Would You Like Fries with that Embryo?
It's Not Adoption, Just 'Material'
Ottawa Wrestles Once Again With Embryo Ownership And Experimentation
Alberta Report Newsmagazine
May 31, 1999
Reproduced with permission
As a measure of how rapidly reproductive science
is changing society, Canadians may be able to
"adopt" a human embryo as early as this fall. Doris
Cook, reproductive technology spokesman for the
federal Department of Health, confirms that a
comprehensive bill to regulate the use of human
materials such as ova, sperm and embryos-issues that
now are only loosely regulated by individual
provinces-is being prepared. If, as expected, the
new law addresses the issue of embryo adoption,
Canada will set a legal precedent among nations.
Observers are concerned that the new law may allow
embryonic experimentation. Moreover, they say, the
new legislation could unintentionally confer the
status of "human being" upon the unborn.
This is not the first time the Liberal government
has tried to regulate human reproductive technology.
But its previous proposal, Bill C-47, died on the
order paper when Prime Minister Jean Chretien called
the 1997 federal election. According to Ms. Cook,
C-47 will serve as a basis for the next effort. It
will be a "combination of prohibitions such as those
in the legislation," she says, "but it will also
contain a new regulatory component to provide a
management framework for the use of reproductive
The possibility of embryo adoption springs from
Health Minister Allan Rock's announcement two weeks
ago that the Human Reproductive and Genetic
Technologies bill will legislate the fate of
surplus" human embryos-referring to babies between
two to eight weeks of gestation. According to Ms.
Cook, embryo adoption is viewed as a solution to the
problem of the excess embryos created as part of an
in vitro procedure for infertile couples.
The in vitro fertilization process begins by
inducing the mother to produce eight to 10 embryos;
but only two or three are usually implanted and the
rest are frozen. Rumours of unused embryos being
given to other infertile couples continually
circulate. But Ms. Cook says many are used for
research purposes and others are destroyed through
the "defrosting" process. Once defrosted, Ms. Cook
says, "they can only be maintained a certain amount
Ms. Cook admits that allowing the creation of
embryos solely for research purposes is another
"contentious" example of the bill's scope. "Under
the new bill, the creation of embryos just for
research could be regulated instead of prohibited,"
she says, "and then be used to help understand
Toward this end, the department plans to
establish a "national regulatory body" to govern any
such deliberate creation of living human embryos for
research-a Frankenstein possibility that Ms. Cook
acknowledges may not be popular with the general
public. The precise contents of the new regulatory
bill are not yet clear, Ms. Cook quickly adds, but
many existing restrictions on the use of human
genetic material will be lessened, and things
formerly banned will be "regulated."
The new bill also liberalizes the government's
stand on sperm donation. Previously it prohibited
the sale of sperm because "this kind of
commercialization was not consistent with Canadian
values," says Ms. Cook. But the new bill will
"probably be replaced with compensation under tight
regulations...permitting financial remuneration as
long as it isn't an inducement."
But embryo adoption, which will require a
screening process for potential recipients similar
to the process followed in ordinary adoptions, is
the portion of the new legislation that potentially
possesses the farthest-reaching implications. Women
will be prohibited from producing embryos for
profit, Ms. Cook says, "and the new regulatory
agency would have responsibility for all aspects of
assisted reproduction and use of genetic materials."
She is vague on exactly how jurisdiction over
embryos will be divided between the federal and
provincial governments, saying only that "adoption
is an issue for provinces."
Edmonton lawyer Mark McCourt says that because
the new law will present the government with a
tricky legal conundrum it will probably avoid the
word adoption. "It might be cute to call this
adoption," he says, "but I suspect that to avoid
conferring legal personhood on the unborn the
government will treat embryos as a property rights
issue, using a word more akin to ownership."
He predicts the government will approach human
embryo adoption as a form of "donation of human
tissue," using terms such as "donor" and "recipient"
to steer away from treating these human lives as
human beings with human rights.
Department spokesman Cook confirms Mr. McCourt's
suspicions. "A baby would have to be born to have
rights," says Ms. Cook. "This is just the donation
of reproductive material."