COLF Presentation to the Standing Committee on Health on Bill C-13, Assisted Human Reproduction Act

Monday, 18 November 2002
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Thank you very much for inviting the Catholic Organization for Life and Family to speak with you today. Our Organization was jointly founded by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Knights of Columbus. It consists of a multidisciplinary group of specialists in bioethics, health care, law and education. We are grateful that you have chosen to hear from a diversity of Canadians on the issue of assisted human reproduction.

There is much in Bill C-13 that is positive and that we can support such as the prohibitions concerning animal/human hybrids, the ban on commercial surrogacy, the prohibition on the marketing of embryos and gametes and the intention to prohibit cloning for the purposes of reproduction or research. We also welcome the fact that one of the objectives of the new Agency is to foster the application of ethical principles.

Since we have been asked to limit this presentation to five minutes, we will focus on one compelling issue that is most important to us: the need to protect human life at all of its stages. Our major concern is that Bill C-13 does not adequately protect the human embryo. We will also speak briefly on what this might mean to Canadians.

The Importance of Principles

We are pleased to see that Bill C-13 has established its guiding principles in a statutory declaration. Principles are usually understood as a set of guiding or foundational statements. They also have a great deal to do with identity. They convey something of who we are as a society insofar as they express our values. They also shape us as a society as we mould our practices to reflect our principles.

In the statutory declaration the Principles express Canada's commitment to preserving human dignity and rights even as we pursue technologies and knowledge; they convey our sensitivity to the needs of, and burdens placed on, members of our community affected by the technology. The Principles demonstrate our belief in the importance of personal autonomy as it is expressed through the practice of informed consent. It is clear in the Principles and their prominent placement in the Bill that we are a society interested in pursuing what is good and what is just.

The Need to Protect the Human Embryo

There is, however, a major omission in the Principles as written. Nothing is said about the rights and dignity of the human embryo. While it is true that women and men are affected by the human reproductive technologies, we cannot escape the fact that the very embryos created by these technologies are affected by them.

With the Catholic tradition, we believe that human life starts at conception. While we do not know the precise moment that ensoulment occurs, we err on the side of personhood, treating the human being as a person from conception onwards. At the heart of it, we simply do not know how a human being could be other than a human person. Put another way, the human embryo is simply descriptive of a stage of life in the existence of a human being – a life stage that is part of the personal history of everyone here. This is how we all began.

We ask you to change the Principles in the statutory declaration in such a way that they include protecting the dignity of human beings who happen to be at the embryonic stage, according them the protection we provide for all vulnerable members of our community. This would include protection of their dignity, keeping them from undue harm and exploitation. The beginning of this is already present in the Bill – in the recognition that embryonic humans are distinct from ova and sperm and not to be classified as reproductive material; that they are not to be the subjects of commercial transactions; that special care must be taken in attending to the well-being of children born through the application of these technologies.
We would go further and suggest that we must recognize in the statutory declaration and in the legislation that humans at the embryonic stage, no matter how they came into existence, must be protected in the same manner as their vulnerable counterparts at any life stage.

We recommend that research on embryos as well as any treatment that is not for their benefit be prohibited. While we realize that this will preclude embryonic stem cell research in which so many hopes have been invested, we are convinced that adult stem cell research, which is showing remarkable promise, can still go forward and has every potential to fulfill those hopes. We could thereby signal to the world, in a global arena influenced by strong commercial interests in the area of the reproductive technologies, that Canada is committed to honouring, protecting and including everyone in the human family.