Determining the ownership of human sperm is not a task most Canadians would likely associate with the federal government. But it is an issue that is certain to command the attention of the country’s newest royal commission. Such recent advances in the technology of reproduction as in vitro (socalled test-tube) fertilization have superseded conventional legal and ethical precepts. In response, Ottawa late last month appointed a commission, headed by Dr. Patricia Baird of British Columbia, to examine the social, legal,
economic and health questions raised by new reproductive technologies. One of those questions: who owns sperm donated for research or to sperm banks? Said one of Baird’s fellow commissioners, Maureen McTeer, the lawyer wife of External Affairs Minister Joe Clark: “We will be looking into questions that we all feel uneasy about, but that legislators can’t make decisions about without the facts.” But both McTeer and Baird expressed concern last week that the renewed national debate over abortion could overshadow the task facing the commission.
In fact, the commission’s mandate directs it mainly to examine the implications of infertility treatments, genetic manipulation, tissue experimentation and surrogate motherhood. It is then expected to make recommendations to the federal government for guidelines on reproductive technology. But the panel will clearly find it difficult to avoid the question of abortion altogether. And the presence on the
commission of McTeer—who strongly favors abortion as an option—appeared to reinforce the prospect that its inquiries will become an additional forum for the charged abortion debate.
Indeed, McTeer’s appointment drew criticism from a number of fronts. On Parliament Hill, spokesmen for both the Liberals and the New Democrats attacked the selection of a senior cabinet minister’s spouse for a role in the expected two-year life of the commission. And in Toronto, her appointment drew a sharply worded challenge from the anti-abortion Campaign Life Coalition—which in last year’s federal election campaign worked to defeat McTeer in her bid to win an Ottawa-area seat for the Conservatives because of her stand. Said Margaret Purcell, a spokesman for the group: ‘T question her appointment to this position because I don’t believe she can be objective about these issues.”
But McTeer’s viewpoint will be tested on the panel. Another of the commission’s seven members is Suzanne Rozell Scorsone, the anti-abortion director of the office of Catholic Family I Life in Toronto. For her g part, McTeer predicted 5 that the commissioners’ differences on the abortion issue will enhance their work. She added: “We all bring our own personal baggage to this job. I’m not worried about that. We just cannot let it become a platform for any one interest group.”
Meanwhile, chairman Baird expressed the hope that last week’s introduction of draft legislation on abortion would divert much of the controversy away from her panel. Said Baird: “The debate will now have a very active focus elsewhere than our commission.” Still, Baird conceded that many of the ethical questions raised by new reproductive technologies stem from the dilemma over when life begins—a dilemma that is also at the heart of the abortion debate. Said Baird: “It comes down to how we define a human life and how we value a human life.” Even without the intervention of those committed to one side or the other of the abortion debate, the search for that definition promised to be a daunting task.
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