Stem-Cell Rules in Canada Disturb Ethicists

Allow Human Embryos to Be Destroyed for Research

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OTTAWA, MARCH 4, 2002 ( New federal guidelines that will allow publicly funded scientists to cannibalize human embryos for stem cells are already igniting an ethical firestorm in Canada, the Globe and Mail reported.

Dr. Margaret Somerville, founding director of McGill University´s Center for Medicine, Ethics and Law, says the country should have moved more slowly since some people believe “we were all embryos at some stage, and that´s the first stage of life.”

“In the past you couldn´t see life before birth — you would see the baby when it was born,” she told the Toronto newspaper. “But today, we have an awareness of what exists before that. Does the embryo deserve the same respect as the rest of us? I think it does. I´m very, very concerned … that in a secular society, we don´t lose our sense of the profound respect for the transmission of life, the essence of life, and for life itself.”

Regulations by the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, released today, would allow the use of so-called spare embryos created at fertility clinics that are donated with their owners´ agreement. The rules would also allow use of aborted babies, but would ban human embryo cloning.

The Catholic Church as well as many ethicists oppose the procedures because the embryo is destroyed when stem cells are extracted.

Somerville said officials should have waited longer to explore the possibilities for drawing stem cells from a source other than embryos. Research has shown that stem cells can be harvested from adult skin, without endangering or destroying human lives.<br>
Other observers see things differently. Bernard Dickens, a professor of health law and policy at the University of Toronto, called Canada´s new rules a “sensible compromise.” They are stricter than Britain´s but looser than those in the United States.

Britain has moved ahead to legalize human cloning for stem-cell research. In the United States, President George W. Bush has limited government financing to existing stem-cell lines.

Embryo stem-cell research in Britain moved into high gear last week when regulators granted the first licenses allowing scientists to extract and experiment with the cells of embryos that are “leftover” from in vitro fertilization.

In Canada, Maureen McTeer — the wife of Conservative Party leader Joe Clark and a lawyer who has written a book on ethical issues such as embryonic research — said embryos should be protected, just as a severely handicapped child is protected from being killed to harvest his or her organs.

“We do that for a purpose because … we believe that human life is important and that it has to be protected, and that the vulnerable among us need to be protected,” she told Reuters.

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