Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of March 11, 2002
Guidelines open door to embryo research
By ART BABYCH
Canadian Catholic News
The Catholic Organization for Life and Family is disappointed with new guidelines that allow stem cell research on human embryos left over from infertility treatment or therapeutic abortions.
"In this type of stem cell research, the embryo, who we consider to be a human being, dies," said Jennifer Leddy, co-director of COLF.
"In our view, the embryo should be treated as a human subject not as a research object," she said in a CCN interview March 4 following the release of stem cell research guidelines by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR).
"While we can empathize with the hope of those who are looking for a cure for degenerative diseases, this cure cannot be at the expense of another human life, however small, however fragile or invisible to the naked eye," she added.
In releasing the guidelines at a news conference in Ottawa, Dr. Alan Bernstein, president of the CIHR, said stem cell research holds great potential to treat human disease and prevent suffering.
"Stem cells may one day offer treatments for a host of debilitating diseases including Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and heart disease," he said. "At the same time, their derivation and use raise ethical, social issues and legal concerns of interest to Canadians."
Eleven months earlier, the CIHR released a discussion paper on guidelines governing public federal funding of research using stem cells and followed it with a consultation process involving a working group.
That body received 116 responses from interest groups and individuals. Among them was the response from COLF, created by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the Knights of Columbus.
COLF said there is no longer any question the embryo is a human being. "This is not only a well accepted scientific given but the very reason why the human embryo is so valuable to researchers," it said.
No amount of public benefit can ever justify the deliberate killing of a human being," COLF said in its submission.
Ethicist, Dr. Francoise Baylis, who also spoke at the CIHR news conference, noted, "Some believe that the human embryo is a person with full moral status from the moment of conception and as such that it has an inalienable right to life."
According to this view, he added, "embryonic stem cell research is unacceptable because it requires the destruction of human embryos."
However, he said others believe that the early human embryo is "just a collection of cells." To them the embryo's moral status is equivalent to that of any other cells in the body, he said. Baylis noted, however, that the CIHR guidelines do not address the issue of moral status.
Leddy said she found it "very striking" that a document that proposes to fund embryonic stem cell research "would not have taken the time" to do a full ethical analysis of the moral status of the human embryo.
"I find it amazing that the CIHR did not consider the full moral status of the human embryo," she said, "particularly when they received so many responses from people indicating that they believe that the human embryo has a full moral status."
The CIHR guidelines were issued as the federal government is preparing to pass legislation as early as May that will govern research on embryonic and adult stem cells.
Bonnie Brown, the chair of the standing committee on health, told reporters she was shocked that CIHR had given the green light to funding for stem cell research before Parliament had passed its legislation and said "scientists are running the show."
Leddy agreed "a policy decision of this magnitude really ought to be made by Parliament after full consultation with the public."
She asked, "Who does the CIHR represent? It's a working group of a very limited number of people, but members of Parliament do represent Canadians and they are accountable to Canadians."
The Canadian Alliance party also accused the CIHR of bypassing Parliament by implementing the guidelines before the government passed its bill. "The CIHR is making rules on controversial embryonic stem cell research before Parliament has even debated the subject," said Rob Merrifield, the party's senior health critic.
Author and lawyer Maureen McTeer told CBC Newsworld March 3 that the CIHR was heading down a "slippery slope" reminiscent of the argument used by Nazi Germany that it was alright to do research on subjects in death camps because they were "only Jews."
Said McTeer, "We are now saying these are only embryos."