Mr. Speaker, Bill C-56 has to do with reproductive technologies and related research. I would think that most members would agree that the vast majority of the bill has some important provisions which should be supported. However, there are a few items which should be considered for amendment.
One of the areas has to do with stem cells. Stem cells in lay terms are cells which can be adjusted to become virtually any healthy cell in the human body. This means that those cells could be used to repair damaged cells.
Stem cells can be harvested from embryos. They can also be harvested from aborted fetuses, umbilical cords, umbilical cord blood, placentas, amniotic fluid, in fact from virtually every organ in the human body. They are readily available but the question does come up as to whether or not it is ethical to harvest embryonic stem cells from the human embryo.
There is a saying in ethics that when the ethically unacceptable and the scientifically possible are in conflict, the ethical view must prevail. I also cite Dr. Françoise Baylis, who is a bioethicist at McGill University. In her testimony before the Standing Committee on Health, I believe it was on May 31, 2001 she said “An embryo is a human being. That is an uncontested biological fact. It is a member of the human species”.
I do not believe that in terms of the ethical view there is a disagreement with regard to whether or not an embryo is a human being. However, there are ethical arguments about whether or not that human being is in fact a person. It is a deep ethical argument into which I do not have the time to go. There is some basis for having concern about embryonic stem cell research.
The province of Quebec, on hearing the direction in which the Canadian Institutes of Health Research was going, immediately called for and imposed a ban on all embryonic stem cell research in the province. That was in January.
In February there was another important development. The secretary of human and health services in the United States introduced an amendment to a regulation which defines child. For health purposes, child in the United States is defined as a person under 19 years of age, including the period from conception to birth. It is a very significant change in the United States in terms of its policy with regard to the unborn.
The big debate has to do with an ethical argument surrounding when life begins. Human embryos can provide stem cells but uniquely from those stem cells there is an ethical problem in that to harvest the stem cells the embryo must be destroyed. That is an important point. Also, because the stem cells taken from an embryo would be of a particular DNA foreign to the ultimate patient, that means there will be immune rejection problems and the requirement for lifelong anti-rejection drug treatment which is a difficult situation.
In addition, embryonic stem cells which are injected under the skin have a tendency to create spontaneous tumours. They are very difficult to control. In a monograph I wrote, “The Ethics and Science of Stem Cells”, I related an example where embryonic stem cells were injected into the brain of a Parkinson's patient. After the person died about year later an autopsy showed that there was hair and bone growing in the person's brain. It gives an idea of the kinds of things that should concern people about what can happen when we start to play with genetic engineering.
On the other hand, with adult stem cells, there is no ethical problem. Because they would come from the patient, there would be no immune rejection problem nor the requirement for drugs. The stem cells would be readily available. Instead of being injected into a person's damaged area, they are simply injected into the blood and they have the ability to migrate to the damaged area.
It makes a great deal of sense to expand the research with regard to embryonic stem cells. This was the point of the motion made by the hon. member, to amplify the importance of adult stem cell research as the health committee indicated.
The whole issue has to do with research on surplus embryos from fertility clinics. If there was no surplus, there would be no question here. Let me give the House an idea of what happens.
Dr. Baylis, to whom I referred earlier, indicated there were about 500 frozen embryos in all fertility clinics across Canada. Currently about 250 of those are being utilized for reproductive purposes which leaves 250. In her presentation she also indicated that half of the frozen embryos will not survive thawing. They will die simply because of the process. That leaves 125. She went on to say that of the 125 embryos left, only nine of them will have the capacity to produce any kind of stem cell and only about five of those will actually produce stem cells which are of a quality necessary for research purposes. This means that only five out of 250 embryos are useful, but 250 embryos have to be destroyed just to get five that are going to be useful for research. That is 2%, which is an unacceptable threshold for scientific research. We have to do something about it.
What can we do about it? If there were no surplus embryos from fertility clinics, the question would be moot. We would be dealing with a motion that states that embryos can be created specifically for research and then put that question to the House.
The bill suggests that we use surplus embryos which should not exist. That is trying to get through the back door what research cannot get through the front door, that is, to have embryos for research. We should deal with that question directly. I wish the House were able to deal with that motion.
We can do something about this. There has been extensive research with regard to the process of storing women's eggs. Fertility clinics drug women very heavily to make them hyperovulate. This makes them produce a whole bunch of eggs. Ten to 20 eggs would be harvested. All of those eggs would then be fertilized. Some would be used for in vitro fertilization. The balance would be frozen for future in vitro processes. If the first process worked and the couple did not want a second child and they did not want to donate the egg to another person who wanted it, the embryos would become surplus.
What happens if we store women's eggs? It means that only a few will be harvested. Those needed for the in vitro fertilization process will be fertilized and stored. Once the first process is done and more eggs are required for the next process, they simply are thawed out, fertilized and then implanted. The bottom line is there would be no surplus. It is very important that more be invested in the process of storing women's eggs.
In a previous speech I indicated my concern about the whole question of commercialization. On May 24 I received from Dr. Timothy Caulfield, who appeared before the health committee, a response to my concern about commercialization. He said:
In particular, I too am concerned about the impact of the commercialization process in this context. Much of my work has sought to highlight the potentially adverse implications of commercializing genetic research, e.g., the creation of unique conflicts of interest, the skewing of university based research, contributing to the narrowing of the social definition of “normalcy” and a broadening of the notions of disease and disability.
There are very many issues involved with this legislation, including things like patentability and the idea of having an agency to whom we would second the responsibility for defining an ethical framework for research. The bill needs a lot of work. I want Canadians to know that there is no group, no organization, no individual who is opposed to stem cell research. The question is will we get them ethically?