Mr. Speaker, it is with a mixture of relief and apprehension that I stand today to join the debate on Bill C-56, an act respecting assisted human reproduction. As others have mentioned, this is truly a day that many of us have been waiting for since the royal commission on assisted human reproductive technology, in a 1993 report, recommended urgent federal government action to regulate this burgeoning new area. It is a day we have been awaiting since the government let its first effort, Bill C-47, die on the order paper with its 1997 election call, and here we are today, five years after parliament saw that piece of government legislation on this area that is of vital concern to women, to families and to many people in our society who are dependent on the discoveries and developments occurring daily in this area.
We listened very carefully to the health minister's speech as she introduced the bill and it is certainly clear that she has been more than generous in her self-congratulatory words in introducing the bill. New Democrats, who for years have been calling on the government to introduce legislation to give women access to safe, non-commercial reproductive health services, should be forgiven if we are reluctant to join in what is at best a celebration of Liberal indifference or at worst the latest chapter in the government's history of neglect. After all, we are far from having an act in place. Indeed, Canada is the last major industrialized country in the world without legislation in this area.
Reproductive technology is not a static field of science, far from it. While the government has been inactive on this legislative file for all these years, the nature or the bio-nature of reproductive technology has been changing rapidly. Let us go through some of those developments. Dolly the sheep and animal cloning are not new news. An Italian doctor claims to be well on the way to producing a cloned human being. The term “designer babies” is now in common usage as parents begin selecting the biological traits of their children. Internet sites compete in the trade of celebrity reproductive materials while countless others profit from those Canadians who are more than willing to buy access to any healthy eggs or sperm that might assist in their drive to have children. Gender selection has become topical, with all sorts of new rationales being put forward in its defence.
As well, we have witnessed the development of human stem cell research. Eugenics has assumed increased acceptability as scientific capabilities have expanded even though we have had no public debate. So too the patenting of higher life forms, including human genetic material, has become part of our daily lives without public discussion or input. The list goes on.
One can see why we are relieved that finally, as New Democrats have been urging for years, the government has deigned to bring this piece of legislation before parliament. Our initial relief, though, was rather short-lived as we became familiar with the bill's contents or lack of contents. I now want to focus on some of our apprehensions, and they are considerable.
I begin by registering our disappointment that the government has chosen in several instances to override the recommendations of the Standing Committee on Health set out in its “Building Families” report of last December.
It was a rare moment in the life of this parliament, moments which are few and far between. Committee members from all political parties took the government's request to review its draft proposal on assisted reproductive technologies very seriously. We devoted months of committee time to studying submissions and hearing witnesses from the full spectrum of views on this whole area, and a very controversial topic it is.
Instead of shying away from contentious areas we debated them and in many cases reached sustainable positions that we offered in our report. We presented the government with 36 recommendations in the main report as well as additional recommendations in the NDP's minority report.
In what is quickly becoming the norm for the government, it has chosen yet again in Bill C-56 to override several of the committee's recommendations with no consultation or explanation to the committee. We have seen over and over again parliamentary committees that run the danger of becoming mere window dressings for the government's legislative agenda instead of the dynamic honing tools to enhance legislation as it proceeds through parliament. Many of us in the House feel that this results in legislation that is less reflective of the will of Canadians and which will be less effective in the long run as a result.
I also have serious concerns with the government's decision to offload many policy issues, some of them very contentious, like stem cell research, to the regulations or to the soon to be created assisted human reproductive agency.
Canadians elected us to the House to deal with tough issues. They elected us to be accountable for how we deal with them, not to pass them on to an unelected, unaccountable organization or group of officials to determine. That is a concern and we will continue to raise our opposition to the off loading of responsibility in fundamental areas of policy that should be decided by this place, by members of parliament elected to do just that.
I will turn now to the substance of the legislation we have before us. The primary consideration for all of us in dealing with the bill or dealing with any legislation governing reproduction must surely be the health and well-being of women. That is a matter which should be self-evident yet it is a matter that has to be said.
After the bill was introduced I was in a debate with members of the other parties. The health critic for the Alliance Party actually said that the bill was not a woman's issue. The last time I checked, women were responsible for reproduction in our society today. Women are often the guinea pigs for experiments in terms of ways to deal with reproductive problems. It is women who in fact are on the front lines in terms of developments in this area.
Let us be clear, this is a woman's issue and the bill must at least address the fundamental issues of protecting and ensuring the health and well-being of women. Of course we are talking about families and their need to deal with new technologies in the desire to have children, but let us make sure we do not miss the fundamental issue of women's health and well-being which is so central to the bill and so much a part of the history of the bill.
The federal government should ensure that reproductive technologies are proven to be safe before being permitted, that the risks and benefits of any treatment for women are disclosed fully and that the funds needed to achieve these objectives are made available. The bill we are debating should be the means for accomplishing these ends but it is not.
The most effective way of dealing with the legislation is to ensure that the precautionary principle is entrenched in any bill dealing with assisted reproductive technology. That is why in our minority report New Democrats recommended that the precautionary principle be explicitly set out in legislation as a prerequisite for the approval of all standards and procedures. In its final report, the health committee agreed that a precautionary approach was needed.
Instead of finding the precautionary principle among the governing provisions of the bill, it is nowhere to be found. The precautionary principle, which is really putting safety first, can put a damper on the unfettered pursuit of profitable new products and procedures. The choice not to include the precautionary principle reflects the government's affection for the biotech industry, an industry that has benefited tremendously from being able to establish itself in assisted reproductive technology unencumbered by regulation during these many years without an act.
