More MS news articles for May 2002

New bill backs stem-cell research

Sweeping law would also ban human cloning

May. 10, 01:00 EDT
Tim Harper

Health Minister Anne McLellan has introduced sweeping legislation governing assisted human reproduction, banning human cloning and outlawing commercial surrogacy but giving the green light to highly contentious embryonic stem-cell research.

The legislation is the latest attempt to regulate reproductive issues since a royal commission reported to Parliament in 1993, and there is no guarantee the bill will become law.

Not only does it face fierce opposition in some quarters, including the Liberal caucus, but its introduction threatens to reopen the abortion debate. And an abrupt end to the parliamentary session would kill the bill, just as a previous attempt died on the eve of the 1997 election.

Key provisions of The Act Respecting Assisted Human Reproduction include:

A ban on cloning humans, the creation of human-animal hybrids and sex-selection of babies for non-medical purposes.

The creation of a new government-appointed body, the Assisted Human Reproduction Agency of Canada, to regulate scientific and medical use of human reproductive materials.

Allowing research using stem cells from embryos left over from infertility treatment, if scientists show they are necessary for research aims.

Making the payment of financial incentives to surrogate mothers illegal, although women could be compensated for reasonable expenses.

Maintaining a databank on sperm donors. Medical information would be released to offspring on demand, but identities would be revealed only with donor consent.

Moments after she tabled her bill, McLellan tried to keep her legislation broadly focused and away from the narrow debate over embryonic stem-cell research, which opponents say goes to the heart of the debate over when life begins.

"The focus should be on the infertile community in this country," McLellan said.

She noted that 1,400 babies are born each year in Canada following in vitro fertilization, and one couple in eight is infertile.

"This is an important social issue," she said. "It is an important issue for families and one that goes to the very heart of how we construct our families."

A parliamentary committee, however, had unanimously agreed that embryonic stem cells should be used only as a "last resort."

McLellan's law says they'd be used only "if necessary" something to be defined by the new agency.

She said only surplus embryos would be used for research and it was wrong to turn the debate into one over the creation of life for scientific purposes.

"Do you know what happens to surplus embryos? Do you know what happens? They go in the garbage," McLellan told reporters.

The green light for embryonic stem-cell research drew praise from those working to cure debilitating and sometimes fatal diseases such as cancer, diabetes, Parkinson's disease or spinal cord injuries.

Stem cells have the ability to divide for indefinite periods and the potential to develop into mature cells that have characteristic shapes and specialized functions, such as heart cells, skin cells of nerve cells.

"Today there is new hope for millions of Canadians who suffer from devastating diseases, including hundreds of thousands of Canadians with juvenile diabetes," said Ron Forbes, president of the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.

"Pursuing embryonic stem-cell research is critical in the fight against juvenile diabetes."

The Canadian Alliance had called for a three-year moratorium on the use of embryonic stem cells.

Health critic Rob Merrifield (Yellowhead) said adult stem cells have proven effective, while embryonic stem-cell research remains unproven.

"When you start to diminish the value of human life, you are on a very slippery slope," he said.

Pro-life Mississauga South Liberal Paul Szabo said there will be opportunities over "the long haul" to amend the bill.

NDP health critic Judy Wasylycia-Leis (Winnipeg North Centre) said McLellan is passing the buck to bureaucrats through the creation of the new regulatory body, which will have a $10 million budget and be able to issue, renew, suspend or revoke researchers' licences.

"She has offloaded responsibility onto an agency which is one step removed from public accountability and parliamentary scrutiny," she said.

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