SCIENCE

Banned parenthood

A commission tries to rein in reproduction

MARK NICHOLS,SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER December 13 1993
SCIENCE

Banned parenthood

A commission tries to rein in reproduction

MARK NICHOLS,SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER December 13 1993

Banned parenthood

SCIENCE

A commission tries to rein in reproduction

In September, 1987, a 30-year-old woman named Karen gave birth to a baby girl in Saskatoon. “Labor lasted 12 hours, but I was expecting that,”

Karen recalled. It was an altogether normal birth—except for the fact that three days later she handed over the baby to a couple from New York City. A year and a half earlier,

Karen, the wife of a Saskatchewan farmer who asked that her full name not be revealed, had signed a contract in New York in which she agreed to be artificially inseminated with sperm from the American husband, whose wife was unable to have a baby. In return for bearing a child for the couple, Karen was paid $13,300. “It was never my baby,” said Karen. “I felt as if I were looking after someone else’s baby for nine months.”

Karen and her husband have four boys of their own, aged nine to 18, and she only decided to become a surrogate mother in a desperate attempt to save the deeply indebted family farm. (They lost it anyway.)

Though there are no statistics, scores and perhaps hundreds of Canadian women act as surrogate mothers each year for couples who are unable to have children. Now, a report by the Royal Commission on New Reproductive Technologies,

published last week, has proposed measures aimed at stamping out surrogacy. Doctors would be forbidden from knowingly taking part in surrogacy arrangements, and anyone who arranges surrogate motherhood agreements could face criminal charges. The proposals flowed from the commission’s contention that profit should not be involved in the conceiving and bearing of children. As well, added the report, surrogate motherhood is “offensive to the human dignity of the child.”

The 1,275-page report, which took four years to complete and cost $28.2 million, proposed sweeping changes in the use of nearly all the medical technologies that help women to have babies. The five-member commission, under Dr. Patricia Baird, a Vancouver geneticist and pediatrician, urged Ottawa to set up a National Reproductive Technologies Commission with the authority to supervise and control many aspects of reproductive

medicine and research. Only governmentfunded clinics licensed by the commission would be allowed to carry out in vitro fertilization (IVF) and most other procedures involving reproductive technologies—a proposal that would put private clinics across the country out of business. Among the proposals:

• Only women with blocked fallopian tubes would be allowed to receive in vitro fertilization, in which eggs from a woman’s ovaries are fertilized in a laboratory and a pre-embryo is placed in the woman’s uterus. Under the proposal, women suffering from endometriosis—a condition that can affect the fallopian tubes and ovaries—and some other diseases would be barred from IVF, except in clinical trials.

• Prenatal diagnostic techniques, including amniocentesis and ultrasound, which can reveal information about an unborn baby—including its sex—could only be administered in cases where there is a specific medical

reason. The aim: to prevent parents who want a baby of a particular sex from resorting to abortion when the fetus is found to be the other sex. The commission did not recommend a prohibition on abortions when prenatal testing for medical reasons reveal serious abnormalities.

• Sex-selective insemination, in which sperm for use in artificial insemination is treated in a laboratory to increase the chances of a male or female baby being conceived, would be banned. Two private clinics in Toronto cur-

rently offer the service.

As well, the commission recommended that IVF for women with blocked fallopian tubes be covered under provincial medicare programs (at present, Ontario is the only province in which IVF is covered by medical insurance) and that lesbians and single women be eligible. In another series of recommendations, the commission proposed that the cloning of embryos and genetic research aimed at improving intelligence or altering other human characteristics be banned.

Women’s organizations, which had earlier expressed fears that the commission would favor technology over social concerns, largely applauded the report’s restrictive proposals. But some critics, including doctors, said that in human terms the effects would be painful: some women would simply be prevented from having babies. As well, some doctors questioned the need to set up a costly federal bureaucracy to replace self-regulation by national and provincial medical bodies. Health Minister Diane Marleau, appointed to her portfolio under Prime Minister Jean Chrétien less than a month earlier, said that she agreed with

many of the commission’s recommendations—but added that she would have to consult with the provinces and the public before deciding what to do.

As a surrogate mother, Karen says that she can understand why the commission recommended a ban on surrogacy. “It’s a lot easier to make it illegal,” she said, “than to deal with the problems that can arise” when surrogate mothers decide that they want to keep the babies they bear. Laws forbidding surrogacy, she added, would be unenforceable—“there are ways to get around them.” In fact, some of the commission’s proposals raised the prospect of Canadians resorting to backstreet operators or flocking to clinics in the United States to avail themselves of the medical technologies that, for many couples, have become an essential part of childbearing.

MARK NICHOLS and SHARON DOYLE DRIEDGER