Misrepresentation of BCCLA views on reproductive technology

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Unpublished letter to the Editor, the Georgia Straight, July 11, 1997

By Kay Stockholder

In your article on Patricia Baird’s views on reproductive technologies (July 3), you refer to the B.C. Civil Liberties Associations’ opposition to the Baird Report, but you misrepresent our views.

We argued that the Commission’s recommendations are based on deeply flawed reasoning that should not be accepted as part of the Canadian legal tradition. The report would criminalize a whole range of citizen activities without in each case giving an adequate account of how those activities might harm others, or society as a whole. Therefore it brings into play the traditional civil libertarian concern for preserving reasonable limits to governmental power over the private lives of citizens.

According to the report, human dignity will be compromised and society thereby harmed unless respect is accorded to the reproductive process in general and to all products, tissues and components of that process. However, there is no evidence that there is a slippery slope from sperm, eggs and fetal tissue to human life. Such global and magical thinking avoids the task of making decisions on the appropriate level of action. A central irony of the report is that in trying to protect women’s dignity by opposing technology that might equate women with their reproductive capacities, it inadvertently supports this equation by arguing that women’s dignity depends upon the dignity accorded the reproductive process itself.

The restrictive mentality of the report flows from an inadequate account of human dignity. While our dignity can be impugned by others, a central component of dignity is active; it consists of a sense of autonomy, and anything that diminishes one’s sense of autonomy by needlessly limiting one’s range of choice threatens one’s dignity. The report’s criminal prohibitions on donating of eggs, sperm or fetal tissue to specified recipients, or on using technology to select for gender selection of children are unjustified because there is insufficient evidence that these practices harm others.

The thinking behind these prohibitions is taken to an extreme when the commission equates social good with preventing the new technology from giving rise to novel problems and unforeseen moral dilemmas.

Another conception fundamental to the report is that no technology should be available to anyone that is not available to all under the health care system. The report is correct in stressing the limited resources of our health care system, and in its abhorrence of a two tiered medical system. However, to allow private provision of sperm banks and other services not appropriate for the medical system, such as gender selection, would not be the same as establishing a two tier medical system, because these procedures are not medically necessary. It is desirable that they be equally available to all, but if they cannot be, no one is harmed by their being available to some. The total ban on commercialization would deprive everyone in Canada, except those who can afford to go to the United States, of these services because all cannot afford them.

Further, the criminalization, as opposed to regulation, of many aspects of reproductive research would cast a pall on creative energies in many areas of research in Canada, as well as deprive Canadian universities and other research institutions of many of their best people, who would go elsewhere. These prohibitions overlook the benefits that have accrued to society from by-products of research. Legislation designed to prevent moral dilemmas from arising, rather than dealing with them as they arise, would squelch initiative and result in a static and dreary society.

Possible harms from these technologies can be controlled by other means. Licensing regulations can ensure that safe procedures are used. The collection and release of information about donors of eggs and sperm should be subject to the same laws that at present pertain to adoption, and the possible exploitation of poor women who agree to be surrogate mothers can be minimized by laws, in place in some provinces, that decree the gestational mother to be the legal parent. It is certainly undesirable that poor women should endanger themselves by harvesting their eggs for money (as distinct from selling them as the by-product of a necessary medical procedure), but there is some hypocrisy involved in social policy that cuts back on welfare to single parents on the one hand, and on the other defends their dignity by limiting their options, and those of all Canadians. In this less than perfect world, there are intransigent problems associated with the new technologies, but the hasty legislation based on the Baird Report would cause more harm than it would prevent.

Kay Stockholder