November 2, 1993 -- Canada urgently needs to address the ethics of reproductive technologies and related experimentation, a new report from the Anglican Church of Canada recommends. The report urges the creation of a regulatory agency to oversee practice and experimentation related to assisted reproductive technologies. It also says there should be a registry of all Canadian in-vitro fertilization clinics.
The "Report on the Disposition of Frozen Embryos" addresses the ethics and implications of scientific research on "excess embryos" now routinely produced in the in-vitro fertilization (IVF) process. Embryos created in the laboratory by mixing eggs and sperm can be frozen and then implanted in the womb at a later date.
The Anglican Church's National Executive Council is expected to discuss the Report on November 5 . Meanwhile, the Anglican Church and others await the report of the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies to be presented to the Privy Council on November 15, after 4 years of study.
Last week's news story about a human embryo cloning experiment makes the discussion of these reports particularly timely. A current issue of "Science" magazine includes a description of the experiment, conducted by Dr. Jerry Hall of George Washington University Medical Center, in which single human embryos (obtained in the course of IVF procedures) were split into duplicate embryos with identical sets of genes.
The experiment raises the spectre of couples deciding to have a "twin" after they've determined the nature of the first child, or for organ or tissue transplants needed by the first child. In an interview with CBC Radio, Dr. Hall said he felt it was necessary to "let the guidelines and ethics catch up a little bit" with what is already possible in the laboratory.
The Anglican Church report was prepared for the church's doctrine and worship committee by Phyllis Creighton, a historian who has participated in Anglican ethics task forces for more than 20 years. In the report, she warns against treating embryos as objects for others' benefit: "To create an embryo solely for adult consumption is to deny it the intrinsic value due a human life and accord it only the instrumental value befitting things", an approach she calls "morally repugnant".
Creighton takes issue with Bernard Dickens, a well-known ethicist at the University of Toronto's Centre for Bioethics, who states the view that "planned wastage" of embryos through experimentation raises no legal questions, if the gamete donors consent, and is ethically acceptable if the purpose of the experimentation is for "the perceived benefit and health of others".
The report calls for legislative bars to the commercialization of gametes and embryos and any experimentation that makes human life a means to an end.
The report does not shut the door absolutely on using embryos (created in IVF) for the study or diagnosis of a severe disease, if a case can be made in the name of compassion. But such research also "raises a host of broader concerns, especially for the church as a community dedicated to justice and compassion."
"Will funding for research, treatment, or support for the living who suffer such diseases dwindle, and society become even less tolerant of them ?" the report asks. "Will women be obliged to undergo genetic analysis ... ?"
Although the question of what to do with frozen embryos implies the church's acceptance of IVF in principle, the report challenges the use of IVF as a way of dealing with infertility. Creighton cites critics like Varda Burstyn who points out that IVF is not successful by basic medical or scientific standards. There is no standardized system of measurement by which to assess IVF programs, but because of the glowing personal accounts publicized by the media, "most couples seeking IVF have unrealistic hopes doomed to bitter disappointment." Studies cited in the report suggest that, despite the enormous costs associated with IVF, success rates are extremely low and there is a high incidence of health problems among children born through IVF.
The report recommends that a register of all IVF clinics in Canada be established in order to gather consistent data about clinical practices and results. In addition, the report recommends the creation of a regulatory agency, with a lay and professional board and access to IVF registry information to monitor IVF practice and related experimentation.
"Created free, in the divine image, we have been given special responsibility for the created order. Intervention in nature is part of our very human nature," the report says. But it warns, "Assuming ultimate power to reshape the roots of our being is arrogance, not wisdom, for humankind .... We need moral imagination, and soberness that begins in awe."
For further information, contact: Doug Tindal, Director of Communications, 416-924-9199 ext. 286 [or] Phyllis Creighton, 416-481-7647