft of a long-awaited bill on new reproductive and genetic technologies.

While the draft legislation is commendable for its ban on all forms of human cloning, it is nonetheless fundamentally flawed, since it would allow for experimentation on human embryos up to 14 days development.

The draft bill was tabled in the wake of the release of a Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) discussion paper March 29 regarding how federal money should be spent in the sphere of genetic research. The CIHR, a federal agency set up two years ago by Mr. Rock, wants its paper to spark discussion that will lead to feedback from the general public as well as experts in the field. The goal is to have a final set of guidelines by the fall which the federal government would use to direct its disbursement of funds for ongoing research.

Spokesmen for the CIHR have indicated that they hope the guidelines they set up for government funding will be used by the feds to guide them in the development of legislation on reproductive and genetic technologies. The guidelines would not apply to the use of private funds so, without legislation to harmonize the standards for genetic and reproductive research in Canada, those who have been denied government funds could seek out private money to finance their ventures.

One possibility is that the House debate over the government’s bill will progress in such a way that the guidelines will be introduced in time for the government to incorporate them into their legislation as amendments prior to final reading of the bill. The government can control the speed at which the bill passes through debate, but if it gives the impression of stalling debate after taking so many years to reintroduce legislation on genetic and reproductive technologies, the backlash from many sides could be substantial. Canadians may differ as to how they want this field regulated, but it is very difficult to find people who support the current regulatory vacuum, including researchers in the field.

The focus of debate over genetic and reproductive technologies today is the highly controversial matter of stem cell research. Cloning (at least, so-called “reproductive cloning,” bringing human clones to birth) still seems to be beyond the realm of acceptability to most Canadians, including researchers, as are some of the other more bizarre practices such as human-animal hybrids. On the other side of the spectrum, reproductive technologies such as in vitro fertilization seem to have become sufficiently acceptable that they are no longer considered controversial. Perhaps for that reason, there seems to be widespread acceptance of so-called “therapeutic cloning,” in which stem cells are “harvested” from embryos for research or clinical purposes, and the embryos are destroyed. There is still an aversion, however, towards for-profit activity in this field such as in the case of surrogacy.

Interest in stem cells is based on the hope that they will be able to regenerate nerve cells, healing people who suffer from such ailments as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and AIDS-related dementia. They are already being used in trials to treat such problems as various types of cancers, immunodeficiencies, corneal scarring, brain tumors and the effects of strokes. Doctors also hope to use them to repair damaged spinal cords and to grow into healthy pancreatic tissue to replace that of diabetic patients.

Among the more disturbing proposals from CIHR is the support for research on unborn babies – “spare” or “leftover” embryos from in vitro fertilization procedures – up to 14 days development, which of course would allow for the harvesting of stem cells, a process which kills the embryo. One recommendation, for example, is that research to derive human embryonic stem cells and other human cells or cell lines of a pluripotent nature from human embryos that remain after fertility treatments should be fundable by CIHR. Supporters of this age restriction maintain that it reflects a commitment to human dignity. Pro-lifers, of course, argue that any research that offends human dignity following 14 days does so during those first 14 days as well, since life begins at conception. Hence, there is no justification for research that terminates the lives of embryonic babies or otherwise offends their humanity.

Much of the material used by fetal stem cell researchers is expected to come from aborted babies and embryos left over from fertility procedures. This is what CIHR recommends. In fact, it specifically opposes the development of embryos exclusively for research: “[the] creation of human embryos by in vitro fertilization for the purpose of deriving stem cell lines should not be supported,” reads one of its recommendations. Creating clones for such purposes, however, is supported by many advocates of stem cell research. Britain has already approved the practice. It will likely not take long for any ban in Canada to be overturned once fetal stem cell research is declared legal.

CIHR is looking for feedback on their discussion paper, so pro-lifers should make their views known. As the sidebar article indicates, an increasing amount of research is providing evidence of even superior alternative sources for stem cells than embryos and fetal tissue. Pro-life Canadians can, therefore, offer constructive alternatives while condemning embryonic stem cell funding. Campaign Life Coalition is producing an updated statement on this issue and will be submitting their views to the agency. Banning embryonic stem cells is not an undue restriction on ethical science. In fact, one might be able to argue that such a restraint would have prevented the terrible results that experimental Parkinson’s treatment has had on some patients in Britain.

A report in the New England Journal of Medicine in March discussed some of the terrible effects of Parkinson’s treatments involving fetal cells, particularly uncontrollable muscular behaviour, causing them to twitch, writhe, chew, and fling and jerk their limbs uncontrollably. Only a week later, Thomas Freeman of the University of South Florida, working on a similar trial, said publicly that two of seven transplant recipients from a 1993 study of his died because of the fetal implants.

CIHR needs feedback for their guidelines by May 29. Comments can be sent to them via their website at www.cihr.ca or by mail to 410 Laurier Ave. W., 9th floor, Address locator 4209A, Ottawa ON K1A 0W9. You can also send your comments by e-mail to mchartrand@cihr.ca.

With Britain supporting therapeutic cloning and the possibility of the United States banning federal funding for all research funding involving unborn children, Canada has the opportunity of doing what the Liberal government does so well, walking up the middle and appearing to be moderate. Unfortunately, barring special divine intervention, few people seem to expect the government to do otherwise. The pro-life view that all experimentation on embryos is unethical is seen as a minority position. Pro-lifers and others concerned about the ethics of what the government proposes will have to turn to opposition MPs and pro-life Liberal backbenchers to raise their concerns and try to have the legislation amended.