Protection of Conscience Project
Protection of Conscience Project
Service, not Servitude

Service, not Servitude

Would You Like Fries with that Embryo?

It's Not Adoption, Just 'Material'

Ottawa Wrestles Once Again With Embryo Ownership And Experimentation

Alberta Report Newsmagazine
May 31, 1999
Reproduced with permission

Marnie Ko

As a measure of how rapidly reproductive science is changing society, Canadians may be able to "adopt" a human embryo as early as this fall. Doris Cook, reproductive technology spokesman for the federal Department of Health, confirms that a comprehensive bill to regulate the use of human materials such as ova, sperm and embryos-issues that now are only loosely regulated by individual provinces-is being prepared. If, as expected, the new law addresses the issue of embryo adoption, Canada will set a legal precedent among nations. Observers are concerned that the new law may allow embryonic experimentation. Moreover, they say, the new legislation could unintentionally confer the status of "human being" upon the unborn.

This is not the first time the Liberal government has tried to regulate human reproductive technology. But its previous proposal, Bill C-47, died on the order paper when Prime Minister Jean Chretien called the 1997 federal election. According to Ms. Cook, C-47 will serve as a basis for the next effort. It will be a "combination of prohibitions such as those in the legislation," she says, "but it will also contain a new regulatory component to provide a management framework for the use of reproductive materials."

The possibility of embryo adoption springs from Health Minister Allan Rock's announcement two weeks ago that the Human Reproductive and Genetic Technologies bill will legislate the fate of surplus" human embryos-referring to babies between two to eight weeks of gestation. According to Ms. Cook, embryo adoption is viewed as a solution to the problem of the excess embryos created as part of an in vitro procedure for infertile couples.

The in vitro fertilization process begins by inducing the mother to produce eight to 10 embryos; but only two or three are usually implanted and the rest are frozen. Rumours of unused embryos being given to other infertile couples continually circulate. But Ms. Cook says many are used for research purposes and others are destroyed through the "defrosting" process. Once defrosted, Ms. Cook says, "they can only be maintained a certain amount of time."

Ms. Cook admits that allowing the creation of embryos solely for research purposes is another "contentious" example of the bill's scope. "Under the new bill, the creation of embryos just for research could be regulated instead of prohibited," she says, "and then be used to help understand infertility."

Toward this end, the department plans to establish a "national regulatory body" to govern any such deliberate creation of living human embryos for research-a Frankenstein possibility that Ms. Cook acknowledges may not be popular with the general public. The precise contents of the new regulatory bill are not yet clear, Ms. Cook quickly adds, but many existing restrictions on the use of human genetic material will be lessened, and things formerly banned will be "regulated."

The new bill also liberalizes the government's stand on sperm donation. Previously it prohibited the sale of sperm because "this kind of commercialization was not consistent with Canadian values," says Ms. Cook. But the new bill will "probably be replaced with compensation under tight regulations...permitting financial remuneration as long as it isn't an inducement."

But embryo adoption, which will require a screening process for potential recipients similar to the process followed in ordinary adoptions, is the portion of the new legislation that potentially possesses the farthest-reaching implications. Women will be prohibited from producing embryos for profit, Ms. Cook says, "and the new regulatory agency would have responsibility for all aspects of assisted reproduction and use of genetic materials." She is vague on exactly how jurisdiction over embryos will be divided between the federal and provincial governments, saying only that "adoption is an issue for provinces."

Edmonton lawyer Mark McCourt says that because the new law will present the government with a tricky legal conundrum it will probably avoid the word adoption. "It might be cute to call this adoption," he says, "but I suspect that to avoid conferring legal personhood on the unborn the government will treat embryos as a property rights issue, using a word more akin to ownership."

He predicts the government will approach human embryo adoption as a form of "donation of human tissue," using terms such as "donor" and "recipient" to steer away from treating these human lives as human beings with human rights.

Department spokesman Cook confirms Mr. McCourt's suspicions. "A baby would have to be born to have rights," says Ms. Cook. "This is just the donation of reproductive material."