Mr. Speaker, I thank the two previous members who spoke to the legislation. They made some very thoughtful comments.
I rise today to address Bill C-56, an act respecting assisted human reproduction. The legislation deals with some very difficult medical, scientific and ethical issues.
The bill has been expected for a long time, ever since the royal commission on new reproductive technologies reported in 1993. It is of course a direct response to the report of the House of Commons Standing Committee on Health which reviewed draft legislation and made a series of recommendations on December 12, 2001.
I would like to publicly commend all members of that committee for their work, particularly our health critic, the member for Yellowhead, and the former member for Calgary Southwest, the former leader of the opposition, Mr. Preston Manning.
As the two previous speakers said, this is one of the most important issues we will discuss during this parliament. What does the bill do specifically? The proposed bill prohibits unacceptable practices, such as creating a human clone for any purpose, reproductive or therapeutic purposes; identifying the sex of an embryo created for reproductive purposes except for medical reasons, such as sex linked disorders; creating human/non-human combinations for reproductive purposes; paying a woman a financial incentive to be a surrogate mother, commercial surrogacy; paying donors for their sperm or eggs or providing goods or services in exchange; and selling or buying human embryos or providing goods or services in exchange. The official opposition generally supports these measures.
I would like to point out in particular the prohibition of sex selection for reproductive purposes. In 1994, as an assistant to the former MP for Surrey North, I had the opportunity to work on a private member's motion that sought to do exactly this. I commend the government for finally putting forward this measure in legislation.
The legislation would also establish the assisted human reproductive agency of Canada. This agency would operate as a separate organizational entity from Health Canada reporting to the Minister of Health. It would have up to 13 members on a board of directors reflecting a range of backgrounds and disciplines. I would suggest that whoever determines the agency, such as the minister, should consider someone like the former member for Calgary Southwest, Preston Manning, as a member on that board.
The agency would also be responsible for licensing, monitoring and enforcement of the act and its regulations. It would maintain a donor offspring registry. Finally, it would provide reliable information on assisted human reproduction to Canadians.
Our main concern about the agency is that it would report to the Minister of Health. We question whether it would have the independence required of such an agency to be truly effective.
The most contentious issue in the bill is obviously embryonic stem cell research, in particular, the fact that excess embryos would be used for research purposes. The bill would prohibit the creation of embryos solely for research purposes, something which I very much support.
I want to respond to the previous speaker whose comments I felt were well thought out. If we were to allow excess embryos from IVF, how could we be sure that they were not created simply for research purposes?
The member also indicated that the embryo was life and that if an excess embryo were created and subsequently killed, through death would we not seek to help other lives? That is partly true ethically, but the question is, are we unwillingly killing an embryo? This is not a willing person giving his or her life in a defensive situation for another life. There is no consent and that is something we have to consider.
This is a very difficult medical issue. My uncle is a diabetes researcher in Edmonton. I know many scientists are looking at embryonic stem cell research and see a lot of possibilities in it. They are looking at helping people through this research.
My main concern with this legislation and with other bills that come before the House is the lack of guidance by first principles. The majority report of the health committee suggested we include in the preamble of the legislation the phrase “the dignity of and respect for human life”. That has to be in the bill at the very beginning. We have to be guided by that first principle.
That was stated in both the majority report from the Liberals and the minority report from the official opposition. It should be included in clause 22 of the bill as a primary objective of the new agency.
That brings me to the biggest question we face, which is the question behind the bill. It seems that many people do not want to answer the question of the distinction between a human life, human being or human person. It is interesting to note that philosophers in ancient times always defined terms in the preamble or before they even got down to the serious work. That is what we have to do here. We have to define these terms.
The definition of a human being under section 223(1) of the criminal code, as it is currently written, states:
A child becomes a human being within the meaning of this Act when it has completely proceeded, in a living state, from the body of its mother, whether or not
(a) it has breathed,
(b) it has an independent circulation, or
(c) the navel string is severed.
Frankly, that definition is unacceptable to me and it is unacceptable to most ethicists and people in the medical community in Canada.
I would draw the attention of the House to a question Mr. Preston Manning asked during the health committee discussion on this draft bill. He wanted to know what the moral status of the embryo as captured by the legislation should be and how we would establish and define that moral status in law? That was an excellent question.
Ms. Françoise Baylis, from Dalhousie University's department of bioethics, gave the following response:
In philosophy, we would refer to this as an essentially contested concept. There is no answer to it because it is not a matter of fact, and there are no more facts to put on the table that will resolve the question, though there are more facts about human development.
The first thing to recognize in the legislation and in all of your conversations is that embryos are human beings.
Her response contradicts the definition that is currently in the criminal code.
She went on to state:
That is an uncontested biological fact. They are a member of the human species. What is contested is their moral status. The language we use there is technical and that's where we talk about persons.
She has distinguished between a human being and a human person.
She went on to state:
I think what becomes very clear is that when you are talking about embryos you don't need to have a debate about whether or not they are human or human beings. The answer is yes.
She said that debate had been decided. She said that it was a biological claim and stated:
The term “person” however is not a biological term. It is not a term about which there are facts. It is a moral term, a value laden term about which people will disagree and they will then point to facts and try to tell you that their definition is the right one.
I think that was a very illuminating exchange between Preston Manning and Françoise Baylis. That to me is the crux of the issue here. If it is, as she said, decided that the embryo is in fact a human being but it is not technically a human person, then that is what our debate should be about today.
If we all agree that the embryo is a nascent human life but it is not necessarily a person, what is it that distinguishes a human person from a human being? What characteristics or criteria do we use? When do embryos become persons and what is the distinction?
In researching this I went through some of my old essays. One essay was by the Canadian philosopher, George Grant, one of the most pre-eminent philosophers this country has ever seen. In discussing another issue, he said that we have to think as a society about what it is that is common to us as a species but unique to us as a species so that we can stand up and say there is a charter of rights in which we as human beings have a right to life. We do not do that. The definition in the criminal code is simply biological, not ethical. That is a debate we should have.
The reason the Canadian Alliance and the official opposition are very hesitant about embryonic stem cell research is not only because of the potential of adult stem cell research but because it is part of our conservative philosophy that we define things, as Aristotle did, not simply as they are, not simply looking at what they are today but at what they will potentially be. That was his famous concept of actus et potentia in which we examine an acorn, not just look at it but examine it, knowing that it will become an oak tree. We also look at an embryo not just as an embryo but we look at it knowing that it will become a human being.
In conclusion, I encourage all members to deliberate on these very difficult medical, scientific and ethical issues.