Mr. Speaker, the former president of the Czech Republic, Václav Havel, in a now famous speech at Stanford University in September 1994, “Forgetting We Are Not God,” reminded his listeners that the greatest human folly occurred in the 20th century under those leaders in governments who had failed to understand “how unbelievably shortsighted a human being can be who has forgotten that he is not God”.
We are engaged here today in a debate where it is well to remind ourselves of the folly of forgetting that we are not God, that when moral and ethical absolutes are lacking, great evil can be done, and if experience is our guide, almost surely will be done.
A fundamental failure in Bill C-13 is that it is ethically and morally neutral as to a preference between embryonic stem cell research and adult stem cell research. The bill does not, nor does the government, commit itself to substantial new funding for adult stem cell research. The bill and the government have tragically failed Canadians on this point.
First and foremost this is an ethical and moral debate because we are talking about human dignity. Much is at stake. We are shaping the future of what it means to be human in Canada. We cannot blindly follow the path of expedience, tailoring our understanding of human dignity to what is scientifically possible.
It is important to remember that scientific understanding does not render other forms of human understanding obsolete or irrelevant. The scientific understanding that the human body contains cells which in turn contain DNA does not trump a parent's understanding of a particular human as their child or a moral and ethical understanding of that child as a member of the human race.
Having a scientific understanding of the human body may be required to evaluate a proposed experimental medical treatment, for example, but it does not reduce a child to a collection of chemicals and cells.
In practice, any scientific understanding a parent may have is likely to make only a very minor contribution to their overall understanding of their child. Importantly, scientific information does not relieve even the most scientific parents of the obligation to make decisions regarding their children in the most comprehensive and just manner possible, as a scientist, as a parent and as a citizen, under the law and under God.
The same obligation holds on a larger scale for members of Parliament charged today with making legislative and policy decisions for society. Evaluating whether a highway should be built in Delta does not require a detailed understanding of how to pour asphalt in the rainy weather that we are often blessed with. Such an evaluation does require an understanding of where the road will lead and what purposes it will serve.
Similarly, evaluating public policy on genetic engineering, embryonic stem cells or human cloning does not require a detailed understanding of the underlying technology, but rather a willingness to weigh the issues raised by this technology in a broader social context without merely deferring to the judgment of scientists.
On moral and ethical issues, scientists are no more prepared to provide an intelligent answer than anyone else. In moral and ethical debates, the professional competence of the scientist is limited to a presentation of the facts.
Society has developed a collection of habits, customs and norms that assist us in making prudential and moral judgments when confronted with new experiences and situations. Prudential judgments are concerned with the practical assessments of risks and benefits: What are the most fitting means to achieve a desirable end? Moral judgments are concerned with the nature of right and wrong, with what should and should not be done in a free and democratic society. “Thou shalt not kill” is an example of a moral prohibition deeply ingrained in our culture that has led to the legal prohibition of murder.
In both prudential and moral and ethical matters, we have certain cultural guideposts that assist us in evaluating new situations as they arise. If someone proposed doing away with Parliament, we would instinctively know that this is an imprudent course of action. History tells us of the likely consequences of such actions.
If we witness one man shoot another on the street, we can rather quickly determine that one man killed another, and furthermore, if the shooting was not in self-defence, that this killing would be homicide.
In both cases we have clear cultural, historical and personal experiences that assist us in determining the proper course of action. But judgment based on past experience has its limits. As objects become further and further removed from the common experience, they also become further and further removed from the common wisdom that is culture.
Because modern science is in the business of discovering new things, it is constantly uncovering items that seem to defy our cultural coping mechanisms. Indeed, that is why we are engaged in this debate today.
Great claims are being made for the therapeutic and drug development potential of human embryonic stem cells and their derivatives. We are told that we are standing on the cusp of a medical revolution, if only the law will permit the necessary research on human embryos to be carried out.
The fundamental ethical objection is that the creation or use of embryos for research is wrong and their destruction indefensible. This implies two things: first, that embryos have a moral status; and second, that in a moral calculation we must appreciate that we violate the protected interest of embryos by deploying them for research or destroying them. Of these two points the first is critical, for, if this does not hold, the objection does not get to first base and it can only apply in an attenuated form.
The human embryo must be directly respected. It matters not that it cannot experience distress or make its own choices. It is not like a rock or a stone. It is a living thing and a member of the human species. As such, it must be protected by the overarching value of respect for human dignity. It has moral and ethical status and to treat it like a rock or a stone is to compromise human dignity.
