Register Correspondent

TORONTO-Canadian Church groups have raised concerns that the federal government may be backing away from a pledge to regulate a number of controversial practices in the new area of reproductive technology.

Last summer, Canada's health ministry shelved Bill C-47, a major piece of legislation that would have banned 13 types of reproductive and genetic technology. Among the practices to be prohibited were the sale of human sperm and ova, human cloning, and the creation of human-animal hybrids.

The bill, originally introduced in Canada's Parliament in 1996, received its second reading in November of that year. At that time, the measure seemed to enjoy the support of both medical and Church organizations. Final action on the bill (which is conducted after a required third reading) was postponed, however, when the government called a general election last summer.

Several groups have since urged the government to revive Bill C-47, but Canada's federal health minister, Allan Rock, has been in no hurry to proceed with the legislation.

Rock recently told Canada's national pro-life newspaper that further consultation is required prior to further government action on Bill C- 47. He suggested there is need for more review of the complexities surrounding genetic technology before proceeding with any legislative initiatives.

“The development and application of new reproductive and genetic technologies has raised many profound social, ethical, legal, and health issues,” Rock said. “Consultations reveal the need to legislate in this area to ensure the health and safety of those most affected by these practices, and to ensure that new reproductive and genetic technologies which violate Canadian values are not performed.”

Meanwhile, Canadian Church groups claim there has already been widespread consultation on the issue and that it is time to continue with the measure. Some months ago, the health ministry indicated it was prepared to make new reproductive technology legislation a priority. Church and pro-life groups have been left wondering about the lack of progress. In his 1995 encyclical Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life), Pope John Paul II wrote: “Respect for life requires that science and technology should always be at the service of man and his integral development. Society as a whole must respect, defend, and promote the dignity of every human person, at every moment and in every condition of that person's life” (81).

Bill C-47 was seen as an attempt to fill a legislative void in the new reproductive technology and genetic engineering field. The bill was the suggestion of a Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies, which was established in 1992 to make recommendations for new legislation. Before acting on the proposals of the Commission, the Canadian government asked medical and genetic research organizations to abide by a voluntary moratorium on controversial reproductive practices. Bill C-47 was described at the time as an attempt to establish a legislative framework around the moratorium.

Despite some concerns, Catholic and pro-life organizations generally supported Bill C-47.

“Notwithstanding some reservations and concerns, the Catholic bishops believe that the government has made important progress in setting boundaries around these rapidly expanding technologies both in the provisions of Bill C-47 and in the proposal for a regulatory scheme,” Canada's Catholic bishops' conference said in response to the legislation.

Suzanne Scorsone, director of the family life office for the Archdiocese of Toronto, and a member of the Commission on Reproductive Technology, is unaware of any government plans to radically change Bill C-47.

“As far as I have heard, the health minister is standing by his pledge to move forward with this legislation — although I understand he has many other items to deal with at this time,” Scorsone told the Register.

Nonetheless, Catholic and evangelical groups have become dismayed at the slow pace of implementation. Further, some groups have expressed fear that the health ministry may be bowing to pressure from medical groups to soften its original position.

Archbishop Adam Exner of Vancouver, British Columbia, head of the Canadian bishops' Catholic Organization for Life and Family (COLF), has criticized the federal health ministry for its foot-dragging on Bill C-47.

Archbishop Exner referred to a letter COLF received from Rock in December. In the letter, the health minister said further review of the complexities surrounding the new reproductive health issue is needed before making any decisions.

“Nearly four years have passed since the Royal Commission delivered its substantial report,” Archbishop Exner said. “While we recognize the complexity of these issues, we are not convinced that action should be postponed pending further investigation, given the extensive consultation by the Royal Commission, the government's own department, and the parliamentary committee studying Bill C-47.”

The prelate said recent media reports of a plan to clone human beings makes legislation in the reproductive technology area more urgent than ever.

“It is no comfort to us to be reminded that the voluntary moratorium, which was roundly condemned when it was announced almost three years ago, is still in place,” Archbishop Exner said.

Other voices have echoed Archbishop Exner's view. Sister Kateri Ghesquiere of the Congregation of St. Joseph is chairperson of the Ottawa-based Catholic Health Association of Canada (CHAC). In a recent letter to Canada's health minister, Sister Ghesquiere criticized any move to soften the strong stand against various types of genetic engineering.

“Bill C-47 represented an important step toward safeguarding such core values as human dignity, respect for life ,and protection of the vulnerable,” she wrote. “The Catholic Health Association of Canada is now concerned that recent comments by the health minister reflect a major change in policy concerning new reproductive and genetic technologies.”

Sister Ghesquiere said most of the proposals contained in the original legislation were in accord with the wishes of the majority of Canadians. She added that Canadians are overwhelmingly opposed to the commercialization of human reproduction and to the unregulated excesses of genetic manipulation and experimentation.

Sister Ghesquiere also suggested the federal government's handling of Bill C-47 is an abdication of leadership in a crucial area of public health policy.

“We urge the government to reintroduce Bill C-47 immediately and to refrain from weakening the prohibitions which this same government, only months ago, said were necessary to protect the health and values of Canadians,” she wrote. “Bill C-47 went a long way to achieving important goals and we urge the government not to weaken its commitment to put firm legal limits on the use of these technologies.”

Other Canadian Church groups, including the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada and the Canadian Council of Churches, are monitoring the progress of a government task force on biotechnology. The task force, which wrapped up its hearings April 30, will make further recommendations to the health minister. The Church groups are concerned that many of the task force hearings focused on the medical and economic aspects of new reproductive technology, rather than on moral and ethical considerations.

Mike Mastromatteo writes from Toronto, Canada.