Demise of federal assisted reproduction watchdog leaves the industry in limbo, experts say

Steve Mertl
National Affairs Contributor
Daily Brew

Amid all the cuts springing from the Conservative government's austerity budget, the one shutting down Assisted Human Reproduction Canada was largely ignored.

But experts in the field say the six-year-old regulatory agency's demise does nothing to clarify the murky rules governing Canada's fertility industry.

The federal government's 2004 legislation covering ethical issues such as human cloning, the sale of sperm and eggs and other dilemmas raised by new reproductive technologies was largely gutted by a Supreme Court decision that upheld provincial rights governing health care.

Other provisions of the law that survived the top court's ruling were never enacted because the rules were not set down, Toronto lawyer Sherry Levitan, who specializes in assisted human reproduction technology, told CBC News. The provinces have not stepped into the breach.

It's left women seeking help to have a child in a legal limbo while the technically illegal sale of human eggs flourishes, said Maureen McTeer, who sat on the Royal Commission on Reproductive and Genetic Technologies, whose 1991 report explored the issues.

"It is a big business now and the question Canadians have to ask now is, 'Do we want baby making to be big business?' " McTeer told CBC.

Canadians are buying frozen human eggs from U.S. egg banks for up to $12,000, clicking through an online catalogue to select eye, hair colour and blood type, CBC said.

Health Canada requires confirmation of consent from the egg donor and documents covering the importation but there are questions about who oversees the process.

"There's no watchdog that's really out there and there are no solid rules that we can rely on," said Levitan.

The purchase of eggs is illegal if the transaction takes place in Canada but the legality of an online transaction in the United States is unclear because it's never come to court.

Levitan told CBC the issue of expenses presents a large loophole in the legislation. It's against the law to pay for eggs or sperm but the rules allow for donors to be reimbursed for out-of-pocket expenses.

Dalhousie University bioethicist Francoise Baylis suggested the federal agency was largely toothless anyway.

"For a long time the agency has had a range of challenges and/or difficulties that haven't been dealt with," she told Maclean's.

"There are many things I would criticize agency for but it couldn't do its job because Health Canada didn't do its job. Its core business was supposed to be licensing and enforcing regulation, and there were no regulations telling it how to give out a license and no regulation around contentious issues like paying for gametes (reproductive cells)."

Health Canada will take over the agency's remaining functions, the department told Maclean's and "will continue to work with its partners to promote safe and ethical assisted human reproduction activities in Canada."

But what that means is unclear, Baylis suggests.

"We are manipulating the stuff of life. And we can't even begin to imagine the possibilities."