Canada has always regretted doing the expedient thing rather than the right thing. We remember with shame the removal of Japanese Canadians from the fishery and the sale of their boats and equipment during the second world war. Similarly, we remember the refusal of our government to allow, in the days before the opening of the second world war, the entry into Canada of Jews desperately trying to escape Nazi Germany. Let us not repeat the errors of the past.
Why is a debate about embryonic stem cell research so fundamentally important? First, fundamentally the debate over embryonic stem cell research is about what a human being is, what rights a person has and what respect society owes that person. When people cannot agree on so fundamental an issue, terrible things can happen.
Second, this is an aging society about to confront many uncomfortable ethical dilemmas about vulnerable and unwanted people. What Parliament decides now about embryos sets a precedent for all subsequent legislation. It writes a guidebook for future debates about health and health spending.
The role of a scientist is to give facts. From the ethical and moral perspective scientists have done a marvellous job in giving us the facts, indeed all the facts we need to make an informed ethical judgment: embryos have a fully human genetic tool kit; given the right conditions an embryo will grow into a baby; and embryos are vulnerable and cannot survive without a favourable environment.
If the embryo is a person, it is the human rights, no matter how big it is or what it looks like. No person can be experimented on against his or her will. No person can be dissected for profit. This is a fundamental principle of a democratic society.
Regrettably, much of the debate on this issue has taken place on emotional grounds, pitting the hope of curing heart-rending medical conditions against the deeply held moral and ethical convictions of many Canadians. Such arguments frequently ignore or mischaracterize the facts. To arrive at an informed opinion on human embryonic stem cell research, it is important to have a clear understanding of precisely what embryonic stem cells are, whether embryonic stem cells are likely to be useful for medical treatments and whether there are a viable alternatives to the use of embryonic stem cells in scientific research.
A single stem cell line can produce enormous amounts of cells very rapidly. For example, one small flask of cells that is maximally expanded will generate a quantity of stem cells roughly equivalent in weight to the entire human population of the Earth in less than 60 days. Yet despite their rapid proliferation, embryonic stem cells in culture lose the coordinated activity that distinguishes embryonic development from the growth of a tumour.
Much of the debate surrounding embryonic stem cells should be centred on the ethical and moral questions raised by the use of human embryos in medical research. In contrast to the widely divergent public opinions regarding this research, it is largely assumed that from the perspective of science there is little or not debate on the matter.
The scientific merit of stem cell research is most commonly characterized as “indisputable” and the support of the scientific community as “unanimous”, rather like their support for Kyoto. Nothing could be further from the truth. While the scientific advantages and potential application of embryonic stem cells have received considerable attention in the public media, the equally compelling scientific and medical disadvantages of transplanting embryonic stem cells or their derivatives into patients have been ignored.
There is no scientific consensus about the need for human embryo experimentation. The letter from a group of leading medical researchers to the Australian senate committee studying a bill somewhat similar to Bill C-13 is instructive. It reads:
We the undersigned medical researchers submit the following points for consideration of our elected representatives:
While accepting that the debate about destruction of human embryos for research purposes is primarily an ethical one, it is relevant that from a purely scientific point of view, arguments claiming the urgent need for embryonic stem cell research are not compelling.
Undue expectations have been created in the community, particularly in those with various medical afflictions, as to the imminence and likely scope of embryonic stem cell therapy.
The community has not been properly informed of the scientific difficulties involved in developing embryonic stem cell therapies, which include major obstacles of immune rejection and cancer formation.
Research using adult stem cells, by contrast, avoids issues of rejection and cancer formation, and has the clear advantage of being able to use the patient's own cells to repair any deficits.
Such research on stem cells derived from adult and placental tissues, which has seen great advances in the last three years is quite compelling in its clinical promise, and does not involve the destruction of nascent human life.
In proper medical research, “proof of concept” must first be established in animal models before moving to human subjects. Such proof using embryonic stem cells has not been established in any conditions such as Alzheimer's, MS, diabetes and Parkinson's which are so often part of public discussion.
Therefore it is scientifically premature and improper to move human experimentation at this early stage of research.
Consistent with proper research principles, we advise that there be a moratorium on the destructive use of human embryos until, if ever, animal models are able to adequately demonstrate “proof of concept”, and human safety issues have been adequately addressed.
There are at least three compelling scientific arguments against the use of embryonic stem cells as a treatment for disease and injury.
First and foremost, there are profound immunological issues associated with putting cells derived from one human being into the body of another. The same compromises and complications associated with organ transplant hold true for embryonic stem cells. The proposed solutions to the problem of immune rejection are either scientifically dubious, socially unacceptable or both.
The second argument against the use of embryonic stem cells is based on what we know about embryology. Failing to replicate the full range of normal developmental signals is likely to have disastrous consequences. Providing some but not all the factors required for embryonic stem cell differentiation could readily generate cells that appear to be normal but in fact are quite abnormal. Transplanting incompletely differentiated cells runs the risk of introducing cells with abnormal properties into patients. This is of particular concern in light of the enormous tumour forming potential of embryonic stem cells.
The final argument against using human embryonic stem cells for research is based on sound scientific practice. We simply do not have sufficient evidence from animal studies to warrant a move to human experimentation.
While there is considerable debate over the ethical, moral and legal status of early human embryos, this debate in no way constitutes the justification to step outside the normative practice of science and medicine that requires convincing and reproducible evidence from animal models prior to initiating experiments on humans. While the potential promise of embryonic stem cell research has been widely touted, the data supporting that promise is largely non-existent.
To date there is no evidence, none, that cells generated from embryonic stem cells can be safety transplanted into adult animals to restore the function of damaged or diseased adult tissues. The level of scientific rigour that is normally applied and legally required under the Canadian Food and Drugs Act and its regulations in the development of potential medical treatments would have to be entirely ignored for experiments with human embryos to proceed.
As the largely disappointing experience with gene therapy should remind us, many highly vaunted, scientific techniques frequently failed to yield the promised results. Arbitrarily waiving the requirement for scientific evidence out of a naive faith in promise is neither good science nor a good use of Canadian taxpayer dollars.
Despite the serious limitations to the potential usefulness of embryonic stem cells, the argument in favour of this research would be considerably stronger if there were no viable alternatives. This, however, is not the case.
In the last few years, tremendous progress has been made in the field of adult stem cell research. Adult stem cells can be recovered by tissue biopsy from patients, grown in culture and induced to differentiate into a wide range of mature cell types.
The scientific, ethical, moral and, some would say, political advantages of using adult stem cells instead of embryonic ones are significant. Deriving cells from an adult patient's own tissues entirely circumvents the problem of immune rejection. Therapeutic use of adult stem cells raise very few ethical and moral issues.
In light of the compelling advantages of adult stem cells, what is the argument against their use? The first concern is a practical one: adult stem cells are more difficult than embryonic ones to grow in culture. There is a concern that scientists do not yet know how many mature cell types can be generated from a single adult stem cell population.
In theory, embryonic stem cells appear to be a more attractive option because they are clearly capable of generating all the tissues of the human body. In practice, however, it is extraordinarily difficult to get stem cells of any age to do what we want them to do in culture.
There are two important counter arguments to the assertion that the therapeutic potential of adult stem cells is less than that of embryonic stem cells because adult cells are restricted and therefore unable to generate the full range of mature cell types.
First, it is not clear at this point whether adult stem cells are more restricted than their embryonic counterparts. It is important to bear in mind that the field of adult stem cell research is not nearly as advanced as the field for embryonic stem cell research. With few exceptions, adult stem cell research has demonstrated equal or greater promise than embryonic stem cell research at a comparable stage of investigation.
Further research may very well prove that it is just as easy to teach an old dog new tricks as it is to train a wilful and unpredictable puppy. This would not eliminate the very real problems associated with teaching any dog to do anything useful, but it would remove the justification for age discrimination in the realm of stem cells.
The second counter-argument is even more fundamental. Even if adult stem cells are unable to generate the full spectrum of cell types found in the body, this very fact may turn out to be a strong scientific and medical advantage. If adult stem cells prove to have restricted rather than unlimited potential, this would indicate that adult stem cells have proceeded at least part way toward their final state, thereby reducing the number of steps scientists are required to replicate in culture. The fact that adult stem cell development has been directed by nature rather than by scientists should greatly increase our confidence in the normalcy of the cells being generated.
There is clearly much work that needs to be done before stem cells of any age can be easily used as medical treatment. It seems only practical to put our resources into the approach that is most likely to be successful in the long run.
In light of the serious problems associated with embryonic stem cells and the relatively unlimited promise of adult stem cells, there is no compelling scientific argument for taxpayer supported research on human embryos.
Embryonic stem cell research goes to the heart of how we view human life, both at its earliest and its final stages. As in the case for all matters of life and death, this research raises issues that are both painful and profound. Resolution of these issues should certainly not be based on unfounded speculation and emotional exploitation of those desperately hoping for a cure.
The bill opens the door to the use of human life as simply raw material, to make objects and commodities out of life.
It is written that Moses, after he presented to the people of Israel all the law that God had given him, said this:
I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life that you and your descendants may live....
Today we face the same fundamental moral choice. We must choose life.