Bill C-56 is also missing a strong mandate to ensure that the most up to date safety information is available to women through counselling. Back in 1990, the New Democrat women's critic, Dawn Black, called for the inclusion of counselling as part of every reproductive technology program. It was her number one recommendation to the Baird commission.
It was said then and is still said today that the quality of the counselling and information must be high and it must be mandated to be readily available. Women also need information on infertility prevention to help them avoid the intrusive and painful procedures that may be part of an infertility treatment.
In response to the draft bill, the NDP minority report recommended that prevention be a central aspect of any reproductive technology policy and a key part of any new regulatory authority.
However Bill C-56 is soft on prevention. The government has failed to provide the type of proactive prevention mandate that is necessary to make real inroads into reducing the factors that lead to infertility.
One way the government could have addressed this important area and ensured that women's concerns remained a high priority, at least with respect to the make-up of the new agency to be called the assisted human reproductive agency, would have been to require gender parity. To give credit to the health committee that was recognized.
It was assumed that because we were dealing with women's health and with reproduction, with a bill that would have a significant impact on women, that the agency would be made up of at least 50% women. Does that appear anywhere in the draft bill or did we hear any of that in the commentary made by the minister? No. A fundamental issue, which would have made a significant difference for outcomes when the bill is finally implemented and up and running, is missing.
That is not something new to us on this side of the House. We have tried many times to get the government to understand the basic notion of gender parity on all boards and commissions. We thought there was a case to be made when the government established the Canadian Institutes of Health Research. Since we are dealing with a new research body that would set the stage for innovative research for years to come one would think it would at least have gender parity. We know that women's health concerns and their interests in research and development are critical and important. The government refused to address that fundamental issue at that time.
We felt that when it came to reproductive technology it would be a given that women would be involved. How could the government not do that? Once again not only has the government decided to ignore this fundamental recommendation but it has backed off its own stated principles and policies around achieving gender parity and ensuring a gender based analysis of all government bills and programs.
The government has chosen to let the chips fall where they may instead of clearly supporting women whose health rides on the agency as the enforcer of the act.
By the same token, the bill does not require the agency to establish any formal mechanism for direct input from experts in the field, from the centres of excellence for women's health or even its own women's health bureau within Health Canada, both of which could contribute substantially to the agency's worth in the interests of women through the work they perform.
While I am on the bill's shortcomings in relation to the agency's board, let me add that there is no protection against conflict of interest to prevent the agency being unduly influenced by the biotechnology industry or private clinics. This is an important omission that we believe must be addressed.
Another issue that is very important to many of us in the House is the bill's unacceptable weakness in terms of focusing on the commercialization potential and developments in this whole area of assisted reproductive technologies. Nowhere is it more apparent than when it comes to addressing the fundamental issue of patenting of life forms, a topic of great concern today as the supreme court begins its deliberations on the patenting of the Harvard mouse.
We had thought, given the words from the government around stopping the commercialization in this area, that it would at least act in terms of stating its objective to prohibit the patenting of human genetic material. That was part of the health committee's report. It was a consensus position. The health minister did not say a word about that when she introduced Bill C-56. She made no mention of the government's intentions to move quickly and forcefully with respect to patent protection. It is very important because knowledge of the genetic building blocks of life forms part of our common human legacy and the public good. It cannot be forfeited to the private reserve of giant life science and drug corporations.
We have called on the government to amend the Patent Act to prohibit human patenting. As I said, so has the health committee. However the government chose to ignore the consensus and instead has put its emphasis on corporate property rights before our access to health care. It could have stipulated a consequent amendment to the Patent Act had it so desired but it chose not to do so.
The implications of the patenting of life forms for our health care system are already becoming apparent. Women's access to a genetically developed test for breast cancer has been impeded by the patent process. Now the same company is applying for a patent on a prostate cancer gene.
A line is already forming at the patent office to slap patents on the beginnings of the stem cell research that holds such promise for Canadians suffering from debilitating diseases. Instead of bending over backward to respond to the wishes of the biotechnology industry, New Democrats believe that the federal government should be playing a leading role internationally to advocate keeping trade agreements from overriding the health interests of Canadians.
We believe all Canadians should benefit equally from improvements in this area. All Canadians should benefit equally from improvements to infertility treatment. This is far from the case now where public coverage of infertility conditions is practically non-existent and private insurance often excludes fertility drugs or imposes severe limits on reimbursement.
We have called on the federal government to work in conjunction with the provincial l and territorial governments to bring reproductive technology within the public non-profit sector. We have offered the model of the Manitoba provincial government that recently and successfully reclaimed a for profit clinic to the public health care system and gives a perfect example to the government about how it can act in the best interests of Canadians according to Canadians' deep desire for a non-profit system to ensure that basic health services are not up for grabs in the marketplace.
There are many more issues of concern that I wanted to raise and I will have a chance to pursue those points in further debates and in questions that follow.
For example, we have to look at the whole issue of genetic testing and the absence in the bill of any reference to people with disabilities. With the potential for eugenics cleansing, we are creating enormous problems for our society today. We are putting a cloud over those who live daily with disabilities. Because of developments in this field and the lack of action from the federal government, they now feel their lives are worth less. Our society is not enriched as we all assume it to be.
We have before us a bill that has serious gaps in women's health protection. It fails to effectively take on the commercial side of assisted reproductive technologies. It has ignored basic issues such as genetic testing and has overridden health committee recommendations in several areas.
The government has come to us after all this time asking for approval for a very important bill. However it misses several significant policy proposals and has relegated regulations to an agency yet to be defined.
We are left in the frustrating position of being--