No stacked deck

  • January 5, 2007

Just before Christmas, in one of those quiet moves governments make when everyone's attention is somewhere else, Health Minister Tony Clement announced the membership of the new board to run the Assisted Human Reproduction Canada agency. It has been a long time coming.

This agency was first recommended in 1993 by the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies, which saw it as a regulatory body that would oversee fertility treatments in Canada. The government finally got around to passing legislation in 2004 to enshrine the idea in law. However, no one set up the agency until the Conservative government took over from Paul Martin's Liberals almost a year ago.

On Friday, Dec. 23, Clement announced the composition of the 10-member board. Immediately cries of alarm went up among the stem-cell research community, at least in the pages of the Globe and Mail. Their concern: that the board was dominated by pro-lifers who would make their lives difficult. The Globe, in a Dec. 29 editorial, took up the cause, lamenting the "stacked deck."

The evidence of such stacking is remarkably flimsy. Four of the 10 members have views that would be considered on the pro-life side of the spectrum: Suzanne Scorsone is research director for the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Toronto and wrote a dissenting report as a member of the royal commission; Joseph Ayoub is an oncologist at the University of Montreal who has spoken out against euthanasia; Francoise Baylis is a bioethicist at Dalhousie University in Halifax and has in the past called for a moratorium on the use of fresh embryos in stem-cell research, arguing that only frozen embryos should be used; and David Novak is a professor of Jewish studies at the University of Toronto who opposed abortion except in extreme circumstances such as when the life of the mother is threatened.

This group is, first of all, a minority on the board and, secondly, hardly radical or fanatical. There's no evidence that they would even agree on all the issues the new agency will have to deal with or be interested in forming a voting bloc to push through their own views.

While the views of the remaining six members on these issues haven't been publicized, no one suggests they are not qualified to be there. None of them is a stem-cell scientist, but they would appear to offer wide-ranging perspectives that should be part of any debate over how Canada oversees this vital area of life.

The act on new reproductive technologies is not just about whether embryos are used in stem-cell research (which is opposed by Catholic teaching and somewhat circumscribed by the Canadian law). It is about how to ensure Canada does not allow the exploitation of women and children in the development of new methods of fertility and how to ensure the science and practice are done ethically. To that end the government has made some wise choices.

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