Mr. Speaker, we are on Group No. 6 and the various amendments relating to that. I am not sure what I can add at this point to some of the comments already made but I do want to put some of my own thoughts into the bill.
First, I want to thank the member for Richmond—Arthabaska who was the member of the committee and our health critic at the time when the bill was introduced to the House. We then had a subsequent change in critic roles.
I was not around during the early stages of the bill when it was developed in committee. The committee travelled from one end of Canada to the other hearing expert testimony. It received ideas on what should be in a bill that is as controversial or complicated, which is probably a better word, as this bill which deals with assisted human reproductive technology.
It might be interesting for the House and the listening public to have a small sense of the history of the bill and how far back it reaches into the workings of Parliament. The response to this was a result of the Baird commission when it reported to the House of Commons in 1993.
As you were in the House at the time, Mr. Speaker, you will remember that the Baird commission was set up in the late 1980s under the government of Brian Mulroney. In fact, the wife of the current leader of the Progressive Conservative Party was a very important member of that commission. The commission did good work and as a result of that good work Bill C-47 was introduced in the House in 1996.
I do not have to remind you, Mr. Speaker, but that bill died on the Order Paper, which often happens around this place. Then, of course, after the election in 1997 a subsequent bill was introduced, Bill C-247, which basically was the same bill, but it failed the test of scrutiny and did not go any further.
Finally, in 2001, and that was when the member for Richmond—Arthabaska was our health critic, the bill was studied by committee and then reintroduced into the House as Bill C-56. However, with the prorogation of Parliament last fall, the bill had to be reintroduced again. Now we have it as Bill C-13.
The other interesting thing about the bill is that I do not think the government recognizes success when it has it within its grasp. Much of the good work that was done on Bill C-13 in committee has been objected to by the government. I will give some examples of that. I am talking about the member for Winnipeg North Centre who sits next to me and who represents the NDP in this place. She was the former health critic for her party.
I just want to give an example of how the government gets overtaken or consumed by its own sense of power and invincibility.
The member for Winnipeg North Centre worked very hard, as did the member for Yellowhead and the member for Mississauga South on the government side, to introduce thoughtful recommendations and motions at the committee stage which would have improved the bill.
One recommendation by the member for Winnipeg North Centre would have actually changed clause 26(8) to guarantee that the board of directors of the agency, which would control the bill, would have no pecuniary or proprietary interest in any business relating to the field of reproductive technologies. The wording for that amendment was based on other legislative initiatives that were very similar in make-up to the present bill.
The committee agreed to the member's amendment. However, despite the fact that the all party committee supported the amendment, when it came to the floor of the House of Commons at report stage the government eliminated that change. It overpowered the opposition and the thoughtful amendments put forward by various members of Parliament. Basically, the government used its power to defeat a logical amendment to the bill.
Not to stop there, the member put forth another amendment. In praise of that member and the hard work that she did, she put forth an amendment dealing with the agency that would oversee the regulatory side of the bill. The member said that the agency, which would consist of 13 members, should be made up of at least 50% women. The reason for that was that some of the biological aspects of the bill involved onerous procedures and medical procedures which had more to do with women than men. The committee agreed to the amendment she put forward and it was passed by the all party committee, only to be re-thought by the government and defeated here in the House in committee of the whole.
The government decided that it did not want it, that it would find a way to fix it and that it would find a way to control opposition to the bill in any respect.
In terms of clarifying the bill, in March 2002 tensions arose between the standing committee and the federal funding agency over embryonic stem cell research. The Canadian Institutes of Health Research, which distributes about $580 million annually for medical research, revealed their own guidelines for funding research on aborted fetal tissue and surplus embryos. This is important. CIHR announced that they would accept proposals involving stem cell research on fertility clinic created embryos as long as the owners had given consent based on full information.
This is where it ran afoul of the committee. The president of CIHR told the committee that the health minister was aware of their guidelines indicating that they were being used to anticipate public reaction for the proposed bill. Faced with charges that they were trying to circumvent Parliament, the CIHR then said that they would not distribute money until April 2003, allowing time for debate and the passing of the legislation. They also promised to change their guidelines if they did not match what was contained in the final legislation.
It is again the minister and her department pre-empting what might happen here on the floor of the House of Commons, assuming the bill will take a particular shape or form before it is passed by the House of Commons.
This fits in nicely with the point that I was making to you, Mr. Speaker, on Friday in terms of contempt of the House and the principles on which debate takes place in the House and what debate is all about. Basically, it is a violation of the rights of the House of Commons. It is a contempt for the House, assuming the bill will take a particular shape before it is passed by this place.
That is the situation in which the government now finds itself. I think many of the parties on this side of the House, at the initial stages of the bill, were prepared to support it. However, after witnessing the heavy hand of government, I think they have had a change of heart, particularly the party sitting next to ours at this end of the Chamber. I think I can say the same for the Bloc and certainly the same for the Canadian Alliance.
When the government tries to stifle intelligent debate on the floor of the House of Commons, assuming a bill will take a particular form or shape where the substance of the bill will only be what the government wants, there is something wrong with the process. It is not the first time the minister has displayed that kind of contempt for the House of Commons.
My argument would be that it should be a free vote in this place on a bill that is as controversial as this one. Our party will be having a free vote on this bill because there are some areas of conscience, ethics and morality. It would be interesting to see what would happen on the government side of the Chamber if all of its members were allowed to vote freely on the merits of the bill. I think we would be surprised at the outcome.
Let us take a look at some of the members on the other side. The member for Mississauga West brought forward very thoughtful recommendations on the bill on how it can be improved so that outcomes are improved. One of the recommendations that came from the other side of the House was on how the bill should be split. I think most of us would have no problem with that. I think it would make it a lot easier for some of us to support the bill if it were split. It was recommended by at least one party, if not two parties in the House, that it would be desirable if the bill were split between prohibited activities, like cloning, for example, and controlled activities, like embryonic stem cell research.
If we were to look at it from the government's point of view, it would be caving into the opposition. It certainly could not do that but that is a very thoughtful recommendation and one that government members should entertain. If they did that we would find that more people on this side of the House would be more supportive of the bill. Of course, that would not be in keeping with the government's record of engaging parliamentarians on both sides of the House, listening to thoughtful debate and responding accordingly.
We will be having a free vote on this. I look forward to second reading and I look forward to debating further amendments in Group No. 7.