1/12/2007

Assisted Human Reproduction

I happened to come across this interesting article at PoliticsWatch.com. It's about the reaction of this American to the appointment of members to the Board of Directors of Assisted Human Reproduction Canada.
First of all, let me just say that I didn't even know such a thing existed. It really hasn't been in the news at all. According to the website, Assisted Human Reproduction Canada (AHRC), was established under the Assisted Human Reproduction Act, and received Royal Assent on March 29, 2004. This was in response to the 1993 Report of the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies.
The American in question is Sigrid Fry-Revere, Director of Bioethics Studies at The Cato Institute. His opinion is that:
Once again politics is mucking up potentially ground breaking research. In 1993 the Royal Commission on Reproductive Technologies recommended banning all assisted reproduction involving commercialized arrangements, experimental procedures, and other potentially unethical and/or unsafe treatments, Canada has been on whatever one might call the opposite of being at the forefront of reproductive technologies.
Since 1995 there has been a "voluntary" moratorium on the use of many reproductive technologies, including embryonic stem cell research, cloning, and genetic engineering of all kinds. In 2004, almost ten years later, the Assisted Human Reproduction Act passed with the Royal Commission's blessing and now Canada's Health Minister Tony Clement has closed out 2006 with the appointment of a board to implement the Act.
That ten member board consists of policy, bioethics, and religious experts. They are the ones who will manage the new agency (The Assisted Human Reproduction Canada) created by the Act to license, monitor, evaluate, activities controlled by the Act. There is no one on the board with a history of advocating either for those in need of reproductive technologies or embryonic stem cell research. It is likely, given the composition of the board, that the regulations promised for nineteen months from now will have little to offer those in need of new reproductive technologies or embryonic stem cell therapies.
There isn't much hope on the horizon for new reproductive technologies and embryonic stem cell research in Canada, but in the U.S. both available treatments and research way surpass developments to the north. There even are several therapeutic protocols in the U.S. for infertility treatment using embryonic stem cells. So, unless politics stymies scientific advancements in the U.S. as well, Canadians will still have the option of looking to their neighbors for help.

Liberal MP's Ruby Dhalla and Carolyn Bennett would apparently agree with him. They say that "We end up with a rabbi and a nun (on the board), we end up with all this sort of religious, ethical stuff swirling around and we have left out the people affected... and it's distracting in this particular topic." Supposedly the government has "stacked" the board "with members who actually overtly oppose stem-cell research and the use of assisted reproductive technologies."
So, the Director at Cato must have a point, right?
Wrong.
Dhalla and Bennett are also wrong.
First of all, if you read the article at PoliticsWatch and also check the AHR website, you will note that the Board will consist of 13 members. Right now, there are only 10. The Agency will not be operational until all 13 members are appointed. It is premature to comment on the structure of the Board until all members have been selected.
Secondly, the two primary objectives of the AHR are:
* to protect and promote the health and safety, and the human dignity and human rights, of Canadians in relation to AHR; and

* to foster the application of ethical principles in relation to AHR.

Since the question of ethics is a part of the primary objectives of the organization, people of religion must be included in the Board. It would be inappropriate in the extreme for the government to exclude peoples of faith on any question of ethics. Religion (or lack thereof) is probably one of the most important components of an individuals ethics. The question of life and when does it begin is also very important to many religious groups. There is a wide variety of opinion and a Board like this must include as many voices as it can. Even if a true consensus cannot be fully obtained, there must at least be an opportunity for diverse views to be heard.
Also, I disagree with Fry-Revere's implicit assumption that a government should not ban unethical medical procedures. As far as I am concerned, that is their job. You simply cannot give carte blanche approval to any and all forms of research. Recall that the Nazis also performed medical research. Who did they use?
That's right. Innocent victims holed up in concentration camps.
To say that a government should never ban unethical research and should never be involved in controlling what can and can't be done in the name of research opens the door to a scenario like that. Certainly, this is not what the good doctor intended. Still, you have to be careful what you advocate.
Given Fry-Revere's argument, it also seems likely that he is unaware of the legal situation in Canada with regards to abortion. When it comes to the topic of stem cell research, abortion is never too far behind. It must be noted that unlike the US, Canada has absolutely no abortion laws whatsoever. I discovered this last month when I did some reading on the issue (I was intrigued by the reaction to Elizabeth May's comments.) Due to our lack of law, some very extreme scenarios are possible.
For example, a woman has little to no legal recourse if she is forced to have an abortion. A woman can have an abortion right up until delivery if she so chooses. A woman has little or no legal recourse if someone shoots her in the stomach and kills her baby but she survives. The list goes on. There is nothing, so far as I can tell, that might prevent an unethical doctor from harvesting stem cells from pregnant women by performing an abortion without her consent if she does not yet know she is pregnant. (If you can cite a law to the contrary, please do so, as I am continuously looking for more info on this subject. The "no one would ever do that" argument does NOT count.)
In closing, I'd like to add that I really don't care what a doctor from the US, who hasn't bothered to fully inform himself of the situation, has to say on how we deal with our ethical research issues. The laws in Canada are not the same as the US. The political situation is not the same. If anything should come up that might involve Charter Rights (and it probably will), then things will proceed slowly and carefully... as they should. Quite frankly, he should have withheld judgment until he had an opportunity to see final composition of the Board and how it functions.

3 comments:

Fergy said...

I'm scratching my head trying to figure out what stem cell research has to do with Assisted Human Reproduction.

I know that recent research shows that amniotic fluid has smaller amounts of it, but I'm assuming that this because there already is a viable fetus there. Hence no need to "assist" reproduction.

Ruth said...

The Act deals with more than just helping people get pregnant. It forbids things using human embryos for a wide variety of research purposes, including cloning and puts certain restrictions on surrogacy and what may be done with embryos. Under the Act, creating embryos for the purpose of harvesting stem cells would be illegal.

Ruth said...

Actually, I should clarify something I said in my post. I said:
"There is nothing, so far as I can tell, that might prevent an unethical doctor from harvesting stem cells from pregnant women by performing an abortion without her consent if she does not yet know she is pregnant."
Since the Assisted Human Reproduction Act explicitly forbids the creation and termination of embryos for the purposes of scientific research, the law could be used to prevent a doctor from performing abortions on women in order to harvest stem cells.